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Where human rights have come from--and where they are likely to go: human Rights in an Advancing Civilization.

Are human rights merely a list of good ideas, to be discussed and agreed upon? Or are they intrinsic to human existence, founded on something more fundamental? And, either way, are rights universal, applicable to all cultures and times? These are among the questions addressed in a new book by Aaron Emmel, titled Human Rights in an Advancing Civilization.

Mr. Emmel, a policy specialist who has worked at several non-governmental organizations in Washington DC, addresses these and other issues in a broad look at the conception and development of human rights in history and to the present day. He also looks proactively towards the future.

His main theme is that to fully comprehend or define human rights, we must first arrive at an understanding of what it means to be a human being. Once the conception of our selves is settled, then the real basis of human rights flows logically.

"Human rights are based on the concept that people are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human," he writes, noting, however, that such a conception therefore revolves around what people think "constitutes a human being" and who is therefore "qualified to claim human rights."

In exploring this theme, Mr. Emmel takes readers on a tour of the history of human rights, going back to the concept of sanctuary in Jewish and, later, Roman law. He discusses the rights of citizens in Greek city-states, and the contributions made by Christianity and Islam. He then moves through the Enlightenment philosophers and to the modern day, covering the history of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Along the way, he breaks the discussion into discrete topics, such as minority rights, rights and development, and the rule of law. He discusses, for example, the issue of individual and community identity--and how those concepts impact the evolving conception of human rights.

Too often in the past, he notes, a society's limited view of human identity has led to a limited view of rights for some--as, say, when minorities or women are seen as having fewer rights.

But "communities and societies change," he writes, "and ideas about identity and rights--how members of the community define themselves, and the rights and expectations they have of themselves and others--change with them."

And for the future, he writes, the "evolution in society as a whole is linked to an expanding sense of self in the individual"--one that has over time extended to include concerns for "one's family, one's tribe, one's nation and eventually to all humanity."

In his survey, Mr. Emmel brings into the discussion insights from his study and practice of the Baha'i Faith. He suggests, for example, that the Baha'i Faith's emphasis on the oneness of humanity offers a new and particularly significant way to understand the universal nature of human rights.

Mr. Emmel mentions that the "Baha'i Faith teaches that the social imperative of the age is the recognition of the oneness of humankind." This implies that rights are universal. "In other words, every individual on earth, regardless of where he or she was born or where he or she travels, has the same rights. The Baha'i writings assert that these rights are endowed by God. This means that they are not created by human beings or governments; they already exist, and humanity merely recognizes these rights and enforces them."

The Baha'i Faith also addresses the definition of what it means to be human, he says, and how that relates to the intrinsic rights that we all possess. The Baha'i writings says the main purpose in life is to know and to love God.

From that understanding, he writes, we can understand better the moral imperative for instruments that protect everyone's right to change or even propagate their religious beliefs--a right that is severely tested around the world at present.

"Before we can take advantage of any other freedoms we must first be free to decide who we are and what we believe because it is upon these understandings that all our choices depend," he writes. "If we believe that the universe is knowable, we will ask questions. If we believe that humans have capacity for goodness, we will experiment with extending to them our trust. Thought and its expression are by definition necessary for all other rational activities.

"Freedom of religion and conscience includes, most broadly, the right to seek after truth, to investigate and adopt a religion, to engage in scientific inquiry, to change religion and to not have a religion," he concludes.

Rights and Responsibilities

Mr. Emmel also devotes a section of the book to the idea that with human rights also come "responsibilies." He shows it to be a concept with a long history. He notes, for example, that the development of the jury system in England in the 1600s not only gave people better rights to a fair trial--it also handed to citizens the responsibiliy to serve on juries.

Today, he believes, the idea is reinforced in the Baha'i teachings, which discuss the importance of service to the community at large as an essential aspect of human purpose.

For example, writes Mr. Emmel, "because the individual is part of society and the development of each affects the well-being of the other, the responsibility to use one's rights to advance ones own development through the cultivation of virtue is intimately linked with a responsibility to contribute to ones fellows and the institutions that further their interests."

Written for a broad audience, Mr. Emmel's book has much to offer as an introduction to human rights. It is a highly readable and accessible history of how human rights have evolved over time. It also suggests the direction in which human rights are likely to evolve in the future--to a world where rights are more universal, more encompassing, and more widely observed and enforced.

By Aaron Emmel

George Ronald, Oxford
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Title Annotation:REVIEW
Author:Emmel, Aaron
Publication:One Country
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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