History Cooperative

The Evolution, Growth, and History of Human Rights

The history of human rights isn’t that simple. The concept has been around for eons, really, but inalienable rights are only a recent development. Just how recent? Well, the legal recognition of human rights within the international community wasn’t until the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Even still, the moral principles that constitute our fundamental rights are rich in history. Global leaders and government officials in 1948 didn’t just wake up one day thinking, “Wow, the last six years sucked for humanity, we need to do something about it.” No, the steps towards securing mankind’s fundamental freedoms have been growing over generations.

Everything grows from something. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Violence begets violence; hate begets hate; and toughness begets a greater toughness.” What is put out into the world comes back to us tenfold. That being said, why not have love beget love; empathy beget empathy; and respect begets greater respect?

Table of Contents

The History of Human Rights: What are Human Rights?

The history of human rights is a complex and evolving narrative that spans centuries and is deeply intertwined with the development of societies, cultures, and philosophical thought.

Human rights are the collective rights of everyone. Every member of the “human family” is entitled to several fundamental freedoms and rights. This includes – but is not limited to – multiple civil and political rights, economic, social, and cultural rights, and environmental rights. In short, human rights can best be described as the most basic rights of mankind.

The United Nations describes human rights as the “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.” Therefore, human rights are both universal and undeniable. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. In the eyes of the United Nations, you have rights that are worth protecting and enforcing.

Everybody has human rights: you, your grandma, and your weird neighbor included. It is the preservation and implementation of these rights on such a massive, international scale when things get tricky.

Types of Human Rights

There are a handful of human rights. There are five “themes” of human rights that the rest fall beneath.

Types of human rights include…

  • Economic rights
  • Social rights
  • Political rights
  • Civil rights
  • Cultural rights

These five themes of human rights encapsulate the collective rights of humanity. Though they may not be much to look at at a glance, there is a lot to them. Each theme can be broken down into countless categories and sub-categories. As the years have gone on, the list of human rights only grew (albeit slowly).

Violations of Human Rights

There is not a person on this earth that can be denied their rights as a human being. Right? Unfortunately, that is where things can get complicated.

It is painful to admit, but human rights are a new thing. They may have entertained the thoughts of rulers of ages past, or been explored through the eyes of philosophers many years ago; however, the fundamental rights of mankind have only been established within the last hundred years.

You would think it would be a no-brainer to treat folk with inherent dignity. However, when push comes to shove (or in times of strife), it is easy to lose sight of who we are and what we stand for. War, economic collapses, and ecological and natural disasters can all become a slippery slope into human rights abuses.

As human beings, we are born with rights that supersede state, country, or creed. When these rights are violated – oftentimes in the name of governance, extremism, and war – it is up to everyone to hold offenders accountable. Notably, the government is charged with holding itself accountable as well which…can get complicated if the government is acting in its own self-interest. That is where the international community comes into play.

A History of Human Rights: 539 BC to the 21st-Century

Human rights aren’t new, but their legality is. Such is especially true for universal human rights, which were only adopted in 1948 after one of history’s bloodiest wars. Since then, only limited progress has been made toward expanding, respecting, and enforcing human rights.

Much of the time, the evolution of human rights can be described by generations. The first-generation rights (civil and political rights) are theorized to have begun in the 17th- and 18th centuries. Pretty much, people should have a say in what policies will affect them. These rights also offer protections against violations of state.

Second-generation rights focus more on the social, economic, and cultural rights of individuals. How people live and work together became a hot topic during the Industrial Revolution and the burgeoning working class. On the other hand, third-generation rights are known as solidarity rights. These would include the right to a healthy environment and the right to peace among other things.

539 BCE – Cyrus the Great and Basic Freedoms

Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River. Cyrus was also a phenomenal military strategist; all of this, however, was not necessarily what made Cyrus…well, great .

What defined the reign of Cyrus more than anything was his treatment of the lands he conquered. He respected the cultures, religions, and customs of the many, many lands he inducted into his growing empire. There was no forced assimilation, no denouncing of local religions, and an emphasis was placed on tolerance. Today, Cyrus is viewed as a benevolent leader who championed religious minorities in conquered regions.

Part of why Cyrus has such a sparkling interpretation is the Cyrus Cylinder . The cylinder acts as a record of Cyrus’ 539 BCE conquest of ancient Babylon. Apparently, upon arriving in Babylon, Cyrus the Great declared himself chosen by Marduk, the chief city god . Doing such made him positively stand out compared to the king he had deposed.

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: The Complete List from Aboriginals to Incans

The king, Nabonidus, turned out to be in the middle of an (unpopular) religious reformation with the moon god Sîn at its helm. Despite such reformations taking place successfully in the past, Marduk was a popular god amongst the ancient Babylonians. Cyrus’ open worship of the revered deity had him quickly gain traction with common and high-born Babylonians alike.

Later interpretations of the Cyrus Cylinder suggest that Cyrus freed Babylonian slaves, although slavery was continued throughout Achaemeniad rulership. The historicity of this event is debated, though supported in the Book of Ezra which states that Cyrus ended the Babylonian exile. Whatever the true interpretation of the Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus is still credited with being the first to establish basic freedoms.

1215 – The Magna Carta and Rule of Law

Ancient leaders afforded their subjects certain rights. Though no international bill, the running of ancient empires and societies – and what they viewed as human rights – is nothing to scoff at. Many rulers (good ones at least) did acknowledge the legal obligation that came with leading. That being said, Magna Carta, anyone?

The signing of the Magna Carta is one of the most famous stories in history. After all, it was the first significant record of the rule of law. The Magna Carta (also called “The Great Charter”) establishes that the monarch and their government are not above the law. While it didn’t necessarily propel human rights forward, the Magna Carta was a big deal.

It wasn’t peasants that forced King John’s hand, but rather feudal lords – barons, in this case – that threatened civil war. They were angry about the rise in taxes to fund bitterly unsuccessful wars in France. The tax spike was viewed as a clear exploitation of power by the king. Therefore, to avoid royal infringement on their finances, the barons grouped up and made a heavy-handed threat to the monarch.

Though the Magna Carta was signed, King John did later reach out to the Pope to negate the document’s legal status. You know, looking for any loophole out of a binding agreement…just as someone looking to exploit their power would. Anyways, doing so led to England ’s First Barons’ War, which lasted two years.

READ MORE: The Kings and Queens of England: English Monarchs Timeline from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II

1625 – Hugo Grotius and International Law

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is considered the father of international law. So, you’ve probably guessed it: the consensus is that Grotius laid the foundations of modern international law. He was a Dutch juror, a poet, and a massive fan of Greek and Roman philosophy.

In the groundbreaking novel On the Laws of War and Peace (1625), Grotius boldly attempts to find a middle ground between natural law and the laws of nations. Accordingly, the most-favored idealist view is counteractive, but absolute realism is also unacceptable. Wars will happen, but the standard of warfare is determined by international law; likewise, the treatment of minorities is up to review from the international stage. Grotian tradition “views international policies as taking place within an international society” according to A. Claire Cutler in Review of International Studies .

Grotius, therefore, establishes that there are certain human rights that are unwaveringly fundamental to human beings. These rights are then vital to understanding human nature. Then, international laws somewhat based on human nature are, to a degree, completely valid.

Much of Grotian tradition and the themes that Grotius had discussed in his lifetime became blueprints for modern international human rights law. He vaunted non-intervention policies but agreed that another country could step in against tyrannical rule on behalf of the citizens. This would be because of human dignity rather than any personal gain.

1689 – English Bill of Rights

The English Bill of Rights is best known as the document that establishes Parliamentary privilege. However, there is a lot more to this piece of parchment than just that! The English Bill of Rights stated that there could be no taxation without representation (in Parliament), freedom from government interference, the right to petition, and equal treatment in the court system. Furthermore, other human rights were granted to civilians, such as no cruel and unusual punishment and the right to free speech.

If that sounds familiar to all of you Americans reading, it’s because it is.

The whole “no taxation without representation” theme was a major point of contention within the British-American colonies leading up to the Revolutionary War. British colonies did not have appropriate representatives in Parliament. Agents, sure, but not sufficient representatives that could challenge the British majority. Additionally, when drafting the United States Bill of Rights , government officials definitely looked to the English Bill of Rights for some inspiration.

As it turns out, the populace wasn’t too keen on giving the a-OK to a fledgling government with no guarantee of personal liberty. They rightfully didn’t want British monarchy 2.0, so not many Anti-Federalists (nay to national governments) were willing to ratify the Constitution. This left Federalists (yay to the national government) in a sticky situation. The Federalists added the Bill of Rights to make the Constitution more appealing to the opposition.

1789 – The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the French Revolution

The French Revolution was a major upheaval of the feudal system in France. It was a crazy time to be alive and the French Revolution left a lot of European monarchies wiping their brow. The American Revolution – a major source of inspiration for French peasantry – ended a mere 6 years before. And, unlike their American counterparts, the French Revolution was thrice as bloody.

When examining the French Revolution, it is crucial to consider what events led up to it. Again, everything grows from something. Right off the bat, some members of society were granted more rights than others. The Estate System effectively shot down an individual’s right to self-determination and grossly limited their economic rights.

Speaking of economic rights, the economy sucked . The two higher Estates (the First and Second) relied on the taxation of the Third Estate for their livelihood. The Third Estate, composed of the working class, could not afford necessities.

If the bread riots in Paris were bad, then the famine rampant throughout the countryside was horrible. Also, absolutism – the idea that the monarchy has complete, unchallenged control over an entire country – didn’t help at all .

So, the people of France began turning to Enlightenment ideals. The Age of Enlightenment, which emphasized the value of individual liberty and religious tolerance, inspired the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The Declaration was drafted by American Revolution veteran Marquis de Lafayette and clergyman Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes, both of whom ironically belonged to the Second and First Estates.

Article I of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen reads as follows: “Human Beings are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.” Such an open declaration of human rights ignited a spark in many Frenchmen, women, and children who had felt disenfranchised by their system of government.

1791 – The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights

The end of the Revolutionary War in the United States was a trying period in the nation’s history. No one was quite certain what they wanted when they wiped their hands clean of British rule; they just knew they didn’t want that . Thus, emerged the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.

The Federalists wanted a national government whereas Anti-Federalists preferred smaller, self-governing states. There was a massive and very real fear that a big government could lead the new country down the same hole they just dug themselves out of.

The United States Constitution was initially introduced to outline the systems of government that the Articles of Confederation (1777) lacked. It was introduced to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Other Convention topics included state representation in Congress, presidential powers, and the slave trade. The main issue with the Constitution is that it focused only on governmental powers and branches, but not the rights of the people.

READ MORE: Slavery in America: United States’ Black Mark

Which is important when you are trying to assert federal control over them. As the Magna Carta taught us (which the French Bourbon dynasty could have learned from) the government is not above the law. The Federalists needed to think of something to reel the Anti-Feds to their side.

This is where the Bill of Rights comes in. Ten amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution, which collectively became known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments, which guarantee the “certain unalienable Rights” of the Declaration of Independence are still a topic of debate today. While 27 more amendments have been added to the original ratification in 1791, only the first 10 are known as the Bill of Rights.

1919 – Peace Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations

The events of World War I (WWI) shocked the international community. It was the Great War: the “war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

READ MORE: What Caused World War 1? Political, Imperialistic, and Nationalistic Factors

World War I was a period of rapid advancements in warfare. Tanks , chemical weaponry, flamethrowers, and machine guns were all developed in the shadow of the very first world war. Furthermore, violations of human rights were plentiful.

In various countries – the United States included – opposition to the war could lead to jail time. Civilians were court-martialed and sent to military prisons for speech deemed “disloyal.” In Canada, the War Measures Act was introduced, giving the federal government power to suspend all rights of citizens. Meanwhile, 100,000 civilians in France and Belgium were detained by German forces, only to be sent against their will as forced labor in Germany.

So, at the end of the war, drafting a peace treaty was only one of the many hurdles that nations had to contend with. The biggest issue is that no one could agree on how to treat Germany and other Central powers. What ended up happening was a significant stripping of territory, a reduction of military forces, and a reparations bill that was astronomical. The peace that came with the Treaty of Versailles was fragile at best.

From the treaty came the League of Nations , founded by the 28th U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson. In all, 63 countries were a part of the League: this was a majority of sovereign nations in 1920. The League of Nations was the first international congregation of nations and was developed to help achieve international peace.

At some point, Japan had introduced a clause to the treaty that – if approved – would’ve established racial equality within the League of Nations. The U.S. and a number of British dominions rejected the amendment. Despite this fumble, the League of Nations managed to develop organizations that did positively propel human rights forward.

International Labor Organization

The International Labor Organization ( ILO ) was founded by the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. It became a mainstay in the later United Nations. As it stands, the International Labor Organization safeguards social and economic rights by setting international labor standards.

Much of the foundation of the ILO is based on 19th-century social and labor movements. These movements brought international attention to the plights of workers. After World War I, the beliefs of these movements became revitalized as the demand for social justice and a higher standard of living for the working classes emerged.

In the wake of WWI, the International Labor Organization proved especially helpful for developing countries. Among these, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland all were considered separated from Russian claims per the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The benefit of the ILO would again be proved in developing countries after WWII. Then, numerous countries were freed from colonial rule including India, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Protection of Minorities

Humanitarian conditions were not a driving principle sought to be upheld by the League of Nations. Instead, the League was formed to maintain the status quo following the Allied victory in World War I ( Justifications of Minority Protections in International Law , 1997). That being said, the legitimate international concern of another world war happening did provide substantial reasoning to address some amount of human rights.

The administrative branch of the League of Nations, the International Secretariat, included a Minorities Section in the early years. The Minorities Section dealt with the protections of minorities in relevant nations, particularly those newly formed in Eastern Europe.

Before the formation of the Secretariat and its Minorities Section, the rights of minorities that found themselves aloft in war-torn Eastern Europe were ambiguous at best. It was the Minorities Section that developed “a procedural and bureaucratic structure that untangled the League’s…mandate…guaranteeing the rights of some twenty-five million racial, religious, and linguistic minorities” as stated by Thomas Smejkal in his thesis, “ Protection in Practice: The Minorities Section of the League of Nations Secretariat, 1919-1934 .” For a time, the Section was somewhat successful at addressing inequalities experienced by minorities. It was not until later that the overall weaknesses of the League – such as lack of representation – proved to be an issue in the face of World War II.

With World War II came numerous human rights abuses, with those hit hardest being certain minority groups in Eastern Europe. Without significant world powers (the United States, Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan, and Spain) it became increasingly difficult to ensure personal liberty for minorities.

1945 – Post-WWII and the United Nations  

World War II, as with the First World War, saw a slew of human rights violations. To be fair, most wars – major and minor – are breeding grounds for such infringements. Supposed “gentlemen wars” are a thing of the past, if not nearer to pure fantasy.

The United Nations was founded in 1945, a month after the end of World War II . To say there was global devastation would be an understatement: roughly 3% of the world’s population died.

Furthermore, a new horror was realized in the later months of 1945. The United States developed and dropped two atomic bombs in the largely civilian-populated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The bombing led to the end of the Pacific Theater, with legal experts and scholars still debating whether or not the dual bombings were war crimes.

Though the threat of weapons of mass destruction was real, the United Nations didn’t immediately act against them. It was not until 1968 that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was signed. Even later still was the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was signed, which didn’t happen until 2017. Currently, the use of weapons of mass destruction is considered a violation of human rights.

After WWII, there was new hope for achieving international peace. The League of Nations, now null and void, was rebranded as the United Nations. In fact, the Charter of the United Nations was signed while World War II was still raging on and the development of the UN began back in 1943 during the pivotal Tehran Conference. During this time, the League of Nations wasn’t completely obsolete, but it was just barely functioning.

The United Nations expanded significantly on human rights and humanitarian laws. Like its predecessor, its primary goal is bolstering international peace.

The United Nations Charter

The United Nations Charter is the founding document of the U.N., signed in 1945. The Charter itself is considered to be an international treaty, legally binding involving countries to oblige by any laws passed. Since its initial signing in 1945, the United Nations Charter has been amended three times.

Commission of Human Rights

One of the more significant creations post-WWII is the Commission of Human Rights . Emerging in 1946, the Commission is responsible for protecting fundamental freedoms. There are numerous themes that the Commission of Human Rights handles.

Anything from the right to self-determination to indigenous issues is discussed by the Commission. Moreover, they look into both human rights violations worldwide and in specific countries. It is the Commission of Human Rights that primarily sets standards for human rights for the international community.

An example is the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Commission opens the declaration with the recognition “of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Right off the bat, the Commission acknowledges that there are certain fundamental human rights that must be recognized. The inclusion of civil and political rights, and economic, social, and cultural rights, among others, have been later added per the Commission.

1948 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a significant landmark in the history of human rights. It has acted as a model document for several “domestic constitutions, laws, regulations, and policies” according to Hurst Hannum in “ The UDHR in National and International Law ” ( Health and Human Rights , 1998). Despite this, the UDHR is not a legally binding document; at least not in whole. However, the Declaration has been incorporated into most constitutions of the nations belonging to the UN.

All things considered, the UDHR is a customary international law. Everyone understands, acknowledges, and respects the Declaration (at least those 193 states and countries within the United Nations). It was drafted for bolstering international peace, after all.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights essentially acts as a guide to human rights norms. It has alternatively been referred to as the international Magna Carta since it sets a standard for how a government treats its own citizens. Thus, the treatment of a government’s citizens towards its own citizens became everybody ’s business.

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been signed, the U.N. has called out numerous governments for their citizen abuses. To be honest, the United Nations is still pointing out government infringements on human rights. One of the most historically significant times the United Nations has done this was during apartheid in South Africa.

In 1962, the U.N. condemned South Africa’s racial discrimination and bigoted laws, even going as far as calling for members to cut economic and military ties with the country. Unfortunately, not many Western countries were willing to end economic relations, even after apartheid became a crime against humanity in 1973.

1949 – International Humanitarian Law

Another international law signed in the aftermath of World War II is the International Humanitarian Law (IHL). These laws are intended to limit the effects of armed conflict and offer protections for those uninvolved in hostilities. Additionally, the IHL puts restrictions on the methods of warfare and the treatment of prisoners of war. Most – if not all – themes of the IHL had been adopted from the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.

Geneva Conventions of 1949

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 prohibit specific abuses during warfare. Three separate protocols have been added to the International Humanitarian Law, two in 1977 and one in 2005 respectively. These supplemental protocols give rights to certain minority groups in times of war.

The first of the Geneva Conventions gives protection to soldiers who are removed from the ongoing conflict. This Convention deals largely with the sick and wounded and the retention of their human rights. Meanwhile, the second Geneva Convention expands on the first, extending rights to naval combatants and ship-bound non-combatants. The second Convention also clarifies that “shipwrecked” includes those who parachute from damaged aircraft (Articles 12 and 18).

The third Geneva Convention sets standards for the treatment of prisoners of war. The Convention emphasizes that POWs are to be treated with basic human dignity. This means that degrading treatment is effectively illegal (as stated in Articles 13, 14, and 16). Also, it clarifies who is considered to be war prisoners.

Members of the armed forces, militia volunteers, and civilians in the company of armed forces are all considered to be prisoners of war. Therefore, the rights of POWs are extended to civilians under certain circumstances. Particularly those civilians involved in resistance movements and non-combatants, such as medics or chaplains, can be viewed as POWs.

The fourth Geneva Convention is an expansion to the rights and treatment of civilians in occupied land or conflict areas. Generally, civilians are to retain their civil and political rights. An example of this is addressed in Article 40, which states that civilians cannot be forced to do military-related work for occupying forces. More importantly, civilians are protected from murder, torture, or brutality; and from discrimination based on race, nationality, religion, or political opinion (Articles 13 and 32).

1954-1976 – The Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movements  

More was happening in the ’60s than just the musical British Invasion. It was the middle of the Cold War , a “bloodless war,” where the United States and the Soviet Union were at each other’s throats from 1947 to 1991. So much for global peace.

READ MORE: Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy

The two nations got involved in a series of proxy wars, never directly assaulting the other. The most famous of these proxy wars, the Korean War (1950-1954) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975) were unpopular and viewed as “senseless” by the masses. They were only two out of upwards of 11 proxy wars.

During these terribly unpopular wars, the Civil Rights Movement was speeding up in the United States. In truth, it is impossible to argue for being a beacon of democracy if you oppress minorities in your own country. Thus, the Civil Rights era saw a boom in individuals demanding civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights were also at the forefront.

The Civil Rights Movement was largely connected to the generational trauma of Black Americans caused by the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. As of the ’60s, only very limited progress had been made from the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War. For generations , an entire demographic of the American population was denied collective rights afforded to them by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1948.

Other minority groups within (and outside of the United States) took note. Civil Rights inspired a human rights movement among Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. Additionally, Northern Ireland was inspired to lead protests against the British occupation of Northern Ireland. These protests led to the Northern Ireland Conflict (the Troubles) and the creation of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a legally binding international document drafted in 1954. However, the ICCPR was not signed until 1966. It took another decade for it to become effective in 1976.

A ton of stuff happened within those two decades that could have benefitted from such a document, but we digress. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is viewed as an international human rights law. It ensures that those belonging to mankind (i.e. human beings), have certain political rights as citizens and are treated with basic human dignity. Overall, the ICCPR asserts that people are entitled to specific personal liberties that cannot be denied by government entities.

International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

The International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was another international bill that would have made a huge impact if put into effect the same year it was drafted. The ICESCR was developed alongside the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was also signed and made effective in the same years as the ICCPR. As its title suggests, the ICESCR is intended to promote economic development, all while providing citizens with social and cultural rights.

Compared to other human rights laws of the past, the International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights has made significant progress for Indigenous Peoples. The identification of cultural rights specifically as human rights has positively impacted other minority groups as well, including the Roma.

Human Rights in the 21st Century

As the Commission of Human Rights states: “Human rights standards have little value if they are not implemented.” Although there have been countless standards, laws, and treaties passed by the United Nations since World War II, the international community has struggled with implementation. Furthermore, since the perception of human rights is constantly evolving, past acts – slavery, racial discrimination, and nuclear weapons to name a few – are now considered to be human rights violations. While these are all terrible acts (and always have been terrible acts) the argument arises that, at the time of practice, these were not considered to be violations. Do, then, past offenders be treated as such? 

The United Nations Human Rights Council has done groundbreaking work at driving the human rights evolution. In that there is no denying. Even still, more work could be done to provide everyone across the globe with equal and inalienable rights.

The internet – a Wild West type of medium – still requires users to uphold human rights; however, it is maintaining human rights in this rapidly evolving environment that’s tricky. Likewise, environmental protections are an extension of the human right to a healthy environment. They are only recent developments.

With everything happening in the world right now, there is legitimate international concern regarding the state of human rights. Only recently has Twitter ’s human rights team been cut from the company. Not to mention the humanitarian crises occurring in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the United States.

Human rights are ever-growing, desperately attempting to keep up with changing times. What has been defined as human rights norms today may always be expanded upon tomorrow.

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Human Rights evolution, a brief history.

By Marco Sutto

From "The CoESPU MAGAZINE" nr. 3- 2019

Selection: " Human Rights evolution, a brief history "  , pag.18

DOI Code: 10.32048/Coespumagazine3.19.3

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“Human rights” are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of our nationality, residence, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.

This is the modern concept of our fundamental rights but it was not always this way. The belief that everyone, by virtue of her or his humanity, is entitled to certain human rights is fairly new and is something stemming from an evolution of the consideration of human dignity over the last centuries. Its roots lie in earlier tradition and documents of many cultures.

T he origins  of Human Rights are ideally pinpointed to the year 539 BC. When the troops of Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Cyrus freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other principles were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder known as the Cyrus Cylinder, whose provisions served as inspiration for the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Another cornerstone in Human Rights History is represented by the promulgation of the Magna Charta in 1215 which introduced a raw concept of “Rule of Law” and the basic idea of defined rights and liberties to all persons, which offers protection from arbitrary prosecution and incarceration. Before the Magna Charta, the rule of law,  now considered as a key principle for good governance in any modern democratic society,  was perceived as a divine justice, solely distributed by the monarch or the king or, in this case, King John of England.

An evolution of the concepts expressed by the Magna Carta  is represented by the English Bill of Rights. It was an act signed into law in 1689 by William III and Mary II, who became co-rulers in England after the overthrow of King James II. The bill outlined specific constitutional and civil rights and ultimately gave Parliament power over the monarchy. Many experts regard the English Bill of Rights as the primary law that set the stage for a constitutional monarchy in England. It’s also credited as being an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791).

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen , adopted in 1789, by France’s National Assembly , represents one of the basic charters of human liberties, containing the principles that inspired the French Revolution .

The basic value introduced by the Declaration was that all “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, which were specified as the rights of liberty, private property , the inviolability of the person, and resistance to oppression. All citizens were equal before the law and were to have the right to participate in legislation directly or indirectly; no one was to be arrested without a judicial order. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech were safeguarded within the bounds of public “order” and “law”. Private property was given the status of an inviolable right, which could be taken by the state only if an indemnity were given and offices and positions were opened to all citizens.

It is in this historical period that the concept, mostly based on political concerns, of Civil and Political Rights was defined. These rights, also known as first generation rights, recognise the existence of certain things that the all-powerful rulers should not be able to do and that people should have some influence over the policies affecting them. The two central ideas were those of personal liberty, and of protecting the individuals against violations by the State. They serve negatively to protect the individual from excesses of the State.

The steps forward made since the time of Cyrus were impressive, yet still many of these concepts, when originally translated into policies, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups.

Prime examples to overcome this situation are represented by the efforts in the 19th and early 20th centuries to prohibit the slave trade and to limit the horrors of war.

Significant is the adoption of the first three Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions expressing the deep concern of the public opinion to promote a respect of a basic level of Human dignity of individuals even in wartime and posing the foundations of  modern International Humanitarian Law. The concerns over the protection of certain minority groups, which were raised by the League of Nations at the end of the First World War, and the establishment of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to oversee treaties protecting workers with respect to their rights, including their health and safety, manifest  the increased positive attitude toward the recognition of the importance of Human Rights as we know them today.

The time for a revolution and a deep progress in the protection and promotion of human dignity was ripe. Eventually, it took the catalyst of World War II to propel human rights onto the global stage and into the global conscience. The unprecedented cruelties perpetrated during the conflict and outside it such as the extermination by Nazi Germany of over six million Jews, Sinti and Romani (gypsies), homosexuals, and persons with disabilities horrified the world. The idea of human rights thus emerged even stronger than ever after World War II. The Trials held in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II, introduced the rather new concepts of "crimes against peace," and "crimes against humanity."

Governments then committed themselves to establishing the United Nations, with the primary goal of bolstering international peace and preventing conflict. People wanted to ensure that never again would anyone be unjustly denied life, freedom, food, shelter, and nationality.

It was the 1945 and the fifty founding members of the United Nations stated, in the preamble of the UN Charter, that they were determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained in order to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

In the first article of the same Charter, Member states pledged “to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

A strong political commitment was set and to advance on these goals, a Commission on Human Rights was immediately established and charged with the task of drafting a document spelling out the meaning of the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Charter. Three years later, The Commission, guided by Eleanor Roosevelt’s forceful leadership, captured the world’s attention, drafting the 30 articles that now make up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration was presented to the world, acting for the first time as a recognized and internationally accepted charter, whose first article states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

The UDHR, although not legally binding, introduces the concept that how a government treats its own citizens is now a matter of legitimate international concern, and not simply a domestic issue, and that  the exercise of a person's rights and freedoms may be subject to certain limitations, which must be determined by law, solely for the purpose of securing due recognition of the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

Its Preamble eloquently asserts that: recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. It restates the already identified civil and political rights and introduces the so-called second generation rights, fundamentally economic, social, and cultural in nature, furthermore claiming that all rights are interdependent and indivisible.

The message was clear and powerful, the realization of one Right is linked to the realization of the others. All human rights are indivisible, whether they are civil and political rights, such as the right to life, equality before the law and freedom of expression; economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to work, social security and education, or collective rights, such as the rights to development and self-determination, are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Similarly, the deprivation of one right hampers the improvement and enjoyment of the others.

The influence of the UDHR has been substantial and together with the  International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights it constitutes the so defined “International Bill of Rights” that lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from specific acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

Its principles, by now, have been incorporated into the Constitutions of almost all the UN members and has achieved the status of customary international law regarded as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.

Human Rights have continued to evolve and, since its foundation, the United Nations has adopted more than 20 principal treaties including conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses like torture and genocide and to protect particularly vulnerable populations, such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women ( Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women , 1979), and children ( Convention on the Rights of the Child , 1989).

A multitude of other treaties and documents have clarified and further developed some of the basic concepts that were laid down in the original UDHR, thus envisaging new generations of rights. These additions have been a result of a number of factors, partly as a response to progressively modified ideas about human dignity, and partly as a result of new emerging threats and opportunities. As far as for the specific new category of rights, that have been proposed as third generation rights, these have been the consequence of a deeper understanding of the different types of obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing the first and second-generation rights. The idea at the base of the third generation of rights is that of solidarity and collective rights of society or peoples, such as the right to sustainable development, to peace or to a healthy environment.

In much of the world, conditions such as extreme poverty, war, ecological and natural disasters have meant that there has been only very limited progress in respect of human rights. For that reason, people have felt necessary the recognition of a new category of human rights.

Following emerging threats and opportunities, the so-called 4th generation rights, linked to the recent fast technology development, represent the last discussed frontier of Human Rights. A fusion of material, biological and digital technologies raises existential questions about what it means to be human and how to protect human dignity. Digitalization and “datification” of almost all human activities create new opportunities of development but also new possibilities for human rights violations.

Fortunately, it is nowadays clear that what human dignity means, how to protect and promote it, is a concept that, albeit rooted within the principles of the UDHR, is in constant evolution in accordance with the new necessities.  There is a need for a comprehensive response and whilst the international community is still discussing about 4th generation rights it is my belief that there will be room, in the future, for the fifth and, hopefully, for further generations of Human Rights.

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Three Generations of Human Rights Development Essay


The evolution of human rights can be traced back to the 18 th century activism in which the gaps in the legal recognition and definite consciousness of human rights were narrowed. History indicates that human rights are not granted by the state rather, human rights are attained through struggle and challenge to the existing authority.

The current legal recognition of human rights attainment originated from various declarations and the most pronounced included the Magna Carta declaration in the thirteenth century that curtailed the royal powers, the American declaration of independence in 1776 and the French declaration of the rights of man and citizens in 1789 (Adedeji par 3). The stated declarations were some of the major revolutionary achievements towards attaining the current legal recognition of the universal human rights.

However, the current meaning of universal human rights is derived from the typologies of rights that were established after the formation of the UN following the Second World War.

The UN convention of 1948 established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which fundamentally defined the central ideas applicable to all human rights (Adedeji par 4). While the current the UDHR is a declaration rather than a formal treaty, it forms the foundation of human rights. In fact, the rights of an individual and the limits of the state are fundamentally based on the declaration.

Following the negotiations on the importance of economic rights and civil and political rights, the UN general assembly in 1966 came up with a treaty that legally bound all the human rights into two aspects. The first aspect is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the second aspect is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The 1966 treaty produced the legal binding declarations that basically formed the foundation of the current human rights structure (Adedeji par 4). Besides, the rights that were internationally agreed upon and put into legally binding treaty were largely borrowed from the UDHR. As indicated, the UDHR is not a binding legal document.

However, it is universally applied such that it attained the status of customary law that is binding. Together with the 1966 international treaty on human rights, the rights contained in the documents can be categorized into three groups namely the three generations of human rights.

Civil and political rights (first generation rights)

The first generation rights contain both individual rights and the limitations of the state on these rights. Most of these rights relate to liberty and includes the fundamental right to life (Sehmer 3). All the individual rights related to self-determination including freedom from discrimination, slavery, torture and political participation (Adedeji par 5).

Also included is the freedom of conscience, opinion, expression, thought and assembly (Adedeji par 5). Even though these rights and freedoms have been granted through universal suffrage, they remain in theory rather than practice. Most states do not grant the freedoms fully as contained within the legal treaties.

Economic and social rights (second generation rights)

The second generation rights are related to economic, social and cultural security of individuals. Basically, the rights relate directly to individual and are seen as supplements to the basic human rights. The state has to provide the necessary incentives in order to ensure that the rights are protected and enjoyed by the individuals (Sehmer 3). All the rights relate to social and economic wellbeing of individuals such as the right to education, healthcare and social amenities.

Environmental, cultural and developmental rights (third generation rights)

The third generation rights relate to environmental concerns, political and socio-economic developments. Under these rights an individual is obligated to stay in a protected and clean environment as well as the freedom to individual cultural, political and economic endeavors (Adedeji par 5).

The role of the state is to ensure that the living conditions of the citizens are within the precincts of the rights and the social, political and economic developments are geared towards improving the livelihoods of the individuals.

The evolution of the rights and freedoms

The categorization of the human rights into first, second and third generations follow the traditional method of grouping the fundamental rights depending on their chronological evolution (Adedeji par 7). The first generation rights emerged from the 18 th and 19 th century struggle for liberation from the oppressed totalitarian rules that characterized the state authority. The first generation rights such as freedom of conscience, speech and political participation emerged during this period.

Industrialization gave rise to increased inequalities and against the backdrop of the view of the states’ roles given the free political space, the need for social and economic equality was articulated (Sehmer 5). In fact, the socio-economic rights emerged during the industrialization periods when the majority struggled to attain economic and social equality as well as against the oppressing labor regulations (Adedeji par 8).

With increased globalization and responsiveness of environmental and socio-economic concerns such as extreme poverty in some places, the third generation rights were formulated. The third generation rights such as the right to self-determination have been adopted as a result of the challenges the world is facing currently including environmental concerns, extreme poverty and lack of appropriate healthcare facilities (Sehmer 5). The third generation rights were formulated as a solution to most of these challenges.

Works Cited

Adedeji, Lanre. n.d. A Review of the Three Generations of Human Rights. Web.

Sehmer, Carolin 2007, Report of the Parallel Event “Third Generation” Human Rights – Reflections on the Collective Dimension of Human Rights. Web.

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Essay on Origin and Evolution of Human Rights

Originating from ancient civilizations and evolving through various historical movements, human rights are universal principles that recognize inherent dignity and worth of every individual. From Magna Carta to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, journey of human rights is a testament to humanity’s collective pursuit of justice, equality, and freedom.

Essay on Origin and Evolution of Human Rights

Human rights are a set of rights that are inherent to all human beings, regardless of their race, gender, nationality, religion, or any other status. These rights include civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, and they are essential for protection and dignity of every individual. Concept of human rights has been evolving over time, and their origin can be traced back to ancient civilizations. Lets explore origin and evolution of human rights through this essay .

Origin of Human Rights

concept of human rights can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where certain rights were recognized and protected. For example, Code of Hammurabi, which was created by the Babylonian king Hammurabi in 1754 BC, recognized the right to life and the right to property. Similarly, the ancient Greeks recognized the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of speech.

In the Middle Ages, the Magna Carta, which was signed by King John of England in 1215, recognized the rights of the barons and limited the power of the king. This document is considered to be the first written constitution and is a precursor to modern human rights instruments.

Enlightenment and Emergence of Modern Human Rights

The Enlightenment, which was a philosophical movement that originated in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, played a significant role in the development of modern human rights. Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Paine recognized the inherent rights of individuals and the need for a social contract between the people and the government.

The American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century were also important in the development of modern human rights. The United States Declaration of Independence, which was adopted in 1776, declared that “all men are created equal” and have the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted in 1789, which recognized the rights of individuals, including the right to liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

Emergence of International Human Rights Instruments

In the aftermath of World War II, there was a growing recognition of the need for international human rights standards. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, is considered to be the cornerstone of modern human rights law. It recognized the inherent dignity and worth of every individual and established a set of rights that should be protected by all nations.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there have been numerous international treaties and agreements that have further elaborated on the rights and protections of individuals. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, among others.

Evolution of Human Rights in Practice

While there have been significant developments in the recognition and protection of human rights, the realization of these rights in practice has been uneven. Discrimination, poverty, and political repression continue to be major challenges to the protection of human rights. Human rights violations continue to occur around the world, including in countries with established democratic institutions.

Nonetheless, there have been significant achievements in the protection of human rights. For example, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s led to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Similarly, the fall of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s was a major victory for human rights.

In conclusion, the concept of human rights has evolved over time, from the recognition of certain rights in ancient civilizations to the development of modern human rights instruments. While there have been significant achievements in the protection of human rights, challenges remain in the realization of these rights in practice. Nonetheless, the recognition and protection of human rights remain essential for the dignity and well-being of every individual, and their evolution and development will continue to be an important issue in the years to come.

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Human Rights: Historical and Conceptual Evolution

Introduction, historical evolution of human rights, the effects of human rights declaration evolution, weaknesses of the human rights declaration, current position of the human rights declaration.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered to be of great historical value. It was officially adopted in 1948 by United Nations General Assembly. The declaration enunciates special fundamental rights of every person being of major interest in the process of circumcision ethics study. The evolution of Human Rights provided the opportunities to evaluate the importance and influential role of the declaration. The rights covered by the declaration are devoted to privacy, freedom from torture and personal security and freedom from various unusual and cruel treatments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is recognized as a standard of achievement for a great number of nations; every organ of the community and every individual taking into account this declaration strive to promote complete respect for these freedoms and rights on the international level securing their effective and universal recognition. The evolution of the human rights has shown its practical value for people’s rights safeguarding.

The values and ideas of human rights refer to ancient religious cultures and beliefs throughout the world. In the period of World War II the Four principle freedoms were adopted:

  • Freedom of assembly;
  • Speech freedom;
  • Freedom from any want;
  • Freedom from possible fear.

The idea of freedom establishment appeared to be the background for the development of fundamental human rights. The basic principle of the declaration lied in the following:

“… to provide universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction at to race, sex, language or religion.” (United Nations Charter, art. p. 56).

The day of declaration adoption was 10 December of 1948 with 48 votes in favor by the General Assembly.

The structure of the Universal Declaration was prepared and introduced by Rene Cassin in its second draft. It should be stressed that structure was under the impact of Code Napoleon containing preamble and basic principles in the introduction. The first and the second articles are considered to be the background blocks covering brotherhood, equality, liberty and dignity (Walker, 2008).

Deepening into the structure of the Declaration it should be stressed that its main body formed four basic columns from the very beginning of declaration development.

  • The first part covers the individual’s rights (people’s protection from slavery and complete equal right to life);
  • The second part provides the identification of individuals’ rights in political and civil society;
  • The third aspect of the declaration structure deals with political, spiritual and public freedoms;
  • The forth columns highlights economic, cultural and social rights and their equality among all the human beings. (Williams, 2007)

Critical analysis of the Human Rights Declaration showed that the idea of original human rights was based on the depth of human nature; thus, the fact that everyone is to be respected lied in the background of humanity. It should be noted that roots of Human Rights Declaration focused on some religious aspects ancient beliefs. As a result a set of coordinated formal freedoms and rights was organized and developed on the international level. (Schabas, 1998)

The governments were aimed at the promotion of declaration making people to secure the effectiveness and universal character of the Declaration. Roosevelt stated that UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) could be considered more as a formal declaration rather than a kind of treaty; Eleanor explained it by the fact that this document would have influenced the world population in the way the Americans are influenced by the US Declaration of Independence. This statement appeared to be correct and it was proved through the years of Declaration existence. The power of this Declaration is considered to be more significant than that of some national constitutions. Since 1948 the UDHR acts as the background for the international treaties organizations, establishment of national laws being aimed at human rights protection of sub national, national and regional characters (Morsink, 1999).

It is important to stress that the Declaration was merely created for the purpose of freedom identification; at the definite moment people happened to require the clarification of such notions as “human rights” and “fundamental freedom”. As a result the Universal Declaration appeared to be the UN constitutive document. According to the views of major international lawyers, the Declaration is the principle part of international law being a significant and powerful tool for providing moral and diplomatic pressure to the governments violating any of the declaration articles.

At the international conference of the United Nations which was devoted to the human rights the declaration was proclaimed as the document that “ constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community to all persons”.

The Universal Declaration has appeared to serve the background for two basic human rights covenants:

  • Civil and Political Rights International Covenant;
  • Economic, Cultural and Social Rights International Covenant;

The Declaration principles used to be elaborated in various treaties of international character. The value of the Declaration is considered to be magnificent for the constitutional courts, academics, advocates, governments and just individuals appealing to its basic principles for the purpose of their rights protection.

The significant role of the Declaration and its place in the sphere of human rights protection was internationally recognized worldwide. Thus, famous diplomat and philosopher, Charles Malik recognized this declaration as: “an international document of the first order of importance” (Malik, the Third Committee of the UN Assembly).

According to the statement of Eleanor Roosevelt being the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission, the universal declaration: “…may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere” (Roosevelt, UN Assembly).

In 1995 the official speech of Pope John Paul II proclaimed the results of the Universal Declaration functioning in the global society calling it as “…one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time” (John Paul II, official speech).

At the conference of 2003 Marcello Spatafora on behalf of European Union stated general position of the declaration in current times: “ it placed human rights at the center of the framework of principles and obligations shaping relations with the international community” (Spatafora, EU Conference, 2003).

Thus, the strengths of the declaration appeared to be the principle tool in safeguarding of world human rights.

Despite all the privileges and advantages of the declaration this document happened to experience criticism on the part of Islamic countries. Such states as Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iran managed to disagree with effectiveness and power of the human rights document. It was stated that the set of freedoms failed to cover religious and cultural context of Islamic states. The representatives of Islamic culture criticized the positions of the declaration; it was explained by the fact that the document highlighted Judeo-Christian traditions which cannot be supported by Muslims, only in case of Islamic law trespassing. As a way of alternative the representatives of Islamic culture created the document stating the rights and freedom to a dignified life taking into account Islamic Shari’ah. Such position was taken during the Islamic Conference in 2000 being devoted to critical issues of the Universal Declaration (Nurser, 2005).

The criticism of the human rights declaration touched the aspect of medial care. According to the Article 25, the medial care should be free; the representatives of conservatism and libertarians never supported this position. Thus, Andrew Bissell stated as to the article: “Health Care doesn’t simply grow on trees; …No one will want to enter the medical profession when the reward for years of careful schooling and study is not fair remuneration…” (Bissell, 2005).

The next critical issue of the declaration effects sticks to the aspect of education. According to the Article 26, the education is to be compulsory for everyone. According to the philosophical study this position in the declaration provided violation aimed at human right to follow personal interests. Thus, John Holt stated that: “ A person’s freedom of learning is a part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech.” (Holt, Escape from Childhood).

It should be noted that the word “compulsory” can be observed in the declaration only once being devoted to the education issue.

2008 is considered to be a significant year for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should be stated that this year it is celebrating its 60 th birthday. This day is important due to its honor to the human rights established many years ago.

“ On this Human Rights Day, it is my hope that we will act on our collective responsibility to uphold the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration” (Ban Ki-moon, 2008).

On the day of holiday celebration the role of the human rights introduction was deeply analyzed. It was stated that the Declaration made only a slight print on contemporary life. The increased level of inequality and poverty are the main grounds to consider it in such a way. Some critics stated that proclamation of the human rights is only a noise being completely empty. The main question asked was devoted to the function of the human rights. What are they for? Modern world experiences race discrimination in some countries; the selfishness of rich people and class inequality contradict the positions of the declaration. The time of economic despair and political instability are to be avoided in accordance with the human rights issues (Gearty, 2008).

The analysis of the human rights position in modern world has shown that declaration issues adopted in 1948 are only a slight shadow in current times. Historical evolution of the UDHR influenced its position in the global society of the world and its perception. Steps and principles of the declaration are based on human morality and mentality. Beliefs and freedoms adopted 60 years ago are considered to be a significant step for the population of that time, but nowadays the declaration is just a shadow of the past (Human Rights Day. Dignity and Justice for All of Us, 2008).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights appeared to be a fundamental document for the world population. It covered all aspects of social, economical and political life of human beings highlighting the real sense of the words “freedom” and “rights”. Due to the declaration people managed to feel their opportunities and rights in the life. Taking into account the way passed by the human rights document it is important to stress that it underwent certain evolution in its perception by the population.

Nevertheless the UDHR is considered to be a significant step in the history of world civilization having brought major changes to all the nations and states.

Gearty, Conor. 2008. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the next sixty years. Open Democracy. NY.

Human Rights Day. Dignity and Justice for All of Us. 2008. Web.

Morsink, Johannes. 1999. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting and Intent. Philadelphia Press.

Nurser, John. 2005. For all People and all Nations. Christian Churches and Human Rights. Geneva Publication.

Roosevelt, Eleanor. N.d. Address to the United Nations General Assembly . 

Schabas, William. 1998. Canada and the Adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. McGill Law Journal.

The United Nations and Human Rights. 2006. Department of Public Information, United Nations, New York.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights . 1948. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Walker, John. 2008. The UNHR . Preamble. The General Assembly. 

Williams, Paul. 2007. The International Bill of Human Rights. Edited by Jimmy Carter. HR Book Edition.

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Evolution of Human Rights in India, Types, Characteristics_1.1

Evolution of Human Rights in India, Types, Characteristics, Importance

Evolution of human rights can be traced back to ancient civilizations and it is an ongoing process. Know all about Evolution of Human Rights in India, its Types, Characteristics and Importance here.

Evolution of Human Rights

Table of Contents

Evolution of Human Rights

Throughout history, the idea of human rights has been an evolving force, gradually taking shape and gaining momentum to become a cornerstone of modern societies. From ancient civilizations to the Enlightenment era’s profound philosophies, the journey of human rights has been marked by milestones that have shaped the way we view individual liberties, dignity, and equality. Read this article to learn about it in detail. 

Human Rights Definition

Human rights are fundamental entitlements and protections that belong to every person, regardless of their gender, age, or nationality, simply because they are human beings. These rights are considered inherent, meaning they are not granted by any government or authority but are part of our basic humanity. The concept of human rights is rooted in the idea of human dignity, recognizing the inherent worth and value of every individual.

These rights encompass a wide range of principles and freedoms that aim to ensure individuals can live with dignity, security, and the ability to make choices about their lives. They are derived from the understanding that every person is born free and equal in dignity and rights and possesses reason and conscience, which should guide their interactions with others in a spirit of brotherhood.

Human rights are not limited to a specific group or country but are universal and apply to all people worldwide. They are the foundation for a just and fair society and serve as a safeguard against discrimination, oppression, and abuse.

Read about: UN Human Rights Council 

Categories of Human Rights

Human rights can be categorized into different types:

  • Civil and Political Rights : These include the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a fair trial. They protect individuals from government interference in their personal and political affairs.
  • Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights : These encompass rights related to basic needs such as the right to education, the right to work, the right to health, and the right to a standard of living that ensures well-being.
  • Collective or Group Rights : Some rights are specific to particular groups, such as the right to self-determination for indigenous peoples or the right to participate in cultural, religious, or linguistic communities.

Human rights are enshrined in various international documents, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 being a cornerstone. These rights are protected by both international and domestic laws and are monitored and enforced by governments, international organizations, and human rights advocates to ensure that individuals are treated with respect and dignity.

Importance of Human Rights

Human rights matter for several crucial reasons:

Basic Needs and Dignity

Human rights are crucial because they make sure that every person can have basic things like food, clean water, a place to live, clothes, and medicine. These rights protect a person’s dignity, ensuring they are treated with respect.

Protection for Vulnerable Groups

Human rights also help safeguard vulnerable groups in society. They were created after the terrible events of World War II , like the Holocaust, where not only Jewish people but also those with disabilities and the LGBT community were targeted. Human rights organizations focus on protecting those who are most likely to be mistreated or discriminated against.

Standing Up Against Corruption

These rights give people the power to speak out when they see abuse or corruption happening. This is important because no society is perfect, and human rights tell people that they deserve to be treated with dignity by society, whether it’s the government or their workplace. When this dignity is denied, people can use their human rights to stand up for themselves.

Freedom of Speech

Another essential aspect is the freedom to express our thoughts without being afraid of getting in trouble. It’s not just about speaking out but also about allowing people to have different ideas and opinions without fearing punishment. This freedom protects individuals who want to discuss or argue about various ideas within society.

Religious and Spiritual Freedom

Human rights recognize how important a person’s religion or spiritual beliefs are. They ensure that people can practice their religion peacefully. At the same time, they also give the freedom to choose not to follow any religion if that’s what someone believes.

Freedom to Love

The right to choose who to love is extremely important. It means that people can decide their romantic relationships without being forced into something they don’t want. In countries where these rights are not protected, people, especially from the LGBT community, may face oppression and abuse.

Equal Work Opportunities

Human rights make sure that everyone has a fair chance to work and make a living. They prevent unfair treatment or discrimination in the workplace, promoting equality among all workers.

Access to Education

Education is a crucial part of life, and human rights ensure that everyone, not just a select few, has access to schooling, books, and other learning materials. This helps break the cycle of poverty and creates a fairer society.

Environmental Protection

Human rights are also connected to protecting the environment. Clean air, water, and soil are considered essential rights because they directly affect people’s well-being. If these rights are not respected, it can harm human lives.

Read about: State Human Rights Commission

Three Generations of Human Rights

First-generation human rights (blue rights).

These are like the foundation of human rights. They include things like the right to say what you think (freedom of expression), the right to vote, and the right to a fair trial. Imagine them as the “blue” rights, the fundamental ones that set the stage for other rights.

Second-Generation Human Rights (Red Rights)

These are about the things that make life better for people. Think of having a good education, access to healthcare when you’re sick, and the opportunity to work and earn a living. These are like the “red” rights, which add color to people’s lives and well-being.

Third-Generation Human Rights (Green Rights)

These are like the rights that protect not just individuals, but everyone together and our planet. They include the right to a clean environment, the right to development for all, and the right to live in peace. These are often called “green” rights because they’re about preserving our world for future generations.

Read about: National Human Rights Commission

Types of Human Rights

Human rights are of different types and can be categorized into the following categories. These categories of human rights are not mutually exclusive, and many rights overlap. Human rights are interdependent and indivisible, meaning that the enjoyment of one right often depends on the fulfilment of other rights. Additionally, the concept of human rights is dynamic, and new rights may emerge as society’s understanding of human dignity and justice evolves over time.

  • Legal Rights : Legal rights are those rights that are recognized and protected by law. They are enforceable through the legal system. For example, the right to a fair trial and the right to property are legal rights.
  • Moral Rights : Moral rights are based on principles of fairness and justice and may not always be legally enforceable. These rights are rooted in ethical and moral beliefs about what is right and wrong. For example, the right to be treated with dignity and respect is a moral right.
  • Civil Rights : Civil rights are the fundamental rights and freedoms that protect individuals from government interference in their personal and political affairs. They include the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a fair trial.
  • Political Rights : Political rights pertain to the ability of individuals to participate in the political processes of their country. These rights include the right to vote, the right to run for public office, and the right to freedom of political association.
  • Social Rights : Social rights are related to the well-being and social security of individuals. They encompass rights such as the right to education, the right to work, and the right to health care. Social rights aim to ensure that individuals have access to essential social services.
  • Economic Rights : Economic rights are rights that relate to economic well-being and financial security. They include the right to work, the right to fair wages, and the right to own property. Economic rights aim to protect individuals from economic exploitation.
  • Cultural Rights : Cultural rights are rights that protect an individual’s cultural identity and heritage. They include the right to participate in cultural, religious, or linguistic communities and the right to preserve one’s cultural heritage.
  • Group Rights : Group rights, also known as collective rights, pertain to the rights of specific groups of people, such as indigenous peoples, minorities, or communities. These rights may include the right to self-determination, the right to cultural autonomy, and the right to participate in decision-making that affects the group.
  • Solidarity Rights : Solidarity rights focus on the collective well-being of society as a whole. These rights include the right to development, the right to peace, the right to a clean environment, and the right to one’s own natural resources. Solidarity rights emphasize the interconnectedness of all members of society.

The concept of “rights” and “duties” has ancient roots, dating back to the emergence of human societies and the formation of states. As humans are inherently social beings, the issue of rights and their associated duties naturally arose in the context of individuals’ interactions within a society and their relationship with the governing authority. Over time, norms of social behaviour developed, eventually crystallizing into what we now recognize as human rights.

These early notions of rights can be traced back to various historical and cultural contexts, such as ancient Greek and Roman political systems in Europe, the Confucian system in China, the Islamic political system in the Muslim world, and the “Panchayat” system in India. However, it’s important to note that the concept of rights in these systems was not fully developed in the way we understand it today.

Significant Historical Events and Revolutions

Several significant historical events and revolutions played pivotal roles in the development of human rights:

  • British Constitutional Documents : The Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Rights (1628), and the Bill of Rights (1689) in England were early charters that placed restrictions on the powers of the monarchy, paving the way for the rule of law.
  • American Declaration of Independence : The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 introduced ideas of human rights, stating that “all men are created equal” and have “unalienable rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen: The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789 recognized numerous rights, including equality, freedom of thought, religion, and property rights.
  • Bolshevik Revolution : The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 introduced socio-economic dimensions to human rights, emphasizing positive rights related to economic and social well-being, in addition to civil and political rights.
  • League of Nations : The League of Nations was established after World War I and was mandated to supervise the enforcement of minorities’ rights treaties, addressing issues related to the protection of minority populations.
  • International Labor Organization (ILO) : Founded in 1919 and later becoming a specialized agency of the United Nations, the ILO established international labour standards related to workers’ rights, fair employment practices, and social security.
  • Abolition of Slavery : International treaties emerged in the 19th century aimed at the abolition of slavery, condemning the practice and promoting freedom.
  • Humanitarian Intervention (HI ): The doctrine of humanitarian intervention emerged, recognizing the lawful use of force by states to prevent the mistreatment of a nation’s own citizens, especially in cases of severe brutality.
  • International Humanitarian Law (IHL) : International humanitarian law, with treaties dating back to the 19th century, regulates the conduct of armed conflict, protecting the rights of wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilian populations.

The United Nations, established in 1945, played a pivotal role in the evolution of human rights. The UN Charter emphasized the importance of human rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, marked a significant milestone. The UDHR outlined a comprehensive set of human rights, encompassing both civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights.

Since then, the UN has continued to develop international conventions, treaties, and declarations on human rights, addressing a wide range of issues and promoting the universality of human rights. These efforts have contributed to the ongoing evolution of human rights norms and standards on a global scale.

Characteristics of Human Rights

Human rights possess several key characteristics that distinguish them from other forms of rights or privileges. These characteristics help define the nature and significance of human rights:

  • Universal and Inherent : Human rights are like moral guidelines that apply to everyone just because they are human beings. You don’t have to earn them, buy them, or inherit them; they are automatically yours simply by being a human. They are tied to the idea of human dignity, meaning that every person deserves to be treated with respect and fairness.
  • Non-Discrimination : These rights are for every person, regardless of their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political beliefs, national or social background, property, or any other status. In other words, human rights are for all and should not discriminate against anyone.
  • Culturally Neutral : Human rights don’t favour one culture, ideology, or part of the world over another. They are designed to be fair and applicable everywhere, whether you’re in the East or West, North or South, developed or developing country, and regardless of your religious or cultural background.
  • Comprehensive : Human rights cover a wide range of areas in life. They include things like the right to free speech and the right to live without discrimination, as well as economic rights like the right to work and social rights like the right to education. These rights are continually evolving and expanding as societies change and develop.
  • Indivisible and Interrelated : Human rights aren’t separate from each other. They are all connected and equally important. You can’t have one without the others. For example, the right to education is linked to the right to work, as having a job allows you to access education. No right is more important than another; they all work together.
  • Limitations : While human rights are essential, they are not absolute. In some situations, like during a war or a public emergency, some rights might be limited or restricted to protect things like national security, public order, or public health. However, these limitations must be reasonable and justifiable and should not violate the rights and freedoms of others.

Evolution of Human Rights in India

The evolution of human rights in India can be traced back to ancient times, but it was not until the British colonial era that the concept of human rights began to take on its modern form. The British introduced a number of laws and regulations that were designed to protect the rights of their subjects, including the Indian Penal Code (1860) and the Criminal Procedure Code (1898). However, these laws were often discriminatory and did not apply to all Indians equally.

During the Indian independence movement, human rights became a central issue. The leaders of the movement, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, argued that human rights were essential for a free and democratic India.

After independence in 1947, the Indian government adopted the Constitution of India, which enshrined a number of fundamental rights for all citizens. These rights included the right to life, liberty, and equality; the right to freedom of speech and expression; and the right to freedom of religion.

Since independence, India has made significant progress in promoting and protecting human rights. However, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed. Human rights abuses continue to be committed in many parts of the country, and many people are still denied their basic human rights.

Here are some of the key milestones in the evolution of human rights in India:

  • 1860:  The Indian Penal Code is enacted, which codifies the criminal laws of India.
  • 1898:  The Criminal Procedure Code is enacted, which lays down the procedures for the investigation and trial of crimes.
  • 1919: The Government of India Act was passed, which introduced some limited reforms to the colonial system of government.
  • 1935:  The Government of India Act is passed, which grants a greater degree of autonomy to the provinces and introduces a system of responsible government.
  • 1947:  India gains independence from the British Empire.
  • 1950:  The Constitution of India is adopted, which enshrines a number of fundamental rights for all citizens.
  • 1993:  The Protection of Human Rights Act is enacted, which establishes a National Human Rights Commission to investigate and inquire into allegations of human rights violations.

The evolution of human rights in India is an ongoing process. As society changes and develops, new human rights challenges emerge. It is important to continue to fight for the promotion and protection of human rights for all people.

Evolution of Human Rights UPSC

The topic of the “Evolution of Human Rights” holds significant importance for the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) examination, as it aligns with several key aspects of the UPSC syllabus . It is covered under topics related to History, International Relations, and Contemporary Issues, which are integral components of the UPSC syllabus. Moreover, UPSC aspirants can learn this concept via UPSC online coaching platform and attempt UPSC mock tests to enhance their knowledge and preparation. A thorough grasp of this subject equips candidates with the knowledge and analytical skills necessary to excel in both the UPSC prelims and main examinations, enabling them to address questions related to human rights, international treaties, and global developments effectively.

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Evolution of Human Rights FAQs

What do you mean by human rights and explain the evolution of human rights.

Human rights are fundamental rights and freedoms that inherently belong to all individuals, irrespective of their nationality, ethnicity, or background, ensuring their dignity and protection from discrimination and harm.

How human rights evolved in India?

The evolution of human rights traces back to ancient civilizations, with significant developments occurring during the Enlightenment era in the 17th and 18th centuries.

When did human rights evolve?

In India, the evolution of human rights can be traced to ancient texts like the Arthashastra, but modern human rights began to take shape with the Indian Constitution in 1950.

What is the history of origin of human rights?

The concept of human rights evolved over centuries, with key milestones including the Magna Carta (1215), Enlightenment philosophies, and international efforts post-World War II.

Who is the father of human rights?

The concept of human rights does not have a single "father," but Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau greatly contributed to its development.

Who started human rights in India?

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar played a significant role in shaping human rights in India through his involvement in drafting the Indian Constitution, which enshrines fundamental rights and freedoms.

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