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Defenders for Human Rights

A Short History of Human Rights


The belief that all human beings possess rights and freedoms, simply because they are human, spread globally in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The roots of rights and freedoms, however, lie in the written and oral traditions of many cultures that go back thousands of years. Throughout history, people have debated ideas of rights and responsibilities as part of their relationship to family, community, religion, nation and to one another.

The ongoing dialogue has produced countless actions, rules and institutions that tell the story of human rights around the world. It’s a long record of advances and setbacks over time.

Early Rights Documents

In past centuries, many landmark laws, declarations and agreements have contributed to rights ideals and protections.

For example, the Magna Carta (The Great Charter) of 1215 laid out the principle that everybody, including royalty, was subject to the law. In 1689, the first English Bill of Rights affirmed rights such as free elections, freedom of speech and freedom from “cruel and unusual punishment.” It was followed a century later by the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizens. The United States Constitution of 1791 contained a Bill of Rights that remains in effect today.

These early documents carried important guarantees about rights and freedoms for certain groups. But they typically excluded references to the rights of women, Indigenous peoples and many social, religious and political groups.

Despite such limitations, the basic principles they set out were drawn upon all over the world to support struggles for self-determination and individual rights.

Milestones for Human Rights

Even before Canada as we know it was created by Confederation in 1867, many people were drawn to this new country seeking freedom from persecution and a chance to pursue a better life.

After Confederation, the new Canadian government sought more territory for settlement. It established treaties with the Indigenous peoples who had inhabited the land for thousands of years. These treaties were based on the principle of shared rights to use the land and to allow the pursuit of traditional Indigenous ways of life. The treaties remain in effect today, and are the subject of much debate.

The 1800s were marked by many other key events and actions in the evolution of rights. For example, global efforts succeeded in abolishing the slave trade and liberating people who had been enslaved.

The suffrage movement for women’s rights also emerged during this period. It expanded into an international movement fighting for the right of women to vote and to hold elected office. In Canada, these rights for women were first granted in the province of Manitoba in 1916, after a long and highly public campaign mounted by determined suffragists.

The rights of workers were also taking centre stage. Large-scale strikes took place in many countries to protest labour conditions during and after the First World War (1914 to 1918). Workers united in mass numbers to assert their rights to safe working conditions and a living wage.

The plight of Canadian workers and their families greatly worsened with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The combination of global economic collapse and long years of drought led to mass unemployment and widespread poverty.

Yet, even though the Depression caused severe hardship, it also led to an important shift in the relationship between Canadian citizens and their government. Certain ideas took root: that the government should be responsible for creating a social safety net and that a minimum standard of living was everyone’s right.

During this period, international efforts to improve social conditions were also attempted. The League of Nations formed after the First World War, with the mission to work for peace and cooperation. But the League was unable to control increasing aggression and the Second World War began in 1939.

These pivotal events and actions of the 20th century helped to set the stage for the next critical turning point in the history of human rights.

Birth of the United Nations

The concept that people are entitled to human rights intensified after the Second World War. The world was horrified by the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany against Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexual men, persons with disabilities and others. The scale of human tragedy led to the global recognition that such crimes against humanity must be prevented from ever happening again.

After the war, governments around the globe committed to establishing the United Nations (UN). This was to be an organization dedicated to the work of fostering peace and preventing conflict. The Charter that created the United Nations contained a powerful statement:

“We the peoples of the United Nations [are] determined … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Member states of the United Nations pledged to promote respect for the human rights of all. To advance this goal, the UN established an international Commission on Human Rights led by Eleanor Roosevelt, a well-known human rights advocate. A major objective for the Commission was to create a document that, for the first time in history, would set out human rights for every person.

Opinions about what this document should contain came from many different nations and non-governmental groups. John Humphrey, a Canadian lawyer and human rights expert, was tasked with distilling all these ideas into a draft universal bill of rights.

The draft penned by Humphrey became the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948. The Declaration’s 30 articles defined fundamental rights and freedoms for every human being on earth.

The preamble in the UDHR says that: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”

The UDHR was adopted unanimously by the member nations of the UN, including Canada, and sparked a global human rights revolution. It set standards for governments to protect their citizens from rights abuses and to treat them with respect, equality and dignity.

The International Bill of Human Rights

The principles of the UDHR offered hope and inspiration around the world. But to make a genuine difference in people’s lives, those principles needed to be transformed into laws.
In 1966, the UN Commission on Human Rights drafted two instruments to give legal force to the UDHR.

One instrument was called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The second was the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together with the Universal Declaration, they comprise the International Bill of Human Rights.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights offers protections for the right to life, freedom of speech, religion and voting. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights focuses on such issues as food, education, health and shelter.

More than 160 nations have ratified these two covenants which legally commit them to ensure these rights for people within their borders.

Later Human Rights Agreements – International

Since passing the International Bill of Human Rights, the United Nations has adopted many legal instruments that focus on various rights such as freedom from torture and protections for refugees (the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1950).

Other instruments protect women’s rights (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979); children’s rights (the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989); Indigenous rights (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007); and rights of persons with disabilities (the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006).

Regional rights instruments have also emerged, apart from the UN’s efforts. These include the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981); the European Convention on Human Rights (1953); and the American Convention on Human Rights (1978), which covers Latin American states.

Later Human Rights Agreements – National

In Canada, new protections for human rights have evolved over time and multiplied. The Canadian Bill of Rights was passed in 1960 under the leadership of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. It outlined fundamental freedoms and equality rights and was the first example of human rights law at the federal level.

Canadian provinces and territories created protections as well. Saskatchewan was the first to successfully pass a provincial Bill of Rights in 1946. In 1961, Ontario became the first province to create a provincial human rights code and a human rights commission to enforce it. Other provinces and territories followed. Their intent was to protect people’s rights from infringement by public and private institutions.

The province of Quebec introduced a Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in 1975. It includes economic and social rights, such as a minimum salary and standard of living, as well as the right to work and to social security.

The federal government later enacted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as part of the Constitution Act of 1982. A vigorous public debate took place before this landmark document was passed.

The Charter protects human rights for every person in Canada. People can call upon the Charter’s protections if their rights are infringed upon by public institutions.
Other countries seeking ways to protect human rights have turned to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as an inspiring model.

The Evolution of Human Rights Law

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been viewed as one of the most important documents of the 20th century. Its principles have inspired hundreds of laws, conventions and other legal instruments protecting human rights. These new measures are the result of collective and individual efforts by people all over the world.

As rights abuses continue to occur, as new armed conflicts erupt and as new issues emerge, the work of defending human rights is ongoing.  As people mobilize for their rights through awareness and action, human rights laws must continue to evolve in response.

The result is a vast network of legal protections for human rights around the globe, spanning national, regional and local jurisdictions. Canada’s own legal system has been called “a living tree” because its laws can be adapted when people claim their human rights.

Modern Human Rights Movement

The 20th century witnessed the beginning of the modern human rights movement. Since then, the world has seen profound social changes. The struggles for women’s rights, civil rights and the resistance to apartheid in South Africa are examples of local and global activism that have made significant progress.

Much remains to be done with regard to many other issues. This includes protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Relatively new issues like the right to privacy in an Internet age and prevention of cyber-bullying are now entering public awareness.

In Canada and around the world, the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights continue to foster constant dialogue and action. There is global agreement among nations that every person is entitled to human rights. How to make them a reality for all is part of our ever-evolving human rights conversation.