A Brief History of Human Rights

Discover the history of Human Rights and how it continues to be the “international Magna Carta for all men everywhere”.

A Brief History of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70 years old and continues to be the “international Magna Carta for all men everywhere”, as Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, once defined it.

However, before the widow of the former President of the United States presented the world with this document in 1948, there were prior treaties that recognised the need to give a single, equal status to all human beings.

The United Nations pinpoint the origin of Human Rights to the year 539 BC. When the troops of Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, Cyrus freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other precepts were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder known as the Cyrus Cylinder, whose provisions served as inspiration for the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The English Carta Magna, a starting point for modern democracy

Based on these decrees, civilizations in India, as well as Greece and Rome, expanded on the concept of 'natural law' and society continued to make progress, leading to another cornerstone of the history of Human Rights: the Magna Carta of 1215, accepted by King John of England, considered by many experts as the document that marks the start of modern democracy.

Also known as the Great Charter, this document covered, among other things, the right of widows who owned property to choose not to remarry, and established principles of equality before the law.

Birth of the United Nations

In the mid 20th Century, well after the First Geneva Convention in 1864, which established a series of rules in the context of armed conflicts, we witnessed the birth of what we now know as the United Nations in 1945. Exactly at the end of the Second World War, fifty states gathered together to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”, as stated in the preamble to the proposed charter.

Three years later, the 30 articles that make up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were presented to the world, acting for the first time as a recognised and internationally accepted charter whose first article states that “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."

Human Rights today in a globalised world

Up until the 1990s, states were considered to be the main parties responsible for Human Rights violations. Nowadays, in a globalised world with global integration of employment, goods and service markets, new kinds of violations have emerged, such as what the ILO (International Labour Organization) terms modern slavery, defined as “any work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself”, which Pope Francis has already referred to as an evil to be eradicated.

This is why respect for Human Rights has also become a primary concern in the private sector, due to the impact generated by its activities. In this context, the Ruggie Principles were created in 2008 specifically in order to end violations such as the elimination of trade-union freedom or forced labour in the business sphere.


Ruggie Principles are a standard which include the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights based on three pillars: protect, respect and remedy


These principles owe their name to their creator, John Ruggie, who was Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, and they are a standard which include the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights based on three pillars: protect, respect and remedy.

According to said principles, the state must protect communities from any adverse effects that businesses may cause. Businesses are responsible for respecting human rights and not causing any negative impact. Lastly, the third pillar makes reference to remedying any damage caused.

The state must protect communities from any adverse effects that businesses may cause

Sources: United Nations, United Nations II, International Federation for Human Rights, United for Human Rights, United Nations III, United for Human Rights II and Panorama, América Economía and Europa Press.


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