Human Rights – Erosion of a Human History Milestone?

On 10 December is Human Rights Day. This year, the United Nations has given the day the motto “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights.” Especially now, we need to tackle the shortcomings revealed by the corona crisis to manage our shared future.

Am 10. Dezember ist Tag der Menschenrechte. In diesem Jahr haben die Vereinten Nationen dem Tag das Motto „Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights“ gegeben. Besonders jetzt müssen wir uns mit den durch die Corona-Krise offengelegten Versäumnissen befassen, um unsere gemeinsame Zukunft meistern zu können.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2020.27

To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.

Nelson Mandela

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – A Milestone

Seventy-two years ago, on 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). That is why, every year on 10 December, we celebrate Human Rights Day. According to the United Nations, the UDHR is “a milestone document that proclaims the inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”1. Since every person is entitled to know these rights, the UDHR has so far been translated into more than 500 languages and is thus the most translated document world-wide. There also exists a simplified version of the 30 articles, specially created for children 2.

In this blog post, we will first take a look at theoretical considerations on the subject of “rights” and how the concept of human rights has evolved throughout history. Then, we will turn to current human rights violations that are dominating international media these days. Finally, we will explore European and German citizens’ attitudes towards various human rights dimensions, drawing on data from the European Values Study (EVS) from 1990 and 2017 and the Eurobarometer from 2009.

The History of Human Rights – A Divine Gift or Human Achievement?

The first-ever documented human rights are almost 1500 years old and are engraved in clay into the so-called Cyrus Cylinder (named after Cyrus the Great, who conquered the city of Babylon in 539 BC). The idea rapidly expanded to India, Greece, and Rome 3. At that time, however, they were not yet referred to as human rights but as natural rights: It was believed that one could deduce them from the natural laws given to humankind by God. It was not until the Age of Enlightenment that this thinking was abandoned and replaced by our present-day assumption that we are entitled to these rights for human reasons alone 4. Documents from the 18th century – like the US Constitution (1787), the French Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen (1789), and the US Bill of Rights (1791) – can be considered as predecessors of the UDHR. The hitherto unimaginable atrocities of the Second World War and the fact that large parts of Europe and Asia lay in ruins moved fifty states to come together in April 1945 and formulate a new foundation for our human coexistence. Already three years later, in 1948, “under the dynamic chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt” 5, the UDHR followed. Today, the UN has 193 member states – and all of them “have ratified at least one of the nine core international human rights treaties” 6.

We Must Not Rest on Our Laurels – Current Human Rights Violations

When we say that we celebrate Human Rights Day, this might sound somewhat cynical to people who are denied their most basic rights every day. On the occasion of UDHR’s 70th anniversary in 2018, German journalist Heribert Prantl even claimed that our world faces an exodus of humanity 7. One only needs to glance at some of the currently most prominent conflict hotbeds to fully grasp this statement.

For almost ten years now, an all-devastating civil war has been raging in Syria, rendering millions of people homeless. Thousands of the people who embarked on the life-threatening journey to Europe to seek shelter there are now stuck in overcrowded camps on offshore Greek islands, where they often have no or only limited access to sanitary facilities and medical care. Only in September 2020, a devastating fire broke out in the camp Moria on the island of Lesbos, which deprived the people of what little they still had. The current pandemic situation is exacerbating the situation there even further.

Another red-hot topic that raises the issue of human rights violations is the Black-Lives-Matter (BLM) movement in the United States. The protest movement was mainly triggered by repeated police brutality in which Blacks were killed – among the best-known victims are Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. In the context of BLM, it is, therefore, primarily the right to life that is at risk – or put differently: “[Y]ou need to be alive to enjoy other fundamental human rights, including the right to fair hearing” 8. It remains to be seen whether the movement can now spark a real change in the country. Let us now take a look at European and German citizens’ attitudes towards various human rights dimensions.

Who Is Worthy of Protection?

Which social groups are considered deserving of protection? So far, we have talked about human rights. The BLM movement, for example, can be subordinated to this just as much as the women’s rights movement or anti-apartheid movement. But evidently, human rights and rights for women or rights for Blacks are not the same things for many Germans according to EVS data from 1990 9; otherwise, there should be no differences in the three bars in Figure 1. While well over half of all German respondents strongly approve of the human rights movement, it is already less than 50 percent that approves the anti-apartheid movement. The women’s rights movement does not even reach the 25 percent threshold. Overall, about a quarter of the respondents either say that they somewhat disapprove or even strongly disapprove of this latter movement.

However, as you can see from Figure 2, German men and women differ markedly in their attitudes towards the women’s rights movement: While around 17 percent of the female respondents claim that they either disapprove somewhat or disapprove strongly of the women’s rights movement, this is the case for about 32 percent of the male respondents – which is nearly twice as much.

Which Rights Do We Grant Others?

In the following, we illustrate two examples of which rights should be granted to others, according to the respondents. Figure 3 shows the response distribution of citizens from Great Britain, Germany, and Sweden to the question of which aspect of human rights the EU’s foreign policy should treat most prioritized, relying on data from the Eurobarometer (2009) 10. Based on a list of twelve options, participants could choose up to three. We present four categories for our comparison: children’s rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and minority rights.  Overall, freedom of speech was considered most crucial by the respondents in Great Britain and Germany. In contrast, of the four categories, those interviewed in Sweden mentioned children’s rights most frequently, that is, in approximately 50 percent of the cases. In line with Figure 1, women’s rights are again less frequently classified as an essential priority. The rights of minorities are by far the least often mentioned issue by respondents in all countries.

Though we probably all agree that we want to enjoy all human rights for ourselves, do we allow others to enjoy these rights, too? In a more recent survey, the EVS 2017, respondents were asked whether homosexuality and the death penalty could be justified 11. The most striking finding in Figure 4 is that Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and Spain show a very similar pattern: Most of the respondents claim that homosexuality can be justified in a majority of the cases and the death penalty in a significant minority of cases. Russia, however, completely drops out of line and exhibits the exact opposite pattern: Roughly two-thirds of all Russian respondents say that one can never justify homosexuality.

This last figure shows that there is still much to be done before all of us can really enjoy the rights we are entitled to. Let us all fight together for this goal. With that in mind:

Happy Human Rights Day!


  1. United Nations (n. d.). Human Rights Day. Retrieved 19 November 2020, from
  2. Youth for Human Rights International (n. d.). United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved 20 November 2020, from
  3. United for Human Rights (n.d.). A Brief History of Human Rights. Retrieved 20 October 2020, from
  4. Griffin, J. (2008). On Human Rights. Oxford University Press.
  5. United for Human Rights (n.d.). A Brief History of Human Rights. Retrieved 20 October 2020, from
  6. United Nations (n. d.). Human Rights Law. Retrieved 20 October 2020, from
  7. Prantl, H. (2018, December 9). Exodus der Menschlichkeit. Retrieved 6 November 2020, from
  8. Ojo, E. (2020, June 19). Why #BlackLivesMatter is about the right to life. Retrieved 6 November 2020, from
  9. EVS (2011). European Values Study 1990: Integrated Dataset. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA4460 Data file Version 3.0.0.
  10. European Commission (2012). Eurobarometer 71.3 (Jun-Jul 2009). TNS OPINION & SOCIAL, Brussels [Producer]. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA4973 Data file Version 3.0.0.
  11. EVS (2020). European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 4.0.0.

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