Human Rights

Human Rights in History

The denial of, and consequent fight for, human rights shaped the lives of many people throughout history.

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Leonardo da Vinci Vitruvian Man c. 1492

Photo: Luc Viatour. See
Luc's site at

What Exactly Are Human Rights?

:: The Broad Definition

Just as there is no guide-book to life, there is no official definition of human rights.

Probably everyone agrees that human rights are non-transferrable (inalienable) rights all human beings possess from birth. So far so good.

The precise definition and interpretation thereof is the tricky part.

:: The Exact Definition

For example:

How far is an individual or a country allowed to go to defend themselves?

How crowded does a prison cell have to be to violate human rights?

Is violence justified when used to stop violence? Or should violence be met with compassion to break the vicious cycle?

Do collective rights trump individual rights? If so, under what circumstances and to what extend?

How can one person's freedom of religion and another one's freedom of speech coexist? And what about the freedom of religion of two people that are of different faith? (See also Secularism and Freedom of Conscience further down on this page)

What role do human rights play when it comes to abortion and euthanasia?

Where does the right to privacy end and the right to information begin?

This illustrates how the specific definition of human rights is subject to individual interpretation. Individual interpretation, in turn, is of course shaped by culture, religion, and moral values.

:: Juristic Definitions of Human Rights

Legal minds have defined the science of human rights as,

. . . a particular branch of the social sciences, the object of which is to study human relations in the light of human dignity while determining those rights and faculties which are necessary as a whole for the full development of each human being's personality.

Rene Cassin at the International Conference on the
Science of Human Rights, March 5 and 6, 1971, at Nice, France


The science of human rights concerns the individual person living within a state who, being accused of an offense or being the victim of a situation of war, benefits from the protection of the law, due to either the intercession of the national judge or that of international organizations (such as the organs of the European Convention on Human Rights), and whose rights, particularly the right to equality, are harmonized with the requirements of public order.

Karel Vasak in his Foreword of
The International Dimensions of Human Rights, 1982 (UNESCO)


:: The Categories

Human rights are typically grouped into

1. civil and political rights


2. economic, social, and cultural rights



The Timeline: Human Rights in World History

:: Human Rights in Ancient Times

The vast majority of religions and philosophies agree that doing good to other human beings is the decent thing to do. Tips and pearls of wisdom on the subject of compassion and charity exist in abundance. Even those teachings that aren't willing to commit as far endorse at the very least non-injury.

Plato, who lived 428-470 BC, declared happiness the goal, and virtue the means by which to achieve it.

Aristotle, who lived 384–322 BC, noted that there was a difference between what was "just by nature" and what was "just by law."

According to the Confucian scholar Mencius (Mengzi), who lived 371-289 BC, it was the ruler's responsibility to provide conditions that would allow for the material and spiritual welfare of the people.

Here, Mencius promotes accountability in his conversation with King Hui of Liang:

"Is there any difference between killing a man
with a stick and with a sword?"

The king said, "There is no difference!"

"Is there any difference between doing it
with a sword and with the style of government?"

Read Mengzi online via the Chinese Text Project

Confucian philosopher Xunzi (Hsün-tzu), who lived around 300-230 BC, might have been the first person who put "individual rights" (human rights) on record:

The consequence of individual life without mutual aid is poverty;
the consequence of corporate life without recognition of
individual rights is strife.

Poverty means anxiety; strife spells misfortune.

In order to relieve anxiety and eradicate strife,
nothing is as effective as the institution of corporate life
based on a clear recognition of individual rights.

Quoted from UNESCO, Birthright of Man, 1969,
which is a selection of texts prepared under the direction of Jeanne Hersch.
This quote can be found on page 303 under Social Justice.
You can read it also in French, Spanish, and Italian.


The Magna Carta of 1215 held  King John of England accountable to the law. The Magna Carta was signed by King John himself, but under duress, which led to the  First Barons' War.


:: The Inquisition and the Slave Trade — Massive Violations of Human Rights

In 1184, Pope Lucius III laid the groundwork for the Inquisition. The following 500 years were especially dark for heretics and those tagged as such.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade prospered over a period of roughly 400 years, from the 16th to the 19th century.

These are just two examples of human rights violations that illustrate the magnitude of men's staggering capability to do evil. Heaven didn't seem fit to interfere but, at the bare minimum, they must have been at least a little bit upset.

After the so-called dark ages, and continuing on our swift ride through world history, we soon encounter some members of the human race that began to ponder . . .

:: Bringing the Subject of Human Rights Back to the Consciousness

Humankind left the Middle Ages (5th - 14th century*) and entered the Renaissance (14th - 17th century*). The Renaissance brought with it humanitas, or humanism, with its top priority: human virtue; thus picking it up where Plato had left it off.

The Renaissance was followed by the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, (17th - 18th century*), during which enlightened people contemplated the various facets of human dignity, religious tolerance, the advantages of humanism over barbarism, being civilized over being savage, and liberty over oppression.

* =  time span much simplified

And speaking of religion...

Here is a man who argued natural law, meaning that there are certain human rights in existence even if the gods are not. Or, in his words,

What we have been saying would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to Him.

Prolegomena, 11, De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace)
Hugo Grotius, 1625

Right along those lines:

In all ages of the world, priests have been enemies of liberty.

Essays, Moral and Political
David Hume, 1741


Here are more remarks that illustrate how human rights developed during the Enlightenment into something worthy of protection:

Democratic and aristocratic states are not in their own nature free. Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits?

To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power. A government may be so constituted, as no man shall be compelled to do things to which the law does not oblige him, nor forced to abstain from things which the law permits.

Montesquieu, who lived 1689-1755
From his De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of Laws), 1748


Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who lived 1712-1778
From Du Contrat Social (The Social Contract), 1762

The law of intolerance is therefore absurd and barbarous; it is the law of the tiger - and yet more horrible, since tigers only rend each other's flesh for food whilst we have exterminated one another for a paragraph.

Voltaire, who lived 1694-1778
From his Treatise on Tolerance, 1763
Quoted from UNESCO, Birthright of Man, 1969, page 256.


In her book The Friends of Voltaire, 1906, English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, aka S. G. Tallentyre, summed up Voltaire's attitude to free speech as follows:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Back to the Enlightenment:

Act always in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, at the same time as an end, and never simply as a means.

Immanuel Kant, who lived 1724-1804
Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals), 1785
Quoted from UNESCO, Birthright of Man, 1969, page 529.


:: Human Rights Become Law

Enlightened thought became a guiding principle in law making:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776


Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.

French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789

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.

U.S. Bill of Rights, 1791


It remained the task of bridging the gap between law and common practice.

:: Speeches and Trailblazers Defending Human Rights

The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, (17th - 18th century*), was followed by the Industrial Revolution (18th - 19th century*), and an entire new set of topics arrived on the discussion board of human rights.

* =  time span much simplified

Here are some of the trailblazers who fought for having that discussion in the first place:

Frances D. Gage, who lived 1808-1884

Charles Sumner, who lived 1811-1874

Frederick Douglass, who lived 1818-1895

Here is Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments, delivered at the Seneca Falls Convention, New York — July 19-20, 1848.

See also her Rights of Married Women Address from 1854.

Here is Sojourner Truth's Ain't I a Woman speech, delivered at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio - May 28, 1851.


:: More Mayhem

The 20th century introduced a bouquet of atrocities and upsetting characters, such as,

World War I and World War II

Joseph Stalin's anti-human-rights-campaign (lived 1879-1953)

Adolf Hitler, who lived 1889–1945

Pol Pot, who lived 1925-1998

Augusto Pinochet, who lived 1915-2006

The systematic annihilation of six million Jews, aka the Holocaust.

:: International Human Rights

Trying to counter-balance these major setbacks in the history of human rights, people of the World united and, consequently, human rights became international human rights.

Franklin D. Roosevelt contributed to this advancement with his State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, also known as his The Four Freedoms speech. The four freedoms were freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The Geneva Conventions (1864-1949 and 1977) were treaties concerning the effects of war on soldiers and civilians.

In October 1945, the United Nations was set up, according to its charter "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights."

Further, in November 1945, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was formed. The idea was,

That a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.

The Constitution of UNESCO was signed on November 16, 1945.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 introduced its pledge by stating that 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.

Here is the full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principles of which Robert F. Kennedy said represent the "principles which embody the collective hopes of men of good will around the globe."

(From Bobby Kennedy's Day of Affirmation Address, delivered at the University of Cape Town at Cape Town, South Africa — June 6, 1966.)


However, these efforts were not always a straight success. The Bosnian Genocide 1992–1995, and the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 are two examples.


The Defense of Human Rights — An Ongoing Project

The need to defend human rights doesn't seem to decrease. And people are willing to step up to the plate. Here are a few recent highlights:

Mahatma Gandhi, who lived 1869-1948, promoted nonviolent fight to effect social change.

The 14th Dalai Lama, born in 1935, became well known for endorsing the rights of the people of Tibet. He also encouraged nonviolence.

Here is Eleanor Roosevelt's speech The Struggle for Human Rights, delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris, France - September 28, 1948.

Here is Martin Luther King's I have a Dream speech from August 28, 1963.

Here is Malcolm X's Ballot or Bullet speech, delivered at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio — April 3, 1964.

The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by former U.S. President and First Lady Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter

Here is Nelson Mandela's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, delivered at Oslo, Norway, on December 10, 1993.

In June 1994, the Organization of American States (OAS) gathered in Belem do Para, Brazil, at their Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women. Here you can read the Convention of Belem.

Here is Aung San Suu Kyi's opening Keynote Address at the NGO Forum on Women, delivered via video at Huairou, China — August 31, 1995.

Here is Hillary Clinton's speech Women's Rights Are Human Rights, delivered at the Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women, Beijing, China - September 5, 1995.

See also Pope Benedict XVI's Address to the United Nations General Assembly, delivered at New York, N.Y. - April 18, 2008.

And Aung San Suu Kyi's Nobel Lecture, delivered at Oslo, Norway — June 16, 2012.

On June 24, 2012, the New York Times published Jimmy Carter's op-ed in which he described in detail how the United States was currently violating at least ten of the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Here you can read Carter's op-ed A Cruel and Unusual Record.


Global Human Rights Institutions

The UN has many subsidiary bodies and programs, from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict which seeks to end the use of child soldiers.

This is the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. And here you can see how human rights treaties are being monitored.

The International Committee of the Red Cross was established in 1863 to provide assistance to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. In Muslim countries, the counterpart is the Red Crescent.

Amnesty International (AI) was created in 1961.

International Institute of Human Rights (IIHR) was founded in 1969 by René Cassin, as an association working for the promotion and the protection of human rights through research and training of professionals.

In 1971, Doctors without Borders, or French: Médecins Sans Frontières, was founded.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) was established in 1978 to scrupulously investigate abuses, expose the facts widely, and pressure those with power to respect rights and secure justice.

International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) was founded in 2001 to assist societies grappling with the immense challenge of securing justice and accountability in the wake of mass human rights violations.

Let's wrap it up with a quote from an expert on human rights:


But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough,
can you see the stars.

Here is Martin Luther King's I've Seen the Promised Land




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Any tyrant can compel his slaves to sing hymns in praise of liberty.

Mariano Moreno, December 8, 1810



Human Rights Glossary

:: What is a Humanitarian?

A person promoting human welfare and social reform, a philanthropist.

:: What is Philanthropy?

From Greek philo - to love, and anthropos - man. An active effort to promote human welfare.

:: What is Altruism?

The unselfish interest in or care for the welfare of others.



Secularism and Freedom of Conscience

Moral and religious diversity, however, is a structuring and, as far as we can see, permanent characteristic of democratic societies.


This type of society requires citizens to
disregard the sometimes profound moral and philosophical disagreements they have with their fellow citizens in the name of their more fundamental interest in living in a sufficiently stable and harmonious society.


[T]he price to be paid for living in a society that protects the exercise of freedom of conscience and expression is the understanding that we will be exposed to beliefs and practices we judge false, ridiculous, or hurtful.

Page 106, 107, 109.
Maclure, Jocelyn, and Taylor, Charles Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, Harvard University Press, 2011



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