The Evolution of Human Rights: A Retrospect

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The concept of human rights has evolved through different phases in human history. A general definition of human rights is that they are the "rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled".

The concept of human rights has evolved through different phases in human history. A general definition of human rights is that they are the "rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled". Philosophers and thinkers advocating the concept of human rights are of the view that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human.

Human Rights Concept is egalitarian and Universal

Therefore human rights are universal and egalitarian in their concept. Human beings cannot be treated on unequal terms in the application of human rights norms. These human rights can be in the form of shared norms of actual human moralities, as justified moral norms or natural rights. They can also be in the form of legal rights either in the local legal system or in the international law. In spite of the development of human rights concept over ages through historical phases, there are no precise or specific norms to suggest what constitute human rights and what do not. In consequence, the incidence of heated debates in human right issues is increasing in resonance with the growth of human rights awareness across the global spectrum.

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Modern Human Rights Movement from the Post World War II Period

Human rights in its modern conception developed after the World War II and the Holocaust and the consequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Admittedly, the usage of the term "human rights" has evolved in recent times. But the concept of human rights has its intellectual foundations in the history of philosophy and the concepts of natural law rights and liberties dating back to the days of ancient Greek city states and the days of the Roman Law.

Modern Developments in Human Rights

Human rights concept in the modern times is the result of the enlightenment concept of natural rights evolved through the views of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. In the development of human rights, the United States Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen have significant roles. It is important to note that Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) upholds the need of human rights in these words: “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.”

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No Precise Starting Point for Human Rights in History

The concepts of rights and liberty existed form the ancient times. But it is not very clear as to whether they had the present meaning of the term ‘human rights’. Aristotle also wrote the citizens right to property and participation in public affairs. But universal human rights were never a concept entertained by the ancient Greeks or Romans thoughts. Hence, slavery was justified as a natural condition. Even Magna Carta was not a charter of human rights. It was rather a document to address specific political circumstances.

Human Rights in the 16th and 17th Centuries

The legal interpretations of human rights in their modern form can be found in the Twelve Articles (1525). They are deemed the first record of human rights in Europe. They were the result of the peasants' demands of the Swabian League in the German Peasants' War. Later in 1689, the English Bill of Rights and the Scottish Claim of Right made several governmental measures illegal.

Human Rights in the 18th Centaury

The 18th century revolutions in the United States (1776) and in France (1789), paved the way for the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen respectively. Through these declarations, some legal rights of citizens were recognized. Another epoch-making declaration was the Virginia Declaration of Rights of. The Virginia Declaration facilitated the recognition of a number of fundamental civil rights and civil freedoms.

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18th and 19th Century Philosophers

In the 18th and 19th centuries philosophers such as Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill and G. W. F. Hegel infused much life in to the concept of human rights and the concept got more clarity of though Paine's ‘The Rights of Man’ and William Lloyd Garrison's ‘The Liberator’ which he wrote for "the great cause of human rights".

The Eventful 19th Centaury for Human Rights

In the 19th century, the concept of human rights has found its most manifest actions in the cause of slavery. In Britain, William Wilberforce’s efforts led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire by the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. By mid-19th century, slavery had been abolished most of the United States. After the American Civil War and reconstruction period there came a number of amendments to the United States Constitution. The 13th amendment banned slavery in America and the 14th amendment ensured full citizenship and civil rights to all people born in the United States. Again, the 15th amendment went a step further and it guaranteed voting right to African Americans.

Freedom Movements in the 20th Century

In the 20th century, the efforts of several groups and movements have managed to achieve profound social changes all over the world. Labor movements in Western Europe and North America; labor unions and women's rights movements, etc. helped in creating more awareness about human rights. National liberation movements such as that led by Mahatma Gandhi to liberate his native India from British rule also helped in the propagation of human rights principles.



(1) Julia de Blaauw, Human Rights at a Crossroad? Towards an institutionalised regional human rights framework in the Pacific, Just Change

(2) "security and privacy by criminalizing harmless private relations between consenting adults"

(3) "Interactive Map of Legal Status of LGBT People".  

(4) "About LGBT Human Rights". 2010-03-03.

(5) "The Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity". The Yogyakarta Principles.


Posted on Mar 3, 2011
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Posted on Oct 3, 2010
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Posted on Oct 2, 2010