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On people's human rights (Part II)
Chien-Yuan Tseng, Ph.D
1/12/2003



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[Part I was published on January 8, 2003.]

2. The History of People's Rights Commencements

The modern history of human rights for "the people" began with the American Independence Revolution and French Revolution. The Declaration of Independence,
which was issued in July 1776, asserted the right of the people to resist, to alter or to abolish their government. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France, issued in August 1789, incorporated Jean Rousseau's theory of popular sovereignty as a provision in its Article 3: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.” This article is a manifestation of an oppressed citizenry's right to self-determination in opposition against tyranny. In May 1790, French Constituent Assembly issued a series of laws related to people's rights. However, the right of self-determination established by the French Revolution, when applied to external affairs, metamorphosed into an international expansion of the bourgeoisie's national imperialist ambitions. Socialism asserted a view of self-determination affirmed by the proletariat, with the aim of uniting resistance of worldwide revolution led jointly by the proletariat of all countries and to achieve a genuine restoration of human freedom. The resolution of the London International Socialists Workers and Trade Union Congress of 1896, in which recognized the self-determination of nations was the historic guiding principle of international socialist movement in regard to the national question. Vladimir Lenin's defense of this principle was a historic contribution to the theoretical struggle. He insisted that so-called “national self-determination” could only mean “The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation from the oppressor nation. Specifically, this demand for political democracy implies complete freedom to agitate for secession and for a referendum on secession by the seceding nation.”

Lenin saw the process by which malevolent competition spawned by laissez-faire capitalist economies led to monopolistic alliances of capitalists, eventually evolved into imperialism. In order to monopolize world markets, in particular those for raw materials and capital outflows, each imperialist nation embarked on a struggle for colonies. The equanimity of class relations inside such countries was in fact the result of a diversion of internal conflicts to colonies and subordinate states—specifically, the approach of colluding with the comprador class in undeveloped regions or countries and exploiting its proletariat to plunder international capital and labor. When imperial powers go to war against each other, the warring parties actively seek the colonies and ethnic minorities under their umbrage as alliance partners. Lenin recognized that the political secession embodied in national self-determination, was without doubt revelation of the true face of imperialism's so-called national-liberation. This was an enormous blow to 19th-century treaties that regulated Europe's international public legal order with provisions of protecting ethnic minorities—for example, the Berlin Treaty. This was so because Lenin turned what had been a question of the rights of ethnic minorities into a contentious one involving national self-determination and nation-states’ sovereignty independence. Lenin's theory of national self-determination also embedded a grand strategy for realignment of the international economy’s division of labor—enhancing a hope that the establishment of separate socialist national industries could be pursued through independent movements by oppressed ethnic minorities, thereby severing the global artery of capitalist world. Lenin's conception of people's rights were formally validated in law for the first time in the Peace Edict and the Declaration of the Rights of Russian Peoples and were issued after the successful October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, becoming a part of the Russian constitution in 1918 through the Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited Peoples issued by Russia’s Constituent Assembly. Because Russia adopted a stance advocating world revolution in opposition to imperialism, it was collectively resisted by Europe’s capitalist countries, while not in actuality bringing the international human rights system into play. However, the Russian Revolution played a preeminent role in creating and disseminating the concept of people's rights.

As Lenin was promulgating a theory of national self-determination based on class identity, American President Woodrow Wilson initiated another ideological debate with Lenin through statements of national self-determination based on the self-identification of people. During the First World War, Wilson sensed that the biggest reason for the destruction of world peace was the imperialist’s oppression on ethnic or religious minorities. In January 1918, in the U.S. Congress, he declared his “Fourteen Points”, advocating a people’s rights to self-determination. Wilson’s principle of self-determination was however only applicable to European peoples; colonies involved in war and the various ethnic groups in Turkey were not included. In spite of this, the universalization of the principle of national self-determination was opposed because it would threaten the existing ruling arrangements between colonial powers. However, the victors of the War selectively used this principle to decide the disposition of the territory of vanquished countries. At this stage, the right of a people to national self-determination was not recognized as a kind of basic human right, but a guiding principle for resolving sovereignty issues for peoples and territories in specific regions.


The stress on a people’s right to existence made in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and in the Declaration by the United Nations in 1942 has already been the historical beginning of the development of people's rights under the United Nations system after the Second World War, even though Churchill proclaimed in 1943 that A peoples’ self-determination is not applicable to colonial territories, but only in relation to the restoration of sovereignty of those nations conquered by Nazi domination. Not long after, at the San Francisco Conference of 1945, the Soviet Union sought to include people’s right to self-determination in the United Nations Charter, with the aim of giving it global applicability. This action met intense resistance from colonial powers such as Britain, Belgium, and France. The result of negotiation between the two sides was to treat self-determination as a “principle” rather than a “right” in incorporating it into the United Nations Charter.

After the War, when the first statement of a comprehensive framework of international human rights laws—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—was passed in 1948, it did not recognize a people's right to self-determination. However, when the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Resolution 421/5 in 1950, it requested that the Commission on Human Rights under the Economic and Social Council researches the manners in which they may promote respect for, and the progress of the right of peoples and nations to self-determination. In 1951, the General Assembly's Resolution 545/4, “Inclusion in the International Covenant or Covenants on Human Rights of an Article Relating to the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination” asserted that Resolution 421/5 had already recognized the right of peoples and nations to self-determination as a fundamental human right. This was the first time that the United Nations used “right” in describing self-determination for peoples and nations. In December 1952, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Resolution 637A/7 “The Right of People and Nations to Self-determination” confirming that people and nations should first enjoy the right of self-determination, and only in this manner can all basic human rights be ensured. The right of people and nations to self-determination thus possibly became a precondition for all basic human rights.

At this time, the United Nations was continuing its research on the significance of the right of people and nations to self-determination. In December 1960, the body passed the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, finally confirming the right of colonies and their people to self-determination. Slightly earlier, the Natural Resources Permanent Sovereignty Issues Commission established in 1958, proceeded on December 14, 1962 to pass the Resolution, “Permanent Sovereignty Over Natural Resources”, recognizing the permanent sovereignty over natural resources to be a basic component of people’s and nations’ rights to self-determination. In 1966, the United Nations officially created the International Bill of Human Rights, and in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights established the principle that the right to self-determination was a precondition for basic human rights. All evinced a shared conviction that “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development,” “All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence”. As for the States “in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language”, this is asserted in the Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This demonstrated that the subject of people’s rights is different from that of collective rights imposed by ethnic minorities.

In December 1974, the 29th General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, whose Article 1 in its second chapter asserted, “Every State has the sovereign and inalienable right to choose its economic system as well as its political, social and cultural systems in accordance with the will of its people, without outside interference, coercion or threat in any form whatsoever”. The Paragraph 1 of its Article 2 asserted that “Every State has and shall freely exercise full permanent sovereignty, including possession, use and disposal, over natural resources and economic activities”. It was evident that states were made subjects of self-determination rights and permanent sovereignty over natural resources. Conceptions of people’s rights and a nation’s rights are beginning to exhibit signs of possible overlap, also demonstrating a type of possible threat that notions on statehood may have on ideas about people’s rights.
States are classic subjects of international law, and their nature stands in opposition to peoples’ rights. If states controlled by international relations are given free rein to define peoples’ rights, it is unavoidable that the development of people’s rights being adversely affected. There was development of framework for peoples’ rights in international civil society. Italian Senator and Socialist Lelio Basso, and a group of persons of high moral authority from the international civil society—including Nobel Prize winners, and well-known cultural, legal, and religious figures—established the International Foundation for the Rights and the Liberation of Peoples and International League for the Rights and the Liberation of Peoples in Rome, 1973. On July 4 1976, the bicentennial anniversary of the passage of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, an ad hoc international meeting was held at the Algerian capital Algiers. Representatives of politics, law, and academic community from international movements for liberation of peoples were invited to attend and pass the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples. This international civil conference was not a specialized meeting for legal experts, and did not represent the official positions of different states. It was an effort by the international civil society to utilize non-official channels to make appeal on humanitarian concerns and international opinion and supplement the insufficiency of the international positive laws. The declaration was mainly concerned with expressing a spirit of opposition to domination by states and governments, demanding that attention be paid to the rights and status of peoples in the international legal order. It therefore attempted to set a comprehensive conceptual framework for people’s human rights. The ideas and vision embodied in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples directly influenced the multilateral agreement the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights passed by the African Unification Organization in 1981 and entered into force in October 1986, becoming an important component of international human rights law. The African Charter was the world’s first formal legal document concerning human rights that enumerated peoples’ rights. And in fact, the foremost contemporary advocate of the concept of peoples’ rights, M'Baye participated in drafting of the African Charter.

In December 1977, the United Nations’ General Assembly passed Resolution 32/130 on Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms regarding new concepts in human rights, which had been sponsored by Argentina, Cuba, Yugoslavia, the Philippines, and Iran. This resolution represented the beginning of the phase of a so-called structural approach to research on and exercise of international human rights laws—an approach entailing a global outlook in examining basic human rights issues. The resolution declared: “The full realization of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights is impossible, the achievement of lasting progress in the implementation of human rights is dependent upon sound and effective national and international policies of economic and social development”, and that “Consequently, human rights questions should be examined globally”. In November 1979, the United Nations’ General Assembly passed Resolution 34/46 on Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms regarding development rights, and which counseled that the Commission on Human Rights research approaches and ways and means for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms based on the provisions and concepts of the Resolution 32/130 Regarding New Concepts in Human Rights. It is worth noting that the Resolution 34/46 Regarding the Rights to Development emphasizes “that the right to development is human right and that equality of opportunity for development is as much a prerogative of nations as of individuals within nations”, and again mutual reference is made between men and nations. After several years of debate, the United Nations’ General Assembly in December 1986 passed the Resolution 41/128 on the Declaration on the Right to Development,. This declaration’s Article 1 stated its intent in clear terms: “The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized”, “The human right to development also implies the full realization of the right of peoples to self-determination, which includes, subject to the relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources”. Most importantly, the preamble of this declaration confirmed that “the right to development is an inalienable human right and that equality of opportunity for development is a prerogative both of nations and of individuals who make up nations.” The right to development is both individual and collective, and in the latter role, also national rights.

Besides this, the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1984 passed the Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace (Resolution 39/11). However, Resolution 33/73, Declaration on the Preparation of Societies for Life in Peace, which was passed in 1978, recognized society as the subject of the right to a peaceful life. Materials on people’s rights were still under development. The environmental protection rights and the right to communicate described by Vasak await confirmation by the General Assembly in the form of a resolution. Regarding the former, the United Nations in 1972 held the United Nations Conference on the Human Environments, passing the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, proclaiming the importance of the environment to the fundamental human right to adequate conditions of life. The African Charter had earlier included environmental protection rights (the right to a general satisfactory environment) as one item of peoples’ rights. As for the right to communicate, in 1948 the United Nations held the Geneva Conference on Freedom of Information, offering a draft of international convention on freedom of information. In 1978 UNESCO passed the Declaration on Fundamental Principles Concerning the Contribution to the Mass Media to Strengthening Peace and International Understanding, to the Promotion of Human Rights and to Countering Racialism, Apartheid and Incitement to War, ensured “the respect of the rights and dignity of all nations”. This somewhat presented history of contemporary people’s rights. The following sent of the article would try to understand the general pedigree of the current people’s rights as treated in relevant international legal documents.

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