What are human rights?
Human rights are moral principles. Every person is entitled to certain fundamental rights, simply by the fact of being human. They are “rights” because they are things you are allowed to be, to do or to have. These rights are there for your protection against people who might want to harm or hurt you. They are also there to help us get along with each other and live in peace.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The Cyrus Cylinder (539 B.C.)
In 539 B.C., the armies of Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia, conquered the city of Babylon. But it was his next actions that marked a major advance for Man. He freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script.
Known today as the Cyrus Cylinder, this ancient record has now been recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It is translated into all six official languages of the United Nations and its provisions parallel the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Spread of Human Rights
From Babylon, the idea of human rights spread quickly to India, Greece and eventually Rome. There the concept of “natural law” arose, in observation of the fact that people tended to follow certain unwritten laws in the course of life, and Roman law was based on rational ideas derived from the nature of things.
Documents asserting individual rights, such as the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the US Constitution (1787), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and the US Bill of Rights (1791) are the written precursors to many of today’s human rights documents.
A LOOK AT THE BACKGROUND OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Originally, people had rights only because of their membership in a group, such as a family. Then, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, after conquering the city of Babylon, did something totally unexpected—he freed all slaves to return home. Moreover, he declared people should choose their own religion. The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay tablet containing his statements, is the first human rights declaration in history.
The idea of human rights spread quickly to India, Greece and eventually Rome. The most important advances since then have included:
1215: The Magna Carta—gave people new rights and made the king subject to the law.
1628: The Petition of Right—set out the rights of the people.
1776: The United States Declaration of Independence—proclaimed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
1789: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—a document of France, stating that all citizens are equal under the law.
1948: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the first document listing the 30 rights to which everyone is entitled.