History of Human Rights – Summary and evolution

We explain the history of Human Rights, its antecedents, its role in the Modern Age and its declaration in 1948.

history of human rights
Human Rights were declared in the 20th century but their conception is old.

History of Human Rights

Human Rights are often thought to be a modern Western invention, but the truth is that have a history with numerous ancient and medieval antecedents. That is why there is a certain margin of debate regarding its historical origin.

However, no one doubts that it was in the West where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged, and where it began to play an important role in political philosophy, starting in the Modern Age.

Human Rights Background

There were important political and legal gestures in Antiquity that one can think of today as an antecedent of Human Rights. The first case is that of the Code of Hammurabi from the 18th century BC. C., emerged in Babylon during the reign of Hammurabi, which contained possible crimes and their way of punishing themselves. Thus the Babylonian people could exercise impartial justice, fair, oblivious to the whims of the monarch.

Something similar happened, centuries later, after the conquest of Babylon by the emperor Cyrus the Great, approximately in the 5th century BC. C. The conquering Persians granted freedom to slaves and freedom of worship to all the citizens recently annexed to the empire, thanks to a decree of the emperor whose words were engraved on a ceremonial cylinder, the “cylinder of Cyrus.”

So that already in antiquity the importance of just laws was understood that defended a sense of equality. Later on, Roman Law called these laws “natural rights”: those that all Roman citizens possessed by birth, despite the fact that at that time not everyone was considered a “citizen.” Slaves, foreigners and enemies, for example, were never protected by these rights.

This is largely due to the fact that ancient societies were based on honor, in which birth determined living conditions: the aristocracy was noble because it was born noble, and it did not have to have the same rights as commoners.

But that began to change in the West thanks to the rise of the Christian religion, whose dogma professed equality in the eyes of God, because at the end of life we ​​would all have to be judged with the same bar, regardless of our origin, but only our actions.

This new way of understanding society It was key so that centuries later Human Rights could emerge fundamental, since Christianity professed forgiveness even for those who were our enemies.

However, the Middle Ages, during which Christianity and its church reigned over Europe, was not exactly the most respectful of human rights in human history. The burning of witches, the persecution of heresy and many other bloody episodes testify to this.

However, at that time there were important initiatives in other latitudes, such as the Mandén Letter (the Kukuran Fugue) of the Mali Empire (1235-1670), which contemplated the laws of this African nation, and in which an idea of ​​”human dignity” was already embodied in 1222 similar to the one we associate with Human Rights today.

At the same time, Western thinkers such as William of Ockham (1288-1349) defended the concept of “subjective right”, which paved the way for the revival of “natural law” in the West with the Renaissance.

Human Rights in the Modern Age

history of human rights modernity
Thomas Paine noted “The Rights of Man” in 1792.

The Modern Age brought with it the triumph of a new social class, the wealthy but plebeian bourgeoisie, which through different revolutions was imposing a liberal vision of society. The bourgeoisie sought greater equality of opportunities, regardless of the origin of the people, nor the mandates of the monarch.

Thinkers such as Voltaire (1694-1778), John Locke (1632-1704), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), among many others, cemented a new vision of the world. Its main moment of manifestation was the French Revolution of 1789, in which the monarchy was violently ended and a republican order was established that aspired to three great things: liberty, equality and fraternity.

In fact, it was the French Revolutionaries, immersed in their thirst for changes and to re-found the system, who for the first time in history spoke of Universal Human Rights. For this, the newly constituted National Assembly carried out the Proclamation of the Rights of Man in Society, taking up a concept previously exposed by Thomas Paine in his work The Rights of Man (“The rights of man”) of 1792.

Despite the failure of the French Revolution, things never went back to the way they were before. The idea of ​​Human Rights was picked up by the working-class, union and socialist political movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that, in the face of the industrial capitalist system, pushed for changes and new freedoms, just as the bourgeoisie had done in previous centuries.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

history of human rights universal declaration
Although Human Rights are still violated, this is considered a crime that must be punished.

The 20th century was characterized by cruel and prolonged wars, such as the First and Second World Wars, in which the military conflict was for the first time aided by industrial technologies, and horrors never seen before were committed: the warlike use of gases and chemicals, the Nazi death camps, the atomic bombs Americans over Japan, and so on.

The social and cultural trauma of this last conflict was such that in 1945 the United Nations Organization was born to ensure that nothing similar would occur again.

The General Assembly of this body adopted, on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was the first of many international treaties on the subject, such as the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, the International Covenants on Human Rights of 1966 or the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969.

These numerous agreements on Human Rights, unfortunately, did not prevent or prevent in recent times that fundamental rights continue to be violated of humanity. However, today they are understood as universal (without any discrimination by any type of social, political, ethnic or religious criteria), inalienable and inalienable, that is, common to any human being anywhere in the world.

But even so, it is true that for the first time in history the concept of human dignity has a defender. In addition, it is important that today the violation of human rights of a person is considered a crime punishable anywhere on the planet and does not prescribe no matter how long it has been.