History of Human Rights

Published January 5, 2014-Updated January 19, 2015

Which movements, ideas, and events have contributed to the history and development of the concept of human rights? The following list is very selective; it shows some historical highlights that manifest the trend that runs through the Western legal and philosophical traditions.

Traditional Religions all support idea that the human person has worth and value and should be treated with a measure of dignity and respect. This leads to the idea that there are enduring standards of morality and justice against which to evaluate people’s actions and the laws of communities.

However, the emphasis in religion is on duties, not rights. For example, the Ten Commandments prescribe what we ought to do—not that to which we are entitled. Implicit in the idea that we have duties is the idea that others are entitled to a certain kind of treatment that will be articulated later.

With the development of Christianity, the ideas of universality and equality emerge along with concern for the severely disenfranchised. The idea takes hold that that people are all created by God; therefore they are entitled to minimally decent treatment by the existing powers. These are revolutionary ideas that have become part of the ethical texture of our culture.

The Middle Ages is characterized by the domination of the Church. It was also a time of rivalry between kingdoms, warlords, military conflicts and wars in Europe, and crusades against Islam in the Middle East. To finance his wars, King John of England, in order to raise cash from his wealthy subjects (earls, lords, dukes, etc.) agreed to recognize their property rights, guarantee freedom of movement for the purpose of trade and commerce, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. This marks the emergence of the Magna Carta (1215), a document that spelled out the duties that nobles owed to the King and God, and—importantly—the rights owed these subjects. Note that the idea of rights emerges first as a means by which the upper classes protect their property and freedom. The idea of rights will expand historically as each inferior class acquires more influence, economic power, and social standing—or at least tries to do so.

Revolutionary Era: English Bill of Rights (1688-89) rejects absolute monarchy and establishes a constitutional monarchy that must acknowledge various rights of British citizens to run for seats in Parliament (this marks the beginning of the notion of “freedom of speech,” i.e., right to debate in Parliament), bear arms in self-defense, and to be free of cruel and unusual punishment (right to trial). There is to be no more arbitrary rule by a monarch and this widens the scope and number of objects claimed as a matter of justice. Rights are still primarily those of aristocrats, but the idea covers more individuals than it did at the time of the Magna Carta. This is the seed that will grow in the following centuries.

The English philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) is an important landmark: he articulates rights on the basis of commands of “natural law” and proclaims natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Government is formed to protect those rights: this is its sole justification, according to Locke. Locke was an important philosophical influence on our own Constitution and Bill of Rights (Locke owned property in America). The other important idea is that government forms based on the consent of the governed.

America’s Declaration of Independence (1776) is a political, not legal document: it demands rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness”).

Another important event overturning monarchies was the French Revolution with its Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789—based on ideals similar to those of our own revolution.

The next important documents are, of course, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Government is devised as a system of checks and balances, which will further protect the rights of citizens; the authority comes from the governed (as in Locke).

Bill of Rights: the vast majority of rights relate to due process that protects all individuals, even though at this time this applied to white, property-owning men. Individuals used the ideas to broaden the scope of those to whom these rights applied.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution is the hallmark of the American contribution to contemporary human rights theory. Here is the text: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. This explicitly guarantees the rights to free exercise of religion (this was a reaction to religious wars in England), freedom of speech and press, rights to assemble peaceably. and to petition to government.

Next, Europe banned slave trade (1830s to 1860s), which reflects how modern Europe had absorbed ideas of individual and human rights. This is followed by the American Civil War and the end of slavery in the U.S.: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863) declares slavery illegal.

During the Industrial Revolution, a middle class emerges and so do great wealth disparities, and thus begins the rise of labor unions (late 1800s), which to protect what rights’ scholars refer to as “second generation” claims to socio-economic rights, such as to subsistence income, basic social services like education, public health and safety measures such as water treatment and vaccinations. Most laborers worked in horrendous “sweatshop” conditions. The idea that there are second generation rights remains a contested notion. The nineteenth century also saw the rise of the suffragettes, who protested gender inequality and lack of rights of women to vote, among other things.

In the 1920s, the League of Nations forms: some humane labor laws and factory safety regulations are enacted; the struggle for second-generation rights led to strikes, unions, and a few concessions by capitalists who feared communist revolt. Women won the right to vote in the US in 1920, with the 19th Amendment.

The stock market crash of 1929 and Great Depression of the 1930s (25% of Americans out of work) led to President Roosevelt’s New Deal—the beginning of unemployment insurance, public works (“welfare” state); “big government” and mixed economies (i.e., capitalism but with protection from its ravages); the goal is to provide a social subsistence minimum. The scope of the welfare state widens: subsidized housing, new colleges and roads, food and health care subsidies, more generous unemployment insurance and pensions regardless of the ups and downs of free-market business cycles—goal is to prevent citizens from falling beneath the floor of a defined social minimum. We see a clear recognition of something like second generation rights—again this remains a hotly contested idea, especially today as we see many of these protections erode.

The next milestone is a reaction to the rise of Hitler (and fascism in Europe), who denied human rights and preached a doctrine of racial and ethnic superiority that led to the Holocaust. After the war, the Nuremberg trials established the first international criminal trials for those committing massive human rights violations; the Geneva conventions (1949) are formulated to regulate conduct during war, e.g., a prohibition on torture (currently being debated as a result of treatment of detainees and prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo and elsewhere).

The United Nations forms. The Security Council of the UN is not – like some of its critics contend – a world government. It is a voluntary alliance, whose core commitment is to peace and human rights protection. Its founding document is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Again, there is a split over first generation rights (due process, speech, civil and political rights) and second generation rights (socio-economic). The UN Declaration supports both, but the U.S. tends to support only the first.

Cold War and Decolonization: the idea of First, Second, and Third Worlds emerges. The question now becomes: How do we manage to get along peacefully as societies become more diverse? How do we cherish both individual and group differences and yet maintain social cohesion and order necessary for stability and security? How should we use institutions to preserve democracy and majority rule and yet secure fair treatment for minorities? Do groups have rights or only individuals?

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of contemporary feminism and an environmental movement—women’s rights to reproductive control, rights to clean environment. The recognition of diversity and environmental rights are connected to the idea of what are called “third generation rights”.

The 1980s sees the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the “welfare state” (programs put in place during the New Deal era. This debate still goes on and revolves around second generation rights). Globalization: communism’s collapse left capitalism as the only plausible method for organizing society. We see more mobility, immigration, and refugee crises. The economic divide between first and third worlds raises issues having to do with all three generations of rights, but especially economic entitlements due to the huge wealth disparity between first and third world countries.

In the 1990s, the rise of ethnic nationalisms and more genocide (Bosnia, Rwanda) leads to the treaty that establishes the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998.

Debates continue regarding full specification of the foundational objects of human rights. These rights build upon each other; therefore we talk about five generations of rights. First are security rights (1), then subsistence (2), liberty (3), equality (4), and finally recognition (5). Substantial issues of equality and non-discrimination remain unsolved; these involve references to gender, sexual orientation, ethnic differences, and economic disparities.