Human Rights

Human Rights in an Advancing Civilization

George Ronald, Publisher – Paperback, January 2013, 400 pages

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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….

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….

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.”

From The Review of Faith & International Affairs:

The 20 chapters of Emmel’s book are organized into three sections to explore these basic teachings. The first—“Identity”—argues that every account of human rights depends upon some concept of human nature. Parts two and three—“Society” and “Rights and Responsibilities”—respectively argue that notions of human rights are framed by social patterns and our sense of the duties we have to others, ourselves, and the divine. Some of Emmel’s most thought provoking insights emerge in the two chapters that narrate the gradual expansion of human rights from the time of ancient empires to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In these chapters we see the clear developmental link between Greece, Rome, medieval Islam, Enlightenment Europe, the Revolutionary US, and the post-WWII global society. One of his more interesting claims is that the “United States of America represented an experiment in government based upon new ideas of human reality that had emerged, in large part, from the Enlightenment and its elevation of reason” (p. 38). This idea helps us to see that each of the historical societies he describes likewise arose as social experiments carried out by those who were spurred on by belief in a new vision of human reality. There is certainly a lesson here for all who believe that any social configuration that is fundamentally different from the one we have today would almost certainly be worse.


The international human rights system is both the process and the product of an ongoing dialogue between peoples and cultures throughout the world. But what do human rights mean today? How we have arrived here? And where are human rights going?

Human Rights in an Advancing Civilization examines these questions and makes four claims:

  • that our understanding of human rights is based on our view of human nature and identity,
  • that communities and societies change, and ideas about identity and rights change with them,
  • that human rights have been applied more broadly over time as our sense of community has expanded,
  • and that human rights support the exploration and fulfillment of identity by protecting human potential.

Praise for Human Rights in an Advancing Civilization:

This book serves as a highly readable introduction to the history of the emergence of human rights ideas. Emmel weaves together thinkers of different eras and backgrounds in a seamless and imaginative way and applies their thinking to current dilemmas. The book’s rich sweep also contextualizes some Bahá’í thinking and teachings within this historical, philosophical and political introduction to the development of human rights and, as such, offers much food for thought. As he notes at the end “the dialogue about the meaning of human rights and everything they must protect is far from over and will continue as long as we continue to evaluate who we are and who we want to be.”

– Dr. Nazila Ghanea, University Lecturer in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Kellogg College

In this brilliant and thoroughly accessible new work, Aaron Emmel surveys the many and varied historical applications of the concept of human rights from the age of nation states and empire building to the emerging global civilization of the present day.

Drawing upon the accumulated wealth of political and philosophical discourse on the subject – and in light of principles of the Bahá’í Faith – Emmel examines the connection between human rights and evolving notions of human reality and purpose, the organization of society, nations in the modern world and how they can and should relate, and how the rights of all peoples can best be safeguarded. Candid about the many setbacks and reverses that have beset humanity in its quest to found a just and peaceful society, Emmel describes a decidedly hopeful trajectory of development that anticipates the ultimate realization of our brightest aspirations for our organized life.

– Kenneth E. Bowers, Author of God Speaks Again



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