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The Evolution of Human Rights throughout History

On the 10th of December marked 75 years since the international community witnessed an emblematic event: the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed in 1948.

However, the fight for human rights began much earlier. In this article, you’ll find some of the most important historical landmarks that led to the creation of this Declaration, which has been so crucial to humanitarian progress.

The basic principles we know today can be traced back to Ancient times, in ancient civilizations such as Greece and Rome. In fact, nowadays it is part of the school curriculum to study the politics of the city of Athens, where we could already see principles of justice and equality before the law being applied to all citizens.

Later, in the Middle Ages, in England, the Magna Carta of 1215 began to establish legal principles that limited the power of the king and protected certain citizens’ rights, including the right of the church to be free from the Government’s interference, the right of all free citizens to own and inherit property, and the right to be protected from excessive taxes.

Not long after, the Enlightenment of the 18th century began to gain power. The Enlightenment played an important role in the formulation of ideas about fundamental rights. Philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau contributed with conceptions on individual freedom, property and equality.

The American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) followed, constituting key events in modern history with lasting impacts. The American Revolution brought the independence of the United States from British rule and established the Constitution of the United States, which became a model for many countries. In the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was published, the Old Regime came to an end and, with it, the absolute monarchy and aristocratic privileges. Both revolutions shaped the foundations of modern democracy, introducing concepts such as citizenship, individual rights, and representative governments. Their legacy continues to influence political and social thought to this day.


On the 4th of July, 1776, the United States Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, whose main author was Thomas Jefferson. It stated that all men have inalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty and the search for happiness. The Declaration of Sentiments, signed in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, followed the same course, being a response to the United States Declaration of Independence and seeking to fight for gender equality and women’s rights.

Finally, we reach the 20th century. After two world wars, the international community began to recognize the need for international norms to protect human rights. The United Nations Charter, signed in 1945, was a significant step. At last, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came in 1948.

In short, the trajectory traveled until the enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflects a continuous evolution throughout history. From the fundamental principles present in ancient civilizations to the influences of Enlightenment’s movements and revolutions that were crucial in forming the foundations of modern democracy, each phase played a significant role in the progress and consecration of human rights as we know them today.



«As  Origens  dos  Direitos  Humanos».  Unidos  pelos  Direitos Humanos, Materiais Educativos, Vídeos.

 "Direitos Humanos.” Nações Unidas - ONU Portugal.

Translated by Mafalda Vale

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