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Defenders for Human Rights

Moments in Time

The term “human rights” is relatively new, but it is not a new idea. Throughout history and across cultures, people have talked about how we should treat one another and what freedoms we ought to have. These important conversations tell the global story of human rights. This list offers 100 selected moments from the advances and setbacks in the human rights journey, with an emphasis on Canada.

English Reflection questions for students: Human Rights Over Time – an ongoing dialogue

1792–1750 BCE
Babylonian King Hammurabi enacts one of the earliest written codes of law to enforce justice and promote the public good.
Around 570 BCE
King Cyrus of Persia draws up a Charter recognizing rights to liberty, security, property, freedom of movement and economic and social rights.
King John I signs the Magna Carta (The Great Charter) which limits royal power and affirms rights to justice and a fair trial.
The Habeas Corpus Act in Britain gives anyone who is detained the right to a fair trial within a certain amount of time.
Britain’s Bill of Rights upholds the supremacy of Parliament over the King and provides freedom of speech, the right to bail, freedom from torture, free elections and trials by jury.
The United States Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal” and establishes America’s independence from the British Empire.
The Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) is adopted during the French Revolution which overthrows the monarchy.
Sick and war-wounded soldiers receive the right to care and protection in The Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Armies in the Field (the First Geneva Convention).
The Hague Conventions are drafted, establishing international humanitarian laws for the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war and war-wounded personnel.
The Treaty of Versailles establishes the League of Nations — which includes Canada as a founding member — and the International Labour Organization to improve working conditions and promote social justice.
When the Second World War begins in September 1939, Canada joins the allied forces to liberate Europe from Nazism and fascism.
The allied forces establish the International Military Tribunal to prosecute Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg trials of 1945 and 1946.
Canada is one of the founding members of the United Nations. The United Nations’ Charter sets forth the UN’s goals, functions and responsibilities — to foster global peace and prevent conflict.
The United Nations adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, based on the first draft written by Canadian lawyer John Humphrey.
The Supreme Court of Canada becomes the final court of appeal in the justice system and the highest authority on the protection and interpretation of human rights.
Lester B. Pearson becomes the first Canadian to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve the Suez Canal crisis in Egypt.
The Bill of Rights is Canada’s first national law to protect human rights.
Capital punishment in Canada is abolished.
The Canadian Human Rights Act is passed with the goal of ensuring equal opportunity to groups who may be subject to discrimination.
Quebec passes its Election Act, becoming the first province to extend inmates the right to vote.
Due to the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, Canada sponsors 26,000 refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Canadian citizens sponsor an additional 34,000 refugees.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is enacted as part of the Constitution. It protects human rights for every person in Canada.
The International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is ratified by the United Nations.
To help end apartheid, the Canadian government applies sanctions against South Africa. The apartheid system is dismantled in 1994.
The Employment Equity Act requires employers to create workplace equality for women, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.
Serbian forces massacre Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys in the area of Srebrenica in Bosnia. This is later recognized as genocide by Canada’s Parliament.
In Rwanda, extremist Hutus attempt an all-out slaughter of the minority Tutsis. This is later recognized as genocide by Canada’s Parliament.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only museum in the world solely devoted to human rights awareness and education, opens its doors.