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Human Rights Evolution: The History of Our Freedoms

You might not know it, but December is an important month in regard to the history of humanity. Sure, the holidays are what many of us think of when this time of year rolls around, but there is another event worth recognizing. December is the anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1948, the then-newly-formed United Nations worked collaboratively with people from all over the world to create this document as a guideline for all countries and people to follow in regard to the natural-born freedoms and liberties of all humans. This document is the culmination of the triumphs, mistakes, and experiences that humans have shared throughout our existence. Over the thousands of years of humanity, human rights, what they included, and who they applied to have evolved and are still evolving today.

Origin of Human Rights

The first known record of the acknowledgment of the rights of people comes from an ancient clay object known as the Cyrus Cylinder. Cyrus the Great was Persia’s ruler who conquered Babylon in the 6th century BCE. As the ruler of a large empire, he knew he needed to consider the diverse needs of many various types of people living within his borders. The Persians, Babylonians, and Jewish people who were captured by the Babylonians all had different wants and needs. 

Cyrus, a forward-thinking individual, decided that he would free the Jewish captives and allow all people – regardless of their backgrounds, homeland, or native language – to follow and practice whatever religion they wanted. His freeing of the people was recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder, which serves as our earliest indicator of acknowledgment of human rights.

Human rights evolution

The People and the Elite

While Cyrus the Great may have declared religious freedom amongst his subjects, this still did not prevent the majority of monarchs of the time from maintaining the idea that they were above the law and superior to others. A big step away from this mindset and toward a more equal society occurred in medieval England many centuries later. 

The king of England in 1215, King John, was known for being a tyrannical and cruel leader – so much so that his barons became fed up with his authoritarian and unchallenged power. In protest, they took King John by force and required him to agree to what came to be known as the Magna Carta. Generally speaking, this charter was written to establish the idea that no powerful leader or figure is above the law and that free men have the right to a fair trial. That said, the declarations made in the Magna Carta only applied to male landowners, not the majority of working-class English peasants. Thus, while it was a step towards establishing human rights, it was still incomplete.

Enlightened Revolutions

As the centuries passed, many provocative and boundary-pushing writers and scholars began to spread their ideas in what became known as the Enlightenment. People like John Locke, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularized many democratic ideas and theories that would take shape in two important events of that time period. 

The first was the American Revolution in 1776, in which the United States declared that “all men are created equal.” Shortly afterward, the French Revolution gave birth to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This list of rights was much more specific and detailed than any other document before it. What makes these events significant is that both the United States and France insisted that these rights were not something that was earned, but rather something that one is born with. However, much like the Magna Carta before it, these rights only initially applied to an elite portion of the population.

Human rights evolution

Justice for All

A common thread between each of these moments in human rights evolution is that these rights were created mainly by white men, who only applied those rights to other white men like themselves. Most people – including women, people of color, and those who had been colonized or enslaved by European men – were not given the same rights.

Thankfully, over the years, events like the Civil War and the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, the Haitian slave rebellion, and the rise of Gandhi in British-controlled India signaled to the world that human rights were not just for white men. Human rights were for all humans, no matter their race, gender, or ethnicity.

The Declaration

Despite all of the progress made over human existence, the 1940s would demonstrate to the entire world that human rights are as fragile as they are important. The atrocities committed by Germany, Japan, and the rest of the Axis Powers during World War II proved that, with power in the wrong hands, horrible acts and violations of our human rights are far too easy. Millions of innocent people were killed, displaced, and imprisoned during the war, placing human rights under the spotlight again. 

This is why after the Axis Powers had been defeated, the United Nations was established and created the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. So that’s that! After thousands of years of human rights evolution, these rights are maintained and promoted everywhere and for all people, right?

Think Again

Despite this declaration, the human rights of millions of people are still being violated each day. Plenty of people are homeless despite having the right to a home. Some will go to bed hungry despite having the right to food. Others will go through life being underserved by the educational system despite having the right to a quality education. At the end of the day, the Universal Declaration for Human Rights is just ink on paper. So that raises the question: How can we possibly maintain and guarantee human rights for all people?

It might seem like a tall order (and frankly, it is), but like many things in life, we can help make human rights a reality by working together and taking small but impactful steps. You can start by becoming a donor for Educate. Radiate. Elevate. Our highly-qualified tutors work to ensure that every child, regardless of their background, has access to the human right of a meaningful education. With your help, E.R.E. can further human rights evolution and help make great education a reality for everyone.


While human rights evolution might have had its start in Persia with Cyrus the Great, it took lots of work to start to make it a reality all across the world. First, the Magna Carta formalized the idea that nobody was above the law. Afterward, Enlightenment-era ideas popularized the idea of God-given human rights for free men. It wasn’t until after these movements that we saw more progress for women, people of color, and those who had been persecuted for centuries. By the end of World War II, there was finally global recognition of these human rights for all people all over the world. However, lots of work still needs to be done since millions of people have had their human rights ignored and violated by others. Your help can go a long way in realizing human rights for all!

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