History of Human Rights

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738–1826), Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, public domain

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738–1826), Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, public domain

History of Human Rights

In this article, we shall examine the early history of human rights. We will discuss the different arguments for human rights, early criticism, as well as the development of the history of human rights. As we shall see, while many point to the origins of the history of human rights (and international human rights law) to be the 1940s with the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), there is a rich history of human rights that spans numerous centuries, cultures, religions, and philosophical world views. While “[t]he expression “human rights” is relatively new, having come into everyday parlance only since World War II…[i]t replaced the phrase “natural rights,” which fell into disfavor in part because of the concept of natural law (to which it was immediately linked) had become a matter of great controversy; and it replaced as well the latter phrase “the rights of Man,” which was not universally understood to include the rights of women” (Weston, 17). 

However, as we shall see, the ideas around rights extends back thousands of years, and has continued to be addressed in various contexts, be they based on secularism or from within religious traditions.

Ancient History of Human Rights

There are a number of examples from antiquity regarding notions of human rights. Below are just some examples of individuals who in some form or another advocated or protected human rights.

Cyrus: The King of Persia in 539 before the common era, “Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia, conquered the city of Babylon. But it was his next actions that marked a major advance for Man. He freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script” (Human Rights.com, 2014). In fact, “…this ancient record has now been recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It is translated into all six official languages of the United Nations and its provisions parallel the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (Human Rights.com, 2014).

Stoics: There were many thinkers in Greece that advocated for notions of human rights. For example, “Greek philosophers, known as Stoics, developed the idea that rights enjoyed by Greeks were universal rights, freedoms that humans everywhere are entitled to simply because humans exist” (Payne, 2013: 46). They saw these rights as deriving from a notion of “universal law” which they saw as laws by the Gods, which they viewed as “natural laws” (Payne, 2013: 46). The Stoics were not merely in Greece, but their ideas also had influence in Rome, where many such as “Marcus Tullius Cicero, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius” echoed this sentiment regarding rights (Payne, 2013: 46). Here, due to its influence in Rome, “Roman law similarly allowed for the existence of a natural law and with it–pursuant to the jus gentium (“law of nations”)–certain universal rights that extended beyond the rights of citizenship. According to the Roman jurist Ulpian, for example, natural law was that which nature, not the state, assured to all human beings, Roman citizens or not” (Weston, 2006: 17).

Magna Carta: One of the other key historic human rights documents was the Magna Carta, which was written in 1215. Interestingly, “after King John of England violated a number of ancient laws and customs by which England had been governed, his subjects forced him to sign the Magna Carta, which enumerates what later came to be thought of as human rights. Among them was the right of the church to be free from governmental interference, the rights of all free citizens to own and inherit property and to be protected from excessive taxes” (Human Rights.com, 2014). It also provided human rights for widows, as well as calling for the complete human rights when charged with a crime (thus, emphasized fair judicial process) (Human Rights.com, 2014). Moreover, it also spoke out against government corruption (Human Rights.com, 2014).

History of Human Rights in Religious Traditions

There are also a variety of references to human rights from within different religious traditions. Looking at the history of human rights, one finds such rights in a number of faiths that include but are not limited to Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here are just some of the religious references towards human rights.

Hinduism: We find that the Hindu faith, through the Veda, “address[es] the necessity for moral behavior, the importance of duty (dharma) and good conduct toward others suffering in need. Practice charity and compassion for the hungry, the sick, the homeless, and the unfortunate. All life is sacred, to be loved and respected. “Noninjury (ahimsa) is not causing pain to any living being at any time through the actions of one’s mind, speech or body.” (Veda)” (in Shelton, 2007: 1).

Confucianism: In Confucianism, “Harmony and cooperation exist when duty and responsibility towards others leads to treating all human beings as having equal work and recognizing that “within the four seas, all men are brothers.” The fundamental teaching “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” Analects, XV, 23… (in Shelton, 2007: 1).

Judaism: As Shelton (2007) points out, in Judaism there are various supports for human rights such as socio and economic rights, as well as political rights. For example, in Judaism, there exists the “sacredness of the individual endowed with worth and equal value. Isaiah 58:6-7” (1). Furthermore, there are also saying such as “undo the tongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free. . . share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Shelton, 2007), which clearly supports ideas of helping humans with the right to food, the human right to shelter, as well as the right to freedom from oppression.

Buddhism: Buddhism supports the value and importance of human and non-human life, and promoted equality for all individuals (Shelton, 2007).

Christianity: Jesus has a very strong message in favor of political and religious freedoms, as well as very strong conviction towards helping the poor. The emphasis on fighting poverty, for example, was a central component of Jesus’ message.

Islam: Islam has a host of references to respect and love for one another, the commitment to charity, fighting poverty, and freedom of religion, as was seen in a number of Quranic verses talking about no forcing of one to practice a faith. Furthermore, the Prophet Mohammad called to ban infanticide of female babies, thus calling for the protection of the human.

History of Human Rights from the Secular Traditions

There have been many thinkers throughout the history of the world that have advocated for ideas of human rights. 

Thomas Hobbes: British thinker Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) advocated individual freedom, or the right to life. And being such a fundamental rights, Hobbes understood that to his protected, the state would need to play a role; a society without an entity to help secure such rights would not be conducive to the existence of that right. Thus, humans would have to give up some sovereignty to the state, in exchange for the protection of the right to life and personal security (Ishay, 2004). Moreover, Hobbes made additional contributions to the history of human rights with regards to criminal charges and the criminal process (Ishay, 2004).

Petition of Right: Another important document in the history of human rights is the “Petition of Right.” This document, “produced in 1628 by the English Parliament and sent to Charles I as a statement of civil liberties” (Human Rights.com, 2014). Within the Petition of Right includes calls against unfair arrests, restrictions on government power with regards to martial law, along with other rights issues (Human Rights.com, 2014). And despite the fact that King Charles did not follow the Petition of Right–which in turn led to domestic unrest and conflict (Encyclopedia, 2014), the document nonetheless advanced notions of human rights, and the importance of speaking out against government abuse of power. (Click here to read the full text of the Petition of Right).

John Locke:  The political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was a strong proponent of human rights and the freedom of religion. In fact, he was quite critical of the role of religion in the state, and advocated for the separation of church from state (Ishay, 2004). It was during this period (namely following the Middle Ages) “that natural law became associated with natural rights” (Weston, 2006 “17).

Given the abuses of religious freedoms in the early 1600s, there began to be a shift towards viewing these law issues “from duties to rights” (Weston, 2006: 17). In addition, there were many thinkers–living during this time–who were frustrated with the abuse of power by Kings, and also, who viewed a serious of overall rights abuses in society. Thus, they began speaking on the importance of the natural rights for all (Weston, 2006).

Thomas Jefferson, Human Rights and the United States Bill of Rights: Thomas Jefferson also advocated ideas of religious freedoms, viewing the state as separate from religion. He also advocated freedom of conscious, where individuals were able to make their own choices without outside intervention or force (Irshay, 2004). And in fact, “this position was restated in the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), a statute that entrusted people with the right to follow the dictates of their conscience and called on the state to tolerate all religious without favoring one in particular” (Ishay, 2004: 80). And as Ishay (2004) goes on to explain, “[t]hree years later, the concept of the separation of church and state took its place as the first article in the Bill of Rights, part of the new Constitution of the United States of America (80). Along with the rights for freedom of religion, Thomas Jefferson also advocated freedom of the press. He spoke out against the Sedition Act (which criminalized “malicious writing…against the government” (Sedition Act 1798, in Ishay, 2004: 81)), and played a key role in the repeal of the Sedition Act (Ishay, 2004).

French Thinkers and Human Rights in the 1700s: Calls for the human rights of personal, political and religious freedom was not merely in the United States, but throughout the world. And one place where individuals pronounced their ideas of freedom and human rights was in France, where intellectuals such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) and Voltaire (1694-1788) espoused idea of human rights and the freedom of ideas (Ishay, 2004). The ideas of these writers helped to shape public discourse in France. And in fact, with the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France in 1789, ideas of being able to have and share beliefs without interference was seen as a critical component of the overall document (Ishay, 2004) (For the full document, see the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen).

Immanuel Kant: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a strong advocate of human rights (Ishay, 2004). His writings on cosmopolitanism stressed the importance of a global community. Furthermore, Kant was a strong proponent of the idea of an international organization that would help bring about peace in the world (he theorized the idea of a “League of Peace” which has been seen as setting the theoretical foundation to then future international organizations such as the League of Nations in the early 1900s, and the United Nations in the 1940s.

John Stuart Mill: Another thinker who supported notions of liberty and human rights was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Mill’s writing on human rights was in part a challenge to ideas of utilitarianism, which argued for majority rights (the most rights for the most people). Mill, instead, wrote about notions of complete freedom, and that the only way to interfere with one’s liberty is if they were hurting someone else, and limiting another person’s freedom (Payne, 2013). Within this, he advocated that governments who are looking to do this must show that this limitation was in fact necessary (Payne, 2013).

Critics of Natural Rights

When discussing the history of human rights, and the development of these “natural rights” discussed above, it is also important to note that there were some who criticized the idea of natural rights. For example, some, such as Edmund Burke, feared that the promotion of natural rights would result in social revolution in society. Others, such as Jeremy Bentham, believed that these ideas of rights would “substitute for effective legislation” (Weston, 2006: 18). Bentham also believed in utilitarianism, namely, the most amount of good for the most amount of people. Interestingly, others such as John Stuart Mill also adhered to ideas of utility (Weston, 2006). This notion, while open to helping others, leaves the possibility that some policies may hurt or repress the rights of some within that society, which is why others are critical of utilitarian ideas of human rights.

Recent History of Human Rights

The more recent history of human rights is centered on responses to ongoing rights abuses in the international system. Whether it was related to matters of globalization (such as the fight to end slavery, as well as campaigns to advocate for “just war” practices (as a response to new weapons)) (Shelton, 2002), or the knowledge of state and non-state abuses of citizens in domestic or international settings, human rights activists have continued to speak out on behalf of those who have suffered/are suffering.

Of course, while there were people advocating for equality, human rights advocacy was difficult, particularly given the prominence of state sovereignty in the international system. Yet, there were certain human rights legal norms that were developing. For example, the anti-slavery movement in the late 1800s was able to influence international relations with regards to stopping the slave trade. As DeLaet (2006) notes, “The first “success” of the antislavery movement came in 1885 when Europe states affirmed in the Berlin Treaty on Africa that trading in slaves was a violation of customary international law” (26) (it should be noted that of course, previous struggles on this issue also were successful in their own right, even if they themselves were not events related to international human rights law). 

We also saw this with some of the earlier international human rights documents of the 20th century, namely the work of organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO). In fact, this is an interesting case to examine when discussing more recent international human rights. Namely, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “[e]fforts to avoid competitive distortions and enhance the protection of fundamental rights of workers necessitated international labour standards. The resulting movement led to the creation of the ILO in 1919. Unlike all subsequent international organizations, the ILO engaged all the relevant actors in its operations from the beginning” (Shelton, 2002: 280-281). Here, they included national representatives, as well as business, and also the workers (laborers), with all having a voice in the decision making process of the organization. This organization advocated for a series of rights that while primarily including labor rights (and the right to not be exploited) (Shelton, 2002), overlapped into other rights such as freedoms, the right to education, etc…

However, the history of human rights looks to the events of World War II as a turning point for the human rights movement, and the establishment of a large international mechanism of human rights. 

The atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during the Second World War “became increasingly difficult for states and their citizens to downplay or ignore. Ultimately, belated acknowledgment on the part of major powers of the horrors of the Holocaust made broader segments of the public in many states across the globe more receptive to the idea of universal human rights” (DeLaet, 2006: 26).Thus, the international community came together to form the United Nations, an entity that would not only work to ensure international security, but the United Nations also worked to establish and then protect international human rights.

As mentioned in the article linked above, from the United Nations came the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with other documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These documents stated different civil and political rights, as well as social, cultural, and economic rights that human beings are entitled to. 


When looking at the historical formation of the human rights, particularly when examining the development of the international human rights corpus since post-WWII, what drove for the establishment of a human rights legal system was not only that rights were violated, but also that they were tied to security and desires for peace (DeLaet, 2006). Thus, countries such as the United States wanted to make sure that human rights language was written into documents such as the UN Charter, because of the effects that rights violations had on international security (Forsythe, in DeLaet, 2006).


Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). Available Online: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=16

Columbia Encyclopedia (2014). Petition of Right. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press.

Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). 26 August 1789, Available Online: https://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/295/

DeLeat, D. (2006). The Global Struggle for Human Rights. Boston, Massachusetts. Wadsworth Cengage. 

Encyclopedia.com (2014). Petition of Right. Available Online: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Petition_of_Right.aspx

Human Rights.com (2014). A Brief History of Human Rights. http://www.humanrights.com/what-are-human-rights/brief-history/cyrus-cylinder.html

Ishay, M.R. (2004). The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era.  Berkeley, California. University of California Press.

Payne, R. (2013). Global Issues. New York, New York. Pearson.

Shelton, D. (2002). Protecting Human Rights in a Globalized World. Boston College International and Comparative Law Review. Volume 25, No. 7, pages 273-320.

Shelton, D. (2007). A Introduction to the History of International Human Rights Law. The George Washington University Law School Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper NO. 346, Legal Studies Research Paper NO. 346, pages 1-30.

Weston, B. H. (2006). Human Rights: Concept and Content, pages 17-26, in Human Rights in the World Community: Issues and Action. Edited by Richard Pierre Claude & Burns H. Weston. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania Press.


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