A Brief History of Human Rights

Natural Rights

Fundamental or natural rights that belong to every human is a concept that came way before the formal human rights that we know today. Natural law has been defined throughout history as the values that are typical of human nature. Natural law and the concept of natural rights dictates our moral beliefs, the way humans interact in groups, the values we hold, and the responsibilities we believe we have to society. Natural laws and natural rights were considered not to have been determined by humans, but rather being inherent to our nature, originating either in our evolution or divine creation.
References to natural rights and natural law can be traced back to the works of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Natural law and natural rights as central beliefs attached to human nature were believed to sit outside of the arena of political order and control. It was during the wider context of the Enlightenment (1715-1789) that the concept of natural rights and the rights of the individual became prioritised within the politics of the state.

The Rise of Libertarianism

Libertarianism, the principle that all people are free and equal, emerged with the rise of the democratic state during the seventeenth century. What is significant about the rise of Libertarianism within this period is that the protection of individual freedoms became prioritised within the law against the actions of the state. John Locke (1632 – 1704), who is recognised within history as the father of Libertarianism, explained the rights of the individual within a Democratic state through his social contract theory. Locke theorised that man ‘surrendered his personal rights to the state in return for the guarantee that the State would recognise and maintain his natural rights’. The State was transformed into an authority to which every individual had delegated responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of the individual.

The 1689 Bill of Rights can be viewed as the revolutionary Act within British constitutional law that symbolises this transformation within the British State. The Bill of Rights limited the control of the Crown in England and set out the rights to free elections, freedom of speech and the rights of Parliament to sit regularly. Alongside basic civil rights, the Act also set out rights such as freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. For the first time, the function of government was redefined from a controlling authority to a body that represented and respected the rights of its people.


Within the Long-Eighteenth Century (1688 to 1832), as in England, nations began to redefine the rights of their peoples against their colonial powers or leaders that held absolute power. Political and social upheavals, such as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, led to the creation of national structures that prioritised the rights of the individual and the population against the State.

Égalité Liberté Fraternité. These values of equality, liberty and brotherhood instigated the rise of the masses against the absolute monarchy in France. Within America, the United States Declaration of Independence stated America’s freedom from British rule. Amongst others, the most significant rights included in the Declaration are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Traces of Locke’s social contract theory can also be identified in the Declaration as many of the rights included were centered around the concept that all men are created equal. This was a justification for the defence of the rights within the Declaration as they were not only safeguarding rights for themselves but also for others. Notably, within the United States Declaration of Independence, the government was defined as representative of and serving the American people.

Similar narratives can be seen within the 20th century as the movement for decolonisation intensified. Colonial powers relinquished their territories to populist groups that were emerging from restless colonial populations, and new constitutions were established that prioritised the desired rights of its newly empowered people.

The Aftermath of Atrocity

However, it was after the Second World War that human rights as internationally recognised, formally agreed articles came to be. After the atrocities of the Second World War, such as the genocide carried out by the Nazis, the United Nations was established in 1945 as an international organisation dedicated to maintaining global peace and security. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued by the United Nations which set out the 23 human rights articles. In the Preamble of the UNDC, the human rights outlined are defined as ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations.’ This is how we recognise human rights today.

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