2 Historical overview
The extensive legal protection for human rights that currently exists in national and international law is the product of millennia of struggle by individuals concerned with justice and human well-being. Many of these advocates acted out of religious belief and duty, as suggested in Chapter 1; others contributed out of compassion or a sense of responsibility, or in response to their own suffering at the hands of repressive regimes. Each of those involved endeavoured to convert the theories of human rights into positive law.
Those advocating for human rights have been confronted consistently with powerful opponents seeking to retain privilege, hierarchy, hereditary rule, property, dominance and caste. Thomas Paine was hung in effigy in English cities; Voltaire’s writings were banned. Conservative authors referred to the “monstrous fiction” of human equality.1 Jeremy Bentham rejected the idea of natural law, calling it “simple nonsense” and labelling human rights “nonsense on stilts”. People should know “their proper place”.2 These theories reflected the widespread practices of the time. The notion of divine right of rule continued in many countries until recently. Ruling elites aimed and still aim to maintain power and invoke cultural traditions subordinating, inter alia, women, children, minorities and workers. Throughout much of history slavery has been widespread, often justified by distorted theology, and torture has been a prevalent method of investigation and punishment. Even now, executions sometimes are held in public places and capital punishment is imposed for a wide variety of offences, although no State now continues...
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