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World Human Rights Day: History of Human Rights

Today represents International Human Rights Day and celebrates 71 years since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was established in 1948. This year’s theme is Youth Standing up for Human Rights and explores the role that youth can have in enacting positive changes and sustainable development.


Image: United Nations

Human rights have been concepts explored throughout history, with the origins dating back to the Cyrus Cylinder in 539 BCE, which has been theorised to represent the first charter of human rights. In early Greek and Roman society, ‘natural law’ and the rights of citizens emerged in the 5th century, pioneered by Plato and then Aristotle. Natural Laws were derived from the notion that there are expectations that are universal for existing within a society, and this formed the basis for several philosophical ideologies as well as being a key component to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

It wasn’t until after the horrors of World War II that the United Nations was created in 1945 to “save succeeding generations from the scrouge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”. In 1948, the United Nations created its milestone document, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration of human rights sought to establish a set of rights in the international community that promotes universal respect and observance of what is considered to be fundamental freedoms.

So what are human rights?

Human rights are described as rights a person is inherently entitled to due to being a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 30 articles were created ranging from rights such as: ‘Article 1. All humans beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ and ‘Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has since been translated into over 500 languages and can be found here. 

Historically there have been youth fighting for human rights around the world, from the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963 in which hundreds of young people peacefully protested segregation to Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian immigrant who at 23 years old fought for workers rights within textile factories in which mostly Jewish and Italian female workers were treated to terrible working conditions in 1909.

In 1961, Amnesty International was created by British lawyer Peter Beneson, after two Portuguese students were jailed for raising a toast for freedom. On World Human Rights Day, the first Amnesty candle was lit in the church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields in London, signifying Amnesty International’s tireless fight to defend human rights. Some key achievements in human rights include the release of the first prisoner of conscious Ukrainian Archbishop Josyf Slipyi in Siberia in 1963, Amnesty’s first campaign against torture in 1972, and the start of the 1993 campaign for an International Criminal Court to be established, which succeeded in 2002.


Amnesty International founder Peter Beneson. Credit: Amnesty International

In today’s increasingly connected world, there are more ways than ever to connect with your local human rights organisation, check out Amnesty Internationals upcoming events for more information. 

Words by Dominique Chapman

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