The Evolution of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to Modern Day

Updated on June 25th, 2023 by Brett Knighton

Image showing the evolution of human rights through different eras.

Quick Brief:

  • Human rights evolution traces back to ancient civilizations, influenced by historical and societal changes.
  • Milestones include the Magna Carta and the American and French Revolutions, emphasizing individual rights.
  • The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights set a global standard for individual rights and freedoms.
  • Modern human rights address issues like gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and indigenous peoples' rights.
  • Challenges include human rights abuses, inequality, and enforcement issues.
  • Strategies for human rights protection include education, advocacy, and legal action.
  • Individuals can contribute by staying informed, advocating, and supporting human rights organizations.

Human rights, the cornerstone of social sustainability, ensure fairness, justice, and equality for all individuals. Understanding the term "human rights" is crucial, as these are the universal rights that every individual is entitled to simply by virtue of being human. It's important to comprehend the concept of human rights and its historical evolution, as it highlights the journey from a world of absolute monarchies and serfdom to societies where individuals are recognized as bearers of inherent rights.

As we explore the history and evolution of human rights, we will examine these transformations, the challenges overcome and the victories achieved along the way, as well as the ongoing endeavors to ensure human rights are respected and safeguarded for all. Understanding this journey is crucial as it teaches us valuable lessons for our ongoing work in promoting human rights. It guides us towards creating societies where everyone can live with dignity, freedom, and justice.

Pre-Modern Concepts of Human Rights

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen.

The idea of human rights started a long time ago, and many people and ideas from history have helped shape it.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, thinkers talked about "natural rights." They believed that because of our human nature, we all have certain rights that can't be taken away and are the same for everyone. Famous philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero talked about fairness, equality, and freedom, ideas that are very important to how we see human rights today.

At the same time, many religious books also talked about similar ideas. In Christianity, the Bible talks about how every person is valuable and deserves respect. In Islam, the Quran also talks about the dignity and equality of all people. Hindu and Buddhist texts talk about being non-violent, kind, and respecting all life. These religious ideas helped shape how different cultures and societies thought about human rights.

In the Middle Ages, a document called the Magna Carta played a big role in the development of human rights. Made in England in 1215, the Magna Carta was a game-changer because it limited the power of the king. This was a big change because it meant that even the king had to follow the law. The Magna Carta introduced ideas like the right to a fair trial and equality before the law, which are still very important to human rights today.

So, even though the term "human rights" wasn't used back then, the ideas and principles that make up human rights today were being developed. The thinkers and ideas of the past created a strong base for the development of human rights in the centuries that followed.

Birth of Modern Human Rights Concepts

How we think about human rights today was greatly shaped by two big ideas: legal positivism and the Enlightenment.

Legal Positivism

Legal positivism is an idea that started in the 1800s, but we can find its beginnings even in ancient politics. This idea says that laws are based on what people in society agree on, not on whether those laws are right or wrong. It explains that the existence of laws doesn't depend on whether they're fair, support democracy, or uphold the rule of law. Instead, it's all about whether laws are made by structures like governments, courts, or social traditions. The main point is that laws come from what people have decided or allowed.

This way of looking at law, which is different from the idea of natural rights, has influenced many thinkers and legal experts. Some of these include John Austin, Jeremy Bentham, Hans Kelsen, H.L.A. Hart, and Joseph Raz.

This change in thinking had a big effect on how we understand human rights. By suggesting that rights are given by laws, legal positivism helped make human rights a part of the law that governments must protect. This was a very important step in officially recognizing human rights and making sure they are protected by governments.[1]

The Enlightenment Era

The Enlightenment era was a time in the 1600s and 1700s when people started to change how they thought about life, including human rights. Famous thinkers like Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Immanuel Kant were part of this movement. They encouraged using logic and individual thinking over just following old traditions. These thinkers believed strongly in the power of human intelligence to understand the world and guide our actions. They often disagreed with religious beliefs, superstitions, and myths because these didn't line up with their own reasoning and experiences.

Illustration representing the Enlightenment era
A visual representation of the Enlightenment era, a period in history characterized by intellectual and philosophical advancements.

The Enlightenment is also known for its political revolutions, especially the French Revolution. The ideas of Enlightenment thinkers stirred up social unrest in France in the 1700s. This led to a violent political change that overthrew the traditional monarchy. A new government was established, based on the Enlightenment ideas of freedom and equality.[2]

Legal positivism and the enlightenment era together, helped create the modern idea of human rights. They helped make the idea that human rights should be protected by law. This led to these rights becoming part of national and international law. This was a big change from the earlier idea of natural rights and made our understanding of human rights more structured and official. This set the stage for even more progress in human rights in the future.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is an essential document in the history of human rights. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, in response to the atrocities of World War II and it represented a promise by all countries to avoid such horrors in the future. Of the 58 members of the United Nations at that time, 48 voted in favor of the declaration, none voted against it, eight abstained, and two were not present to vote.[3]

The UDHR, consisting of 30 articles, outlines the fundamental rights that every person on Earth should have. These rights span various aspects of life, painting a picture of what it means for a person to live freely and with dignity.

Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lake Success, New York
Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lake Success, New York

What are the 7 Principles of Human Rights?

While there are 30 articles, there are seven principles that underpin human rights. These principles are:

  1. Universality: Human rights are universal and apply to all people, everywhere, without distinction.
  2. Inalienability: Human rights cannot be taken away, although they can sometimes be restricted.
  3. Interdependence and indivisibility: All human rights are interdependent and indivisible, meaning that they are all equally important and cannot be prioritized over one another.
  4. Equality and non-discrimination: All people are equal and should be treated with dignity and respect, without discrimination of any kind.
  5. Participation and inclusion: All people have the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives and to be included in their communities.
  6. Accountability and the rule of law: Governments and other actors are responsible for upholding human rights and should be held accountable when they fail to do so.
  7. Empowerment: HAll people have the right to know and claim their rights and to have access to the resources and support they need to exercise them.

These principles are the foundation of human rights and guide the interpretation and implementation of the UDHR.

What are the 30 Human Rights?

(Explore each human right in more detail by clicking on the corresponding box)

This means that from the moment of birth, every person has the same inherent value and worth. Regardless of their race, religion, sex, or any other characteristic, they should be treated with the same respect and dignity as anyone else.

This means that these rights and freedoms apply to everyone. No one should be denied their rights because of their race, religion, sex, or any other characteristic. This includes both direct discrimination (being treated worse than others because of who you are) and indirect discrimination (being treated worse as a result of policies or practices that apply to everyone but have a negative effect on certain groups of people).

This means that everyone should be able to live their life without fear of harm or violence. They should be free to make their own choices about their life, and they should be protected from threats to their physical safety.

This means that all forms of slavery and forced labor are prohibited. Everyone has the right to choose their work and to refuse to work under conditions that are dangerous or unfair. This includes modern forms of slavery like human trafficking and child labor.

This includes physical torture as well as mental or emotional abuse. It also includes inhumane treatment or punishment, whether in detention (like prison) or in other settings (like healthcare or education).

This means that everyone has the right to be treated as a person by the law, not as an object or a piece of property. This includes the right to be recognized as a person with rights and responsibilities, and the right to be treated as an equal in the eyes of the law.

This means that the law should apply to everyone in the same way, regardless of who they are or where they come from. It also means that everyone should have the same access to the law and the same protection by the law.

If someone's rights are violated, they have the right to go to court or to another authority to get help. This includes the right to an effective remedy, which means the right to a solution that fixes the violation and prevents it from happening again.

his means that the authorities can't just arrest, detain, or exile someone without a good reason. They must have a valid reason that is based on the law, and they must follow the correct procedures.

If someone is accused of a crime, they have the right to have their case heard by a fair and impartial court. This includes the right to a public hearing, the right to a presumption of innocence, and the right to defend oneself.

This means that it's up to the prosecution to prove that someone is guilty, not for the accused to prove that they're innocent. It also means that the accused has the right to a fair trial, which includes the right to defend themselves, the right to a lawyer, and the right to cross-examine witnesses.

This means that everyone has the right to privacy, and to live their life without unnecessary interference from others. This includes the right to privacy in your personal and family life, your home, and your correspondence (like letters and emails). It also means that personal data should be protected and not used without your consent.

This means that people can't be forced to live in a certain place, and that they have the right to move to a different part of their country if they want to. This includes the right to leave any country, including your own, and to return to your country.

If someone is being persecuted in their own country, they have the right to go to another country and ask for asylum. This means that they have the right to protection from persecution, and the right not to be sent back to a country where they would be in danger.

This means that everyone has the right to be a citizen of a country, and that no one should be left stateless (without a nationality). This includes the right to change your nationality if you wish.

This means that men and women have the right to get married and to have children if they want to. It also means that they have the right to equal rights during marriage and at its dissolution, and that the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

This means that people have the right to own property, and that it can't be taken away from them without a good reason. This includes the right to own things alone as well as in association with others, and the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of your property.

This means that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This includes the right to change your religion or belief, and the right to practice your religion or belief in public or private, alone or with others.

This means that people have the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This means that people have the right to peaceful assembly and association. This includes the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of their interests, and the right not to be compelled to belong to an association.

This means that people have the right to take part in the government of their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. It also means that the will of the people should be the basis of the authority of government.

This means that society should provide support for people who are in need, such as the elderly, the unemployed, the sick and others. This includes the right to social security and to the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for their dignity and the free development of their personality.

This means that people have the right to work in a place that is safe and that treats them fairly. This includes the right to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to equal pay for equal work, and to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for themselves and their family an existence worthy of human dignity.

This right ensures that every individual has the entitlement to a balanced work-life schedule. It means that everyone should have adequate time to rest and engage in leisure activities. The right also emphasizes that working hours should be limited and not excessive, ensuring that individuals are not overworked. Additionally, it includes the provision for paid holidays, allowing individuals to take time off work without financial stress. This right is crucial for maintaining individuals' health, well-being, and overall quality of life.

This means that everyone should have what they need to live a decent life, including food, clothes, a place to live, and healthcare. This includes the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family.

This means that everyone should have the opportunity to get an education. This includes the right to free and compulsory elementary education, to readily available forms of secondary and higher education, and to participate in lifelong learning.

This means that people have the right to take part in the cultural life of their community, to enjoy the arts, and to share in scientific progress and its benefits. This includes the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which they are the author.

This means that everyone has the right to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

This means that everyone has a responsibility to their community, and that fulfilling these responsibilities should allow for their personal and intellectual development. This includes the understanding that in the exercise of their rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

This means that these rights and freedoms are inviolable, and that no one has the right to take them away or to destroy them. This includes the understanding that nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

One of the most important principles in the UDHR is that human rights are universal and inalienable. This means that every person, regardless of who they are or where they're from, has these rights from the moment they're born, and nobody can take these rights away. This principle is emphasized in many parts of the United Nations' work and forms the foundation of laws about human rights around the world.

The UDHR continues to be important today. This crucial document has sparked more than seventy other agreements in regard to human rights that are active today.

Together, all these agreements set a benchmark that every country should work towards in terms of respecting and promoting universal human rights. As we continue into the future, the UDHR stands as a strong reminder of our shared duty to respect and protect the worth and rights of every person on earth, always upholding these nine basic human rights.

The Growth of Global Human Rights Mechanisms

After the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many groups were formed to keep an eye on human rights worldwide. These groups, called human rights treaty bodies, make sure that countries follow the rules set out in the Universal Declaration and other similar agreements.

One of the main jobs of these groups is to make and watch over international human rights agreements. These agreements are like big promises that countries make to each other, promising to protect certain rights and freedoms. Over time, many of these agreements have been made. Each one focuses on different parts of human rights. For example, two important agreements made in 1966 were the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is an agreement that protects rights like the right to life, freedom of speech, and the right to a fair trial. On the other hand, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights protects rights related to work, social security, family life, taking part in cultural life, and access to housing, food, water, health care and education. These two agreements added to the rights first mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 2015, the Human Rights Council adopted the Advisory Committee Report.
In 2015, the Human Rights Council adopted the Advisory Committee Report "Role of local government in the promotion and protection of human rights". The document saw great recognition of local governments as key actors in the promotion and defense of human rights at an international level. Jaurocks, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Along with conventions, these groups also make declarations and resolutions. These aren't like laws that have to be followed, but they are still important. They show what the international community agrees on when it comes to human rights, helping to set the standards that countries try to reach.

These human rights mechanisms all work together to push governments to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of their people. This means that governments can't just avoid breaking these rights—they also have to work to make sure these rights are protected. They do this by making laws, creating policies, and setting up institutions that protect human rights. They also take steps to fix things when these rights are broken.

By setting these legal standards, these mechanisms have made the global human rights system much stronger. They've helped spread human rights law, providing a way for people and groups to seek justice when their rights are broken. Looking into the future, thaccess to ese tools will keep playing a big role in promoting human rights around the world.

The Right to Health and the Human Rights-Based Approach

One big step forward in human rights is the idea that everyone has the right to the best health care possible. This means that every person, no matter who they are or where they live, deserves to be as healthy as possible and have access to a full range of health services. This is just as important as any other human right.

Today's health policies focus on this right. They aim to give people all the health services they need to be healthy. This isn't just about doctors and medicine. It's also about access to clean water, good food, a safe place to live, and protection from diseases.

This means everyone should be able to use health facilities, like hospitals and clinics, and have access to medical goods and services. This should be true for everyone, no matter who they are. Plus, these services should be of good quality and suitable for different cultures. When people seek health care, they should be treated with respect.

The right to health also looks at what causes health problems. These can be things like where you live, your level of education, or your working conditions. So, the right to health means looking at all these things and trying to improve the situations that can affect people's health.

The idea of the right to health has changed how we think about health policies and programs. We now think about how to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to health. This means creating policies and programs that aim to make everyone healthier, especially people who are often left out or overlooked.

However, making the right to health a reality for everyone is a big challenge. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of the world's population didn't have access to basic health services, according to The World Bank. The pandemic has made this even worse, showing that not everyone is guaranteed health care[4]. It has made existing health problems worse and disrupted basic health services like vaccinations, leading to a comeback of diseases like cholera, diphtheria, and measles.

An image of doctors surrounding the globe providing healthcare to all.

In many developing countries, people living in rural areas often have to travel far to reach health facilities, which may not even have basic supplies like soap and water[5]. Also, there's a big shortage of doctors and nurses worldwide, with over 45 countries having less than one doctor for every 1,000 patients[6].

The human consequences of these health systems lacking resources are serious. Over a billion people live with untreated high blood pressure; more than a billion lack basic eye care; nearly half of the people with diabetes don't know they have it and don't get treated; 200 million women don't have access to family planning services; and 20 million babies miss out on needed vaccines every year. Plus, diseases that could be prevented like pneumonia, malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis cause millions of deaths each year because people can't get antibiotics, oxygen machines, and clean water for hygiene[7].

The right to health has greatly changed the world of human rights, showing how important health is to human dignity and equality. As we keep working towards health equality, the right to health will continue to be a key part of human rights, reminding us of the challenges we still face and the progress we still need to make.

Human Rights and Dignity

Human rights are all about treating people with respect because every person has worth and value. This idea is called human dignity. It means that everyone should be treated with honor and respect, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Human dignity is like the foundation, or the bottom layer, for all human rights. The belief that all people deserve respect is what drives the need to protect and promote human rights. This belief is found in many important human rights documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which starts by saying "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

The idea of human dignity is very important in shaping human rights laws. These laws require governments to make sure that everyone's dignity is respected and protected. This responsibility applies to all parts of the government's work, from making laws and policies to how public officials behave.

Respecting human dignity means not only avoiding actions that hurt or belittle people but also taking positive steps to increase human dignity. This can include actions to promote equality, stop discrimination, ensure access to basic services, and protect people from harm. It also means that people should be treated with respect and dignity in all interactions with the government, whether it's dealing with the police, going to court, or using public services.

By requiring governments to protect and promote human dignity, human rights laws aim to create a world where everyone is valued, respected, and treated with dignity. The goal is to build a society where everyone can live free from fear and discrimination, and where everyone has the chance to reach their full potential.

Current State of Human Rights and Future Outlook

The world of human rights has changed a lot over the years. We now understand and look at human rights in new ways that show these changes. Human rights are not just about basic freedoms and political rights anymore. They also cover a wider range of issues.

In today's digital world, things like privacy, freedom of speech, access to information online have become increasingly important. It's likely that future rules about human rights will deal with these digital rights. These rules will help protect our human rights as we use new and fast-changing digital technologies.

Human Rights Activism.

Another new challenge that future human rights rules will probably address is climate change. As climate change gets worse, we need to protect the rights of people who are hurt by environmental damage and disasters related to climate change. This includes the right to a healthy environment, the rights of people who have to move because of climate change, and the rights of indigenous people and communities who are especially at risk from climate change.

There's also potential for a new way of looking at health and development through the lens of human rights. This perspective emphasizes how human rights can help create fair and equal societies. It suggests that if we respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, we can get to the root of health problems and promote sustainable development.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights plays a key role in making sure human rights are respected. The Commissioner keeps track of the human rights situation in countries all over the world, gives advice and help to governments on human rights issues, and works to increase understanding and awareness of human rights. By making sure that the principles of human rights are respected in all countries, the Commissioner helps to keep improving and strengthening the worldwide human rights system.

Looking to the future, there will always be challenges and opportunities for human rights. As our societies change and we face new challenges, we'll need to come up with new and flexible ways to handle human rights. But despite these challenges, the ongoing commitment to human dignity and the principles of human rights give us hope for a future where everyone's rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled.


Reflecting on the history of human rights, we see a relentless journey towards a world that respects the dignity of every individual. The universality of human rights underlines the idea that no matter our race, religion, nationality, or status, we are all fundamentally equal. The continued evolution of human rights in our societies is a testament to our collective pursuit of a world where every individual can live freely, safely, and with dignity.

As we continue to navigate the complexities of the 21st century, the phrase "the rights of all people and all nations" should guide our way. Whether it's through legislation or social activism, we all have a role to play in upholding and protecting human rights. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to ensure that human rights continue to be a cornerstone of our societies, informing our actions and attitudes, and steering us towards a more equitable and just world.

The evolution of human rights is a testament to our collective growth and maturity as a global society. It serves as a reminder that our commitment to these principles must remain unwavering. As we face new challenges and opportunities in the future, the lessons we've learned from the history of human rights will undoubtedly guide our path towards a more just and equitable world.


1. What are the basic human rights?

Human rights are a set of basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death. They are inherent to us all, regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. Human rights are universal and inalienable, and they apply equally to all people, everywhere, without distinction. These basic rights are based on shared values like dignity, fairness, equality, respect, and independence, and they are defined and protected by law. Human rights include the right to life, the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rights to health, education, work, and many more. They can never be taken away, although they can sometimes be restricted – for example, if a person breaks the law or in the interests of national security. Human rights are a set of principles concerned with equality and fairness, and they recognize our freedom to make choices about our lives and to develop our potential as human beings.

2. How have human rights evolved over time?

Human rights have evolved from the earliest ideas of natural dignity and worth to modern-day international standards codified in treaties, declarations, and laws. They have been shaped by historical events such as the abolitionist movement, women's suffrage, the civil rights movement, and humanitarian crises.

3. What role do international organizations play in protecting human rights?

International organizations like the United Nations and non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International play an important role in promoting and protecting human rights. They monitor human rights abuses around the world and advocate for greater protections for vulnerable communities.

4. What is the significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a landmark document that established the fundamental human rights that every person is entitled to. It has been translated into over 500 languages and has served as a model for subsequent international human rights instruments.

5. What is the relationship between human rights and humanitarian law?

Humanitarian law seeks to protect individuals during times of armed conflict by establishing rules for the conduct of hostilities and protecting civilians and other non-combatants. It is closely related to human rights, as both seek to promote the well-being and dignity of all individuals.