The History of Human Rights

In Britain the idea that human beings possess a set of inherent and inalienable rights has deep roots which can be traced back over centuries.

Here are some of the key dates in the history of human rights in the UK:

1186  The earliest ancestor of contemporary human rights protection was the Assize of Clarendon, passed by Henry II in 1166. A precursor to trial by jury, the Assize paved the way for the abolition of trial by combat and trial by ordeal.

1215  Another of the earliest and most commonly cited milestones in the history of human rights in the UK is the Magna Carta – an English Charter issued in 1215 which contained the writ of habeas corpus, allowing people to appeal against imprisonment without trial.

1647  The next milestone in the development of a set of protected rights came in the autumn of 1647, when a group of English political activists, the ‘Levellers’, produced “An Agreement of the People”, which set forth a collection of constitutional principles discussed at the famous Putney debates. The Levellers called for liberty of conscience in matters of religion, freedom from conscription and asked that laws “apply equally to everyone: there must be no discrimination on grounds of tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth or place”.

1689  While the demands of the Levellers were not immediately met, the next landmark is one of the most important documents in the political history of Britain: the Bill of Rights (1689), which put the notion of inalienable rights beyond doubt. An Act of Parliament after the ‘Glorious Revolution’, the Bill included: the freedom to petition the Monarch (a precursor to political protest rights); the freedom from cruel and unusual punishments (the forerunner to the ban on torture contained in our Human Rights Act) and the freedom from being fined without trial.

1774  In a victory for public information and the free press the Parliamentary Register was launched in 1774, following campaigning by Radical MP John Wilkes and others. The Register reported the details of parliamentary debates which had previously been restricted.

1832/3  The 1832 Reform Act increased the electorate from around 366,000 to 650,000 people, about 18 per cent of the total adult-male population in England and Wales. It excluded women and working class men, and votes were still cast in public, but it was a landmark on the road towards universal suffrage. Another important law in the history of human rights was passed in 1833: the Slavery Abolition Act, which outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

1918  At the end of the First World War the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all women over 30, enfranchising over eight million women. Shortly afterwards women were also allowed to stand for Parliament, although it took another decade for the vote to be extended to all adult women.

1934  Liberty was founded, as the National Council for Civil Liberties, and 80 years later we’re still going strong. Find out more about our history.

1948  As the world reeled from the horrors of the Second World War, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection human rights concepts are of little use to those facing persecution. The result was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most important agreements in the history of human rights.

1950  The European Convention on Human Rights was agreed in the aftermath of the Second World War. British lawyers played an instrumental role in the development of the Convention, and the UK signed up in 1951. Find out more about international laws protecting human rights.

1957  The Wolfenden Report was published, marking a turning point in official attitudes towards homosexuality in Western countries. Male homosexuality was finally decriminalised a decade later in the Sexual Offences Act.

1975/6  In 1975 and 1976 respectively the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act made it illegal to discriminate against anyone on grounds of their gender or ethnicity, and introduced the concept of indirect discrimination.

1998  Enacted by a youthful Labour Government in 1998, the Human Rights Act (HRA) contains a set of civil and political rights considered fundamental to any liberal democracy. Since it came into force, the HRA has been used as a political football as the Government and the Opposition engage in political positioning, both seeking to seem the toughest on crime and terror by creating a false distinction between liberty and security. But the Human Rights Act is rooted in British culture and history and, as you can see, it has a proud, 800 year old family tree.