The declaration of the the Rights of Man at the end of the eighteenth century was a turning point in history. It meant nothing more nor less than that from then on Man, and not God’s command or the customs of history, should be the source of Law. Independent of the privileges which history had bestowed upon certain strata of society or certain nations, the declaration indicated man’s emancipation from all tutelage and announced that he had now come of age.
Beyond this, there was another implication of which the framers the declaration were only half-aware. The proclamation of human rights was also meant to be a much-needed protection in the new era where individuals were no longer secure in the estates to which they were born or sure of their equality before God as Christians. In other words, in the new secularized and emancipated society, men were no longer sure of these social and human rights which until then had been outside the political order and guaranteed not by government and constitution, but by spiritual and religious forces. Therefore throughout the nineteenth century, the consensus of opinion was that human rights had to be invoked whenever individuals needed protection against the new sovereignty of the state and the new arbitrariness of society.
Since the Rights of Man were proclaimed to be “inalienable”, irreducible to and undeducible from other rights or laws, no authority was invoked for their establishment; Man himself was their source as well as their ultimate goal. No special law, moreover, was deemed necessary to protect them because all laws were supposed to rest on them. Man appeared as the only sovereign in matters of law as the people was proclaimed the only sovereign in matters of government. The people’s sovereignty (different from that of the prince) was not proclaimed by the grace of God but in the name of Man, so that it seemed only natural that the “inalienable” rights of man would find their guarantee and become an inalienable part of the right of the people to sovereign self-government.
In other words man had hardly appeared as a completely emancipated, completely isolated being who carried his dignity within himself without reference to some larger encompassing order, when he disappeared again into a member of the people. From the beginning the paradox involved in the declaration of inalienable human rights was that it reckoned with an “abstract” human being who seemed to exist nowhere, for even savages lived in some kind of social order. If a tribal or other “backward” community did not enjoy human rights, it was obviously because as a whole it had not yet reached that stage of civilization, the stage of popular and national sovereignty, but was oppressed by foreign or native despots. The whole question of human rights was quickly and inextricably blended with the question of national emancipation; only the emancipated sovereignty of the people, of one’s own people, seemed to be able to insure them. As mankind, since the French Revolution, was conceived in the image of a family of nations, it gradually became self-evident that the people, and not the individual, was the image of man.
The full implication of this identification of the rights of man with the rights of peoples in the European nation-state system came to light only when a growing number of people and peoples suddenly appeared whose elementary rights were as little safeguarded by the ordinary functioning of nation-states in the middle of Europe as they would have been in the heart of Africa. The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as “inalienable” because they were supposed to be independent of all governments; but it turned out that the moment that lacked their own government and had to fall back on their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.
“On The Perplexities of the Rights of Man”