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After more than two hundred years of discussion, the principle that each person has a right to his or her inviolable person, as a physical and psychological body, was validated and defined in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specifically, articles three, five, and nineteen postulate these fundamental rights. In Article Three of this Declaration, it states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Such a security of person, however, is further explored and defined. Article Five details, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” While cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatments and punishments are open to some interpretation and welcome debate on further definitions for specific examples of these three types of treatments, it is indisputable that, at a base level, torturous acts, and those that are cruel, inhuman or degrading inflict bodily pain. In addition to protecting individuals from physical pain against their will, the Declaration of Human Rights further and specifically protects all individuals, and thus political activists, from such punishment merely on account of differing ideology. Article Nineteen of the Declaration states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”The Declaration validates the common belief that each individual inherently holds opinions and beliefs differing from those of others; subsequently, it ensures the protection of individuals holding such diverse opinions. Furthermore, the Declaration
allows individuals to share their opinions with any form of media or expression. The Declaration was adopted by Great Britain, the United States, and Argentina, voting members of the United Nations, on December 10, 1948. While Josephine Butler and Alice Paul both advocated for changes in their governments pre-1948, before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this Declaration solidified pre-existing, accepted norms. The Bill of Rights of 1689 in Great Britain granted Members of Parliament freedom of speech and the Libel Act of 1792 expanded this free speech as it granted the power to decide the legality of criminal libels to juries, ending the previous authority of government-employed judges. Although Great Britain did not have a formalized law granting free speech, such a right is inherently favored in its system of common law. Additionally, in the United States, freedom of speech was directly supported under the ratification of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1791.
Human rights law protecting the physical body from the infliction of physical pain and violence by others based on differing viewpoints, however, does not apply to leaders of the government systems that exist to protect these very rights. Domestically, outside of the international context of the United Nations, governments may individually choose
whether or not to enforce the accepted human rights standards of the Universal Declaration. Both pre-1948 and post-1948, governments have violated, and continue to violate, articles three, five, and nineteen of the Declaration. Governments continue to commonly violate the rights of their own citizens in perpetuating torture and inflicting pain on noncombatant, unarmed political activists. As the concept of inalienable human rights has its roots in the Enlightenment and French and American Revolutions, the word “terror”—inflicting violence on the innocent to achieve political means—originated in France during the Revolution of 1789-1794. From 1793 to 1794, during the “Reign of Terror” in France, it is estimated that 17,000 executions took place legally, with an additional 23,000 illegally performed by representatives of the French government.16 Overall, this time period, often historically grouped to include 1793 to 1795, when an additional 200,000 people were killed, was deemed the first of its kind—one of terror. Historians attribute such a designation due to the epidemic of “state-organized or state-backed visitation of violence on France’s dissident citizenry.” Therefore, it was after the French Revolution that the meaning of the term terror expanded to apply to multiple types of human rights violations. It is important to recognize that widespread violations of human rights, and terror, are systemic. While the word terror is currently widely used in the vernaculars of Great Britain, the United States, and Argentina, this has not always been the case. Initially, terror applied only to violent government-perpetrated acts to intimidate and silence often quite literally, with death—its constituency. Only recently and later did the term expand to include attacks by foreign opponents. Although the word terror is often misused in the current political context, both its original and current meaning include the effect it has on others, outside of those directly injured by torturous, violent acts. In the article “Terror, Terrorism, and Terrorists,” Charles Tilly concludes, “In addition to whatever harm [terror] inflicts directly, it sends signals—signals that the target is vulnerable, that the perpetrators exist, and that the perpetrators have the capacity to strike again.” These psychological signals permeating through a society after acts of violence reach three particular groups: the targets of the violence, potential partners or allies of the perpetrators, and, most importantly, members of the public who then are coerced to cooperate with the perpetrators. Inflicting violence on the innocent is successful as a strategy because of its impact on all three of these groups. Tilly summarizes the effectiveness of such physical violence when used by government systems. He concludes, “terror works…[as] it alters or inhibits the target’s disapproved behavior, fortifies the perpetrators’ standing with potential allies, and moves third parties [often the general public] toward greater cooperation with the perpetrators’ organization and announced program.”
Violating human rights by means of physical violence is not a new phenomenon
and, similarly, neither is the forced silence that results from the deployment of terror.
Inflicting pain on a single, non-violent individual inevitably signals, whether consciously
or subconsciously, to a larger group of people that the human rights violations can
continue in a longer-term power struggle. Governments continue to play central roles in