Timeline of Human Rights Movements: Milestones in the Fight for Human Rights and Social Justice


As surprising as it is, the idea of a human rights law is modern but the concept of human dignity has its roots since time immemorial. Every culture, tribe, or civilization had its own set of rules pertaining to the right of a person belonging to them. Those did not necessarily comply with the modern human rights stipulated by the law. Before delving into the history of human rights movements, it’s essential to grasp the concept of human rights and comprehend their importance in fostering a society that is both just and humane.

What are Human Rights?

With people becoming more aware of their existence and their rights to coexist in this world peacefully, it becomes imperative to understand what are human rights. The right to exist as human beings can be termed a human right. In broader terms, irrespective of gender, nationality, ethnic belonging, complexion, religious affiliation, social standing, or the language spoken, humans have the right to live in harmony by enjoying the basics of a decent and healthy life. He/she has the right to healthy food, work opportunities, freedom to make his/her life choices, acquire education, and access to quality health services. [1]

Importance of Human Rights, and Social Justice Movements

To make sure everyone feels safe and has a fair shot at justice if something goes wrong, we need human rights. These rights help make sure that everyone is treated fairly. For example, in a fair society, everyone should have the same chance to go to school, find a job, and hang out in a safe place.

Timeline of the Human Rights

Human rights now are established by the law but their existence is from the beginning of time. The timeline below represents some major events in history that paved the way for the modern human rights movement.

The Beginning: 539 BC

  • In 539 BC when Cyrus the Great freed the slaves after taking over Babylon, he ensured religious and ethnic equality, allowing people to choose their own racial and religious inclinations. To ensure fairness, he got these rules recorded on Cyrus Cylinder, a baked-clay cylinder.
  • This cylinder became an inspiration for the four Articles of “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” [2]

Religion and Rule of Law: 26 – 33 CE

  • Christianity when started in Palestine, preached justice, compassion, tolerance, and equality stating “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”.
  • 613 – 632: The message of Jesus was further shared by Prophet Muhammad who established love, equality, and justice through Qur’an and Islam.

The Concept of Human Rights Taking Shape: 1215

  • This concept further spread its roots to Greece, India, and Rome where it established the “Rule of Law” through the Magna Carta.
  • 1583 – 1645: The idea of international brotherhood and fairly treating human beings was initiated by a Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius.

Evolution of the Law: 1689

  • The Magna Carta became the basis of the English Bill of Rights, established by William III and Mary II.
  • The bill ensured civil and constitutional rights by allowing Parliament to have more power than the monarchy. [3]
  • It was this bill that inspired the 1791 US Bill of Rights 

Charters of Human Liberties: 1789

  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen by France became the catalyst for the French Revolution. [4]
  • As per the Declaration, “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”
  • The Declaration paved the way for the Civil and Political Rights of the citizens.

Pre-20th Century Human Rights Movements

It is impressive how with the establishment of civilizations, human rights laws were evolved and improvised but those rights did not always safeguard the rights of women, indigenous communities, religious and political tribes, and people of color. It was the pre-20th century human rights movements that changed how we see human rights today. Before all the liberation movements, women had very limited rights, while slavery was a norm due to colonial regimes and people of color faced the most atrocities and discrimination. 

Abolitionist Movement and The Fight Against Slavery

Started in 1783, the Abolition Movement of Abolitionism questioned the status quo in America and Europe regarding the culture of slavery. [5] The movement further wanted to abolish the slave trade and criticized the idea of owning a slave. It was this movement that inspired the British Parliament to abrogate slavery and endorse The Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. The movement continued till 1888.

Suffragette Movement and The Battle for Women’s Rights

While the West promoted women’s rights now, their own history related to women and their rights is very bleak. Up until the 19th century, women did not have the right to vote. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst along with her daughters and some women laid the foundation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester, UK. [6]  The union paved the way for Suffragette Movement, whereby art, arson, and debates ignited the rage in the women to fight for their right to vote. The protests were fruitful in forcing the parliament to make amends and introduce acts in 1918 and 1928 for women’s right to vote.

Labor Movements and Workers’ Rights Advocacy

The industrial revolution, though provided immediate relief post world war, but it also resulted in capitalism and exploitation of the labor force. [7] In the early 19th century, the laborer decided to raise their voice against the atrocities of the capital regime and demanded better wages, healthy working conditions, and reasonable working hours. It further brought child labor to the limelight and demanded safe and secure working conditions. This movement is why the world has an International Labor Organization which works in formulating the standards for the working environment, minimum wages, and safety precautions for the labor force.

20th-Century Human Rights Movements

The struggle to establish human rights continued with the formulation of the United Nations post-World War, in 1945. But it was Renaissance Humanism that became fundamental to modern-day human rights. The list below shows the timeline of how the human rights laws expanded with respect to the needs and the circumstances.

1833: The Slavery Abolition Act by the British Parliament abrogated slavery.

1945: United Nations was established to safeguard the rights of humans.

1949: Universal Declaration of Human Rights was endorsed by the UN.

1951: The Refugee Convention was initiated, defining refugees and the duties of the governments towards them.

1965: To abolish racial discrimination Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was established.

1966: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were formulated.

1979: To protect women’s rights Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was created.

1989: The Convention on the Rights of the Child was endorsed.

2006 – 2007: The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was started.

2007: The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is formulated by the United Nations.

Civil Rights Movement and Racial Equality

Racial inequality exists forever, and invasions of lands further increase racial disparity. Some famous Civil Right Movements that started to fight against racial inequality are listed below.

1963-African American Civil Rights Movement

Attended by 200,000 people, the movement was a peaceful march for freedom in work opportunities.

The 1960s-1970s-Chicano Movement/El Movement  

This movement was started to exhibit cultural unity and respect for Mexican traditions. It was organized to raise voices for farmers’ right to their lands; the struggle eventually started the Chicano Movement/El Movement in 1966.

1950s-1982-Asian American Civil Rights

Inspired by the African American Civil Right Movement, Asian Americans too spoke about the discrimination they faced due to their Asian lineage. The murder of Vincent Chin further aggravated the matter in 1982.

Indigenous Rights and The Fight for Cultural Preservation and Recognition

When lands are invaded, it is always the indigenous people who suffer the most. To address the pleas of indigenous people in America, the American Indian Movement was started in 1968. The movement questioned the government and its policies for displacing indigenous people and also fought for their civil rights. It further worked to highlight racial discrimination, cultural and resource exploitation by the government, and land grabbing from the indigenous communities.

Global Human Rights Struggles

Every human matters.

It was not until 1919 that Human Rights were acknowledged and adopted globally through the International Labour Organization under the Peace Treaty of Versailles. Though it was formulated to safeguard the rights of the workers who were exploited with minimal wages and unrealistic working hours and a poor working environment, soon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN was endorsed in 1948. This law protects fundamental human rights which include the right to food, education, shelter, and health care.

Anti-Apartheid Movement and The Fight Against Racial Segregation

When the Dutch and British colonies formulated their government in South Africa, they not only invaded the lands but also tried to wipe out the natives of the region. Based on the color of their skin, South Africans were killed, and mistreated and their rights to everything, including education, were violated. It began the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1954 which resulted in the abolishment of laws favoring the apartheid in South Africa. [9]

International Efforts for Refugees and Displaced Populations

The ongoing wars, civil unrest, and racial discrimination have always forced people to find refuge in other countries. Keeping these scenarios in mind, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1950. The refugee problem in Africa was the reason why this organization was made. Its purpose is to provide safety, shelter, and assistance to both, internally displaced and asylum-seeking individuals. In case the refugees belong to a region with ongoing armed-conflicts, the International Humanitarian Law provides them with additional protection under Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I by ensuring they are not unlawfully displaced and are provided with shelter and medicine. [10]

Environmental Justice and The Intersection of Human Rights and Environmental Activism

While the uproar for environmental justice seems recent, the reality is it was started in 1968 by people of color who demanded the rights of garbage collectors in Memphis. [11] From living in ghettos to working in highly unhygienic conditions, people were suffering from being poor. This social movement brought environmental injustice to light and highlighted the danger to human life when in contact with hazardous materials. It even addresses the issues of marginalized communities and developing countries that face the wrath of climatic injustice.

Contemporary Human Rights Movements

The main aspects of human rights law.

The struggle of human rights movements is more than centuries old, the last 3 decades have seen great improvement in laws regarding human rights. From tribal movements to the understanding of indigenous cultures, women empowerment to child labor laws, people have become more aware of their rights and the rights of their fellow human beings. While the initial struggles were more inclined towards civil rights, now the social movements are changing the way we look at our social rights. Some famous social movements are Ecological Movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the #MeToo Movement.

Black Lives Matter and The Fight Against Racial Injustice

History speaks volumes about the atrocities faced by people of color. In order to raise their voice against police injustice, social inequality, state-favored racism, and systematic cruelty against black people, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors founded the “Black Lives Matter” movement in 2013. It was initiated after a 17-year-old black teenager was killed by George Zimmerman and still the court acquitted the guard. [12] The movement works for marginalized groups, uplifts the rights of black people, and fights against white supremacy. It is majorly active in the USA, UK, and Canada.

#MeToo Movement and Addressing Sexual Harassment and Assault

Founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, the Me-Too Movement works for the betterment of anyone who suffered from sexual violence. In 2017 the movement gained momentum due to social media platforms when Harvey Weinstein’s sexual offences were highlighted by the women from Hollywood industry. The movement gave voice to the sexual assault survivors can be understood by the fact that post-Harvey case more than 12 million posts were shared within 24 hours; every victim sharing their harrowing experience of the heinous crime. As astonishing as it may be to many, 1/3rd of the women of the world face sexual crime in one form or the other. [13]

Disability Rights and Advocacy for Inclusion and Accessibility

Rights of differently-abled

Differently-abled people had always suffered discrimination and maltreatment but post-World War I, the veterans demanded from the government the rehabilitation services for all their sacrifices for the country. Though the soldiers sowed the seed by their demands in the 1930s, it was not until 1973 that the Rehabilitation Act was passed. [14] The act acknowledged the rights of disabled individuals and for the first time, civil rights of the differently-abled were safeguarded by the law.


The need to update human rights changes with time, for example, once the right to vote was all women required, now they have to fight for social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice as well, therefore, laws have to be modified as per the need of an hour. While laws protect human rights, it is the responsibility of every individual to respect fellow human beings as only then healthy societies can thrive.


[1] What are human rights? (n.d.). OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/en/what-are-human-rights

[2] History of natural law & basic freedoms, Cyrus the great: United for human rights. (n.d.). United for Human Rights. https://www.humanrights.com/what-are-human-rights/brief-history/

[3] Bill of Rights 1689. (n.d.). UK Parliament. https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/parliamentaryauthority/revolution/collections1/collections-glorious-revolution/billofrights/

[4] Declaration of the rights of man. (n.d.). Avalon Project – Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp

[5] History.com Editors. (2019, November 29). Abolitionist movement. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/abolitionist-movement

[6] Who were the suffragettes? (2021, July 27). Museum of London. https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/explore/who-were-suffragettes

[7] Labor movement. (n.d.). StudySmarter UK. https://www.studysmarter.co.uk/explanations/microeconomics/labour-market/labor-movement/

[8] American Indian movement. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/American-Indian-Movement

[9] The anti-apartheid movement (AAM) | South African history online. (n.d.). South African History Online. https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/anti-apartheid-movement-aam

[10] International Committee of the Red Cross. (2018, July 16). International Committee of the Red Cross. https://www.icrc.org/en/document/geneva-conventions-1949-additional-protocols

[11] Environmental justice timeline. (2022, July 18). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/environmental-justice-timeline

[12] Campbell, A. (2021, June 12). What is Black Lives Matter and what are the aims? BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-53337780

[13] ‘ME TOO.’ GLOBAL MOVEMENT. (n.d.). Global Fund for Women. https://www.globalfundforwomen.org/movements/me-too/

[14] Disability rights movement | Backgrounders. (n.d.). ADL. https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounder/brief-history-disability-rights-movement


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