How did human rights come about? A Brief History Overtime


It was only 100 years ago that in the United States, the 19th Amendment was passed giving women the right to vote, and even less than 100 years ago that legal racial segregation and discrimination ended. Over time, however, human rights have evolved as a term in different documents which have been written for the protection of people who are exploited, often in response to societal wrongdoings. Human rights documents have evolved to take on different needs and meanings over time, and frequently result in huge shifts in society. Nonetheless, human rights did not in fact exist until the end of the second World War, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. Before, documents mentioned the “rights of man”, “freedoms” or simply, “rights”. The question is, how did human rights come to mean what they do today? Many important documents on human rights exist from different countries and cultures, but 22 will be explained in this brief history on the topic.

539 BC The Cyrus Cylinder

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great conquered the city of Babylon, freed slaves to return home, and declared that people should have a choice in their religion. This event is considered by many to be the world’s first charter of human rights in history. Prior to this, people had rights based on membership to a group, such as a family for example. This event served as an inspiration to the civilizations of India, Greece, and Rome, cultures that are known these days for their contributions to rights and freedoms.

1215 The Magna Carta

Undoubtedly a great first step in the long journey for human rights, a document like this would not come to be for another thousand years. Then in 1215, the Magna Carta, translated from Latin to mean “The Great Charter” was issued by King John of England. This document, too, was a big step for rights because it established that the king was in fact subject to the law, despite a long history of actions without consequences. This was written a long time ago, when monarchies were commonplace, so is it still relevant? Many clauses are no longer applicable to modern times, however, the charter still holds timeless fundamental values such as the right to justice and a fair trial.

1628 The Petition of Rights

Yet again, progress is made, but another 400 years goes by with little focus on establishing rights for the people. In 1628, the Petition of Right set out the rights and liberties of commoners, as opposed to the British Crown. English Parliament demanded no taxation without Parliament’s consent, no imprisonment without a reason, no quartering soldiers, and no martial law in peacetime. The demands expounded upon the Magna Carta and some may sound familiar to people who are familiar with the US Bill of Rights. The next major document would not be written for another hundred years, sparked by the American Revolution.

1776 The United States Declaration of Independence

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson and other prominent US political figures wrote the US Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as well as announced the colonies’ separation from Great Britain. Adopted by Congress, the declaration is based on the statement “all men are created equal”. Although not legally binding, the document would come to inspire many great future human rights documents. To think of the progress made between the Petition of Right and the US Declaration is truly astounding. The success of the Declaration of Independence led the United States of America to write a document that would eventually form a government and set laws in place, the Constitution of the United States of America.

1787 The Constitution of the United States of America

The Constitution of the United States of America was written in 1787 and is the longest surviving written governmental charter in the world. It formed the fundamental law of the US federal system of government and defined the basic rights of the citizen. The authors of the Constitution outlined the 3 sectors of government: the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. This separation of powers created a system of checks and balances that arguably prevented one branch from having too much power. With the results of the American Revolution finalized, another country with similar values, France, was inspired to have a Revolution of its own.

1789 The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Inspired by the US Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment, and born of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen explains a list of “natural and inalienable” rights, such as security, ownership, freedom, and resistance to oppression. It echoes the importance of separation of powers set forth in the US Declaration, as well as the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This declaration, like others of the time, would become one of the most revered in history.

1791 The US Bill of Rights

The next document to be created was so important that some delegates present at the creation of the Constitution did not in fact sign it due to its lack of this at the time: the US Bill of Rights. The bill contains the first 10 Amendments of the Constitution and limits the powers of the federal government, guarantees civil rights and liberties, and protects basic freedoms such as speech, press and religion, and the rights of all citizens, residents and visitors on US territory. Although many documents at the founding of the United States stated equality for all, it was a long time until this was an actual reality. Many would even argue that in modern times, this is still not wholly true. However, in 1863, a big step was taken towards trying to create an equal society.

1863 The Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was a crucial shift in society and in views on slavery that would reshaped history. Issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln, the emancipation declared that all enslaved people “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” beginning New Years Day in 1863. However, this proclamation did not in actuality free enslaved people at the time. Rather, it changed their federal legal status. African Americans were not given the same rights as white people, yet by the end of the civil war, black men made up 10% of the Union army and were also heavily involved in other branches of the military. The fight for equality would continue for hundreds of years after the civil war, leading up until the present day and age. One year after the Emancipation Proclamation, the world’s first humanitarian treaty was established.

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