© valerieroybal

A brief history of human rights

The history of human rights is actually a combination of various histories.
● Human rights in philosophy: the ideas on human dignity and the rights that belong to everyone everywhere.
● Human rights in law: the norms and sanctions that over the centuries have been laid down in (international) law, treaties and declarations.
● Human rights in politics and campaigning: the practice of denouncing abuses of governments and calling for solidarity and action for the victims.

Are human rights as old as human civilization?

Some human rights ideas are as old as civilization. From the earliest times, for example byb King Hammurabi of Babylon around 1750 BC, laws have been written (or cut in stone) that include principles of justice, fairness and protection. Such laws prescribed that:
● people must be protected by law;
● a ruler is restricted by law and cannot arbitrarily deal with his subjects;
● women, children, foreigners and other groups deserve special protection;
● even slaves should not be mistreated;
● courts must be free from corruption and arbitrariness.

These ancient laws however cannot be equated to ‘human rights’. They were not universal: they were valid for a certain state or society, not for humanity as a whole. They maintained gross inequality: there was no question that a monarch, a citizen and a slave would have the same rights. And much of what we now label human rights is not mentioned in those old laws, such as the right to freedom of opinion or the prohibition of torture.

A timeline

In the history of human rights, there is no linear sequence of developments. Yet a series of phases can be distinguished. ‘Phase’ here means that certain ideas and practices had a breakthrough or blossoming in a particular historical time. Not that they were always completely new at the time – see for example the reemergence of people’s representation in Medieval times.

  1. Ancient history: The inherent dignity of human beings. Ideas about the inherent dignity of man originated thousands of years ago, in law and religion. It came with notions such as that one should not use arbitrary violence, lie, steal or break contracts. Already before 200 BC. most of the world’s major belief systems had been founded: the Jewish faith (later developed into Christianity), Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, and the humanistic philosophy of Athens.
  2. 3th century BC: Equality. The idea that equality of rights applies to all people is found in the Greek philosophy of the Stoics. They considered man and woman to be equal. They argued for respect for women and children, for compassion and tolerance towards the other, for inclusion of ‘barbarians’ into the human community. Some stoics considered slaves on equal footing as well.
  3. 13th century: People’s representation. The practice that government owes a responsibility to representatives of the people already existed in Greek city states such as Athens, but thereafter disappeared for many centuries. From the 12th century, small parliaments were established in Scotland, Poland, the kingdom of León and Paris. Most conspicuous was the English Magna Carta of 1215, a contract between the monarch and the (well-to-do) citizens who formed a ‘parlamentium’ (‘talkhouse’).
  4. 18th century: The right to individual freedom. Some protagonists are identified in the next paragraph. This was the era in which the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of Human Rights and Citizen (1789) were adopted.
  5. 19th century: Socio-economic rights and abolition of slavery. Rights to protection in the field of work and unemployment arose in the 19th century under pressure from the trade union movement. A British national trade union was founded in 1830. Under pressure from within and outside of parliament, the British Empire abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833. Only decades later was slavery abolished in countries such as Russia (1861), the Netherlands (1863) and the United States (1865).
  6. Early 20th century: Equal rights for women and men. Women’s suffrage was introduced in New Zealand (1893), later in countries including The Netherlands and Russia (1917), the United States (1920) and the United Kingdom (1928).
  7. Since 1948: Universal standards. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) has emerged an ongoing series of international human rights conventions, declarations and monitoring institutions.

Five protagonists of individual freedom

Many philosophers, activists, politicians and others have contributed to the development of human rights. Major breakthroughs occurred in the 18th century, during the Enlightenment. These are five individuals whose acts and writings had great influence also far beyond the borders of their native countries.

  • Voltaire (France, 1694-1778) advocated the right to choose a religion or not. From 1726 he lived alternately in exile and under a false name in France. Only at the end of his life he received great honors in France. His writings shaped the ideas of the Enlightenment, his actions on behalf of victims of religious persecution made him an example of free-minded campaigning against injustice and intolerance. The statement attributed to him, ‘I detest your ideas but am willing to die for your right to propagate them’, is actually from a biographer but accurately reflects his life and work.
  • John Locke (England, 1632-1704) got many of his ideas on rights and politics during his years of exile in the Netherlands (1683-1688). In his Two Treatises of Government (1690), he assumed a ‘natural state’ in which all people are born free and equal, and not subject to any authority. Civil society replaces that natural state. The state so becomes the result of a social contract, in which people voluntarily commit themselves to the decisions of the majority. In that society, the king has no divine right and everyone has inalienable rights to life, freedom, property and health.
  • Cesare Beccaria (Italy, 1735-1794) published On crime and punishment in 1764. The legal system must contribute to the greatest happiness of the greatest number, it should never be dependent on the arbitrary power of kings and nobility. Punishments must be humane, capital punishment and torture must be abolished. His logically constructed system makes Beccaria a founder of the rule of law.
  • Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was born in England and emigrated to America in 1774. There he published Common Sense, a call for American independence that sold a hundred thousand copies within a year. He witnessed the revolution in France, escaped the guillotine and on return to England published The Rights of Man (1791). Its principles are first, that all people are born free and have equal rights. Second, that politics must not interfere with ‘natural’ rights of people such as freedom, property, security and the right to resist oppression. And third, that state power comes from the people.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (England, 1759-1797), who was friends with Paine, wrote the first book on how women should be fully equal to men: in their rights, their opportunities of education, their representation in politics. In her Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791), she says: ‘Women, I acknowledge, have other duties to fulfill; but the principles to which they must be subject, so I will stubbornly maintain, must be the same.’ And: ‘I really think women should be represented [in politics]’. After her premature death, the public showed more interest in her love life than in her writings. It took another hundred years for her ideas to be widely taken seriously.


What processes have driven the historical development of human rights? One factor behind the development of human rights is the pursuit of freedom in the sense of emancipation for such groups as citizens, workers, women and slaves. There is also the pursuit of legalization, as in international laws against atrocities such as slavery, torture and imprisonment. In human rights the principle of objectivity is crucial, in that reporting should be factual and honest. The Roman historian Tacitus (1st century) already wrote that historical descriptions should be ‘sine ira et studio’ (without resentment or bias). Humaneness is a driving force behind the efforts to limit both physical and mental cruelty. Sentimentality appeals to compassion for others as human beings who have feelings just like you: slaves, the poor, the insane, criminals, women and children. Around 1750 a fiction literature arose in Europe in which empathy plays an important role for the less fortunate. In his Nobel Prize speech, Barack Obama summarized the process as ‘the continuous expansion of moral imagination’. The idea of universality emphasizes the validity of humanity, norms and moral judgments wherever and whenever. We find it already in Greek Stoa philosophy. Finally, there is the appeal to activism. Karl Marx wrote in 1845: ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.’ In human rights, the path to that change is non-partisan and non-violent.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Only in 1948 did a true worldwide statement come to pass: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In essence, the text is the elaboration of an idea that has existed since time immemorial: that shared fundamental rights are needed because society cannot exist without them. A society that allows arbitrariness in the form of deception, or breach of contract, or random violence, or indiscriminate killings is a danger to itself.

The principles of the UDHR came from studying many sources of law of Western history, but references to a belief or tradition were left out in the final text. People with very different professional backgrounds and with different beliefs and ideologies were involved in the shaping of the declaration. That the final text includes a wide range of human rights including socio-economic rights, is due in particular to the different backgrounds of Western participants in de preparatory debates. When it came into existence, not all countries agreed with the UDHR (that is, eight countries abstained from the final vote). Yet decisions not to amend the Universal Declaration were taken by the UN member states in 1968 (Tehran) and 1993 (Vienna) without a vote against. That means that all UN member states, and not only those who agreed in 1948, have now accepted the UDHR (as does Taiwan, kicked out of the UN in 1971). Since 1948, the United Nations have adopted some 300 treaties and declarations in the field of human rights. References to the Universal Declaration are found in the constitutions of at least ninety countries.

Aren’t human rights actually of a recent date?

In his book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010), American historian Samuel Moyn argues that only around 1968 did human rights become a concept that united humanity in its struggle for justice. In Eastern and Western Europe, as well as in the United States and Latin America, human rights crystallized within a few years as the key word in social activism, the rhetoric of international politics and the actions of the United Nations. That was in the space left by the demise of earlier political utopias, such as communism and nationalism. Moyn describes how modern human rights ideology took flight with Amnesty International, the organization that was founded in 1961 and grew into a genuine transnational movement in the 1970s. That organization rendered human rights a broadly shared commitment that is not government dependent. Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. That same year, U.S. President Carter made human rights the cornerstone of his foreign policy.

The human rights defenders of Amnesty and other organizations refer to historical sources for their work, in particular the Enlightenment. Moyn does not feel that such reference is valid: ‘During the Enlightenment, people did not light candles to get prisoners free. They rather put the king’s neck under the guillotine.’ So human rights have been with us for only a few decades? In the sense of a concept that is recognized worldwide: yes. But as this article argues, ideas and practices from long ago have shaped what we now call human rights.