Human Rights—Historical Antecedents


Code of Hammurabi—1700 BC

Babylonian law.  Presumption of innocence--the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence.

Self-glorification of Hammurabi by memorializing his wisdom and justice?

Recognizes classes of the citizenry—from patricians to slaves.


Athenian Constitution, 350 BC


Magna Carta—1215

“Rebellion” of barons against King John.  Relevance?


English Bill of Rights—1689

Inspired the U.S. Bill of Rights

Habeas Corpus--guarantee against any detention that is forbidden by law.


Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,1789


U.S. Declaration of Indepedence, 1776

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…


U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, 1791

Amendment XIII

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XIV

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any state shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.



International Labor Organization (ILO), 1919.

Joined the UN in 1946 as the first specialized agency of the UN—joining governments, employers, and workers in promoting:

minimum standards of basic labour rights: freedom of association, the right to organize, collective bargaining, abolition of forced labour, equality of opportunity and treatment and other standards addressing conditions across the entire spectrum of work-related issues.

Statistics and data bases:,


President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address when he spoke of a world founded on four essential freedoms: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear.


International Court of Justice, 1945 (The Hague)

Primary judicial organ of the UN.


UN Commission on Human Rights, 1946-2006 (replaced by UN Human Rights Council).

Charged with drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the  UN Commission on Human Rights and was instrumental in the drafting and approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

            Honduras, Annual Reports, 5th Cycle (2010)--#12-14, Oct. 2009, p. 44


Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948  The Declaration

Eleanor Roosevelt was the “driving force.”

Adopted by the general assembly on December 10, 1948. Primary UN document establishing human rights standards and norms. All member states have agreed to uphold the UDHR. Although the declaration was intended to be Nonbinding, through time its various provisions have become so respected by States that it can now be said to be Customary International Law.

The UDHR, commonly referred to as the international Magna Carta, extended the revolution in international law ushered in by the United Nations Charter – namely, that how a government treats its own citizens is now a matter of legitimate international concern, and not simply a domestic issue. It claims that all rights are interdependent and indivisible. Its Preamble eloquently asserts that:

[R]ecognition 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 influence of the UDHR has been substantial. Its principles have been incorporated into the constitutions of most of the more than 185 nations now in the UN. Although a declaration is not a legally binding document, the Universal Declaration has achieved the status of customary international law because people regard it "as a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations."


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), 1948, 1959.

One of two bodies in the inter-American system for the promotion and protection of human rights. The Commission has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The other human rights body is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is located in San José, Costa Rica.


Organization of American States, 1948 (“to fight Communism”)

Cuba rejects membership

Honduras Re-Admitted, June, 2011


Human Rights in Latin America—Advocacy Organizations

Washington Office on Latin America

List of Regional Resources

Human Rights Watch--Americas


Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951.


European Court of Human Rights, 1953.


International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965.


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976.


International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1976

With the goal of establishing mechanisms for enforcing the UDHR, the UN Commission on Human Rights proceeded to draft two treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its optional Protocol and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Together with the Universal Declaration, they are commonly referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights. The ICCPR focuses on such issues as the right to life, freedom of speech, religion, and voting. The ICESCR focuses on such issues as food, education, health, and shelter. Both covenants trumpet the extension of rights to all persons and prohibit discrimination.


Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979.


Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989.

In addition to the covenants in the International Bill of Human Rights, the United Nations has adopted more than 20 principal treaties further elaborating human rights. These include conventions to prevent and prohibit specific abuses like torture and genocide and to protect especially vulnerable populations, such as refugees (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951), women (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979), and children (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989).


International Criminal Court (ICC, 1998, 2002)

A permanent tribunal (independent of the UN) to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.


UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1993


International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, 1993


Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic To Be Tried in The Hague for Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Allegedly Committed in Kosovo, 2001


Excellent summaries: