Human rights as they exist in the world today, in statute, international agreements, political claims and philosophical debates, are importantly influenced by the historical antecedents by which they have been shaped. As James Griffin points out above, human rights did not fall from the sky fully formed in 1948. The ideas and practices of preceding generations of scholars, lawyers, political leaders and citizen activists influenced and informed the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the claims and contestations of contemporary activists and theorists. This chapter explores some of the ways in which earlier concepts of natural rights and Western ideas about freedom, equality and justice have shaped contemporary understandings of human rights. It also reflects on the ways in which important historical events have inspired new developments in the concept of human rights. We may justly hold, with Griffin, that understanding these histories is crucial to understanding contemporary human rights.
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