Monday Aug 09, 2021
In the eighteenth century BC, the Babylonian society was divided into different classes. Rich people committed crimes and were released after paying some fine or compensation.
People were not afraid of the state and that is why the law and order situation was not ideal. At that time, King Hammurabi enacted a law throughout the country under which punishments like eye for an eye, ear for an ear and murder for murder were imposed.
Under the law, if a person accused someone of murder and could not prove it, he would be put to death. False witnesses would also be severely punished and if a judge changed his once given decision, he would be removed from office. The code also ensured that parents would not disinherit their children without a good reason.
It had 282 articles and was so strict that many people, fearing its application, turned away from crime and Babylon became the cradle of peace and tranquility.
The code was based on the system of punishment and retribution and its imprints are found in the laws of later periods to come.
Hammurabi's Code was the first document in known history to guide the introduction of human rights in the world.
The next human rights milestone was reached in 539 BC when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. He freed the slaves and declared that anyone could adopt any religion or belief and worship without fear or danger.
At that time, the Jews were among the oppressed classes. So, when Cyrus granted them religious and social freedom, they accepted him as their Messiah and hero. Cyrus was also mentioned in the Torah and the Bible for his services regarding upholding human rights. In fact, the first four articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations, are based on the laws enacted by Cyrus.
Then the 7th century AD brought revolutionary changes in Arabian society when the Holy Prophet (PBUH) laid the foundations of the State of Madina.
Everyone was made equal before the law irrespective of colour, age, creed and status. Jews, Christians and people of all other faiths could continue their religious practices without fear of being persecuted. The Prophet (PBUH) summed up all aspects of human rights in a short sermon on the occasion of the Farewell Hajj.
Islam gave equal rights to men and women and uprooted the notion of superiority on the basis of race and other elements.
Five centuries later in 1215, the Treaty of Magna Carta declared the English King to be subject to the law and provided foundations of individual rights in Anglo-American Jurisprudence.
In 1789, the English Parliament passed Bill of Rights and in 1833, enslavement of humans was outlawed in Britain through Slavery Abolition Act. Similar rights were granted in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. One reason of the deadly American Civil War (1861-1865) was the disagreement of Unionists with Confederates over abolition of slavery. With every passing year, the situation of Human Rights went better at least on paper.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted a document that enshrined rights and freedoms for all human beings. The document called the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights included civil and political rights, right to life, liberty, freedom of expression, privacy, social security, health and education.
That was the last big thing done collectively for the development of human rights.
The history of the evolution of human rights shows that nations have given people protection, equality and freedom over time. The main purpose of thousands of years of legislation was to prevent the exploitation of one class by another. After the UN Declaration, there was hope that the oppression and barbarism of one group against another would end. But unfortunately this did not happen.
Today, powerful countries value the United Nations not more than a toothless tiger and its charters not more than pieces of paper.
When India revoked the constitutional status of Kashmir in 2019, strict and discriminatory sanctions were imposed on the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu and Kashmir. The rights to free speech, access to information, health care and education were restricted. Telecommunication services and educational institutions were shut down and thousands were detained. Critics of the government's actions were threatened with arrest and public access to the internet was curtailed.
Two years have passed but the plight of the residents of Indian-occupied Kashmir is almost the same.
Denied of basic rights, freedoms and facilities, the Kashmiris have been trying to resurrect the long dead conscience of international human rights organizations but to no avail. The US, UK and other big powers have been criticizing Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan for basic rights violations but are silent on the human rights abuses of India because in it lie their economic interests.
The question is, did we set out on a long journey of human rights development for the purpose that any powerful state or individual could trample the charters and declarations collectively passed by humanity with a whiff of haughtiness?
The author is serving as the deputy director of PID Lahore