Chronology of Human Rights

The timeline included in this resource highlights key events, moments or advancements of human rights treaties. To extend your students’ learning on specific issues, social movements, regional or international bodies, have your students research the specific topic and then place it on the human rights timeline.

Discussion questions related to the timeline and extended learning:

  1. What was familiar to you? What was new? What surprised you?
  2. What do you think was left off of the timeline and why?
  3. What did you notice in relation to the evolution of human rights as laid out in the timeline?
  4. When was the issue you are researching first mentioned in human rights?
  5. When do you think it should have been mentioned and why?
  6. What does the future of human rights look like? What treaties or events would you like to see happen in the next 10 years?


C. 2100 B.C.

In Iraq, the Laws of Hammurabi, the first written legal code, vows to “make justice reign in the kingdom, to destroy the wicked and violent, to enlighten the country and promote the good of the people.”

C. 570 B.C.

The Charter of Cyrus is drawn up by King Cyrus the Great of Persia (now Iran) for the people of his kingdom, recognizing rights to liberty, security, freedom of movement, the right to own property, and some economic and social rights.


Bowing to populist pressure, King John of England signs the Magna Carta, which establishes limits on arbitrary power and rights to due process.


The Treaty of Westphalia, Germany, an early international legal treaty, establishes equality of rights between Catholics and Protestants.


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 U.S. Declaration of Independence declares, “all men are created equal” and establishes North America’s independence from the British Empire.


The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens is established when the French monarchy is overthrown by its people.


The American Bill of Rights and Constitution list basic civil and political rights of citizens including freedom of speech and rule of law.


The Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Armies in the Field (First Geneva Convention), an international treaty of the International Committee of the Red Cross, protects war wounded and sick, and gives immunity to hospital staff and the Red Cross.


The Hague Conventions are drafted, establishing international humanitarian laws for the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war, and war wounded.


The Treaty of Versailles establishes both the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization to improve working conditions and promote social justice.


The Allies proclaim “four freedoms” as their objective: freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and from fear. The Allies repeat that commitment in the 1941 Atlantic Charter.


UN War Crimes Commission established international war crimes trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo that took place after World War II.


UN Charter sets forth United Nations’ goals, functions, and responsibilities.


The partition of India displaced up to 12.5 million people in the former British Indian Empire, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million.


Chinese Laogai (forced labor camps) system built. Estimated 50 million have been sent to laogai camps.


Apartheid system of legal racial segregation enforced in South Africa.


Last of the Soviet Gulags close, but political dissidents continue to be imprisoned until the Gorbachev era.


The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are ratified by the United Nations. Along with the UDHR, they complete the International Bill of Human Rights.


The adoption of the American Convention on Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, which incorporates human rights standards for Latin American countries.


The widespread violation of human rights in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) where an estimated 200,000 to 3 million civilians were killed and millions fled to India.


The Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet carries out a military takeover that initiated massive disappearances, illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings.


More than a million Cambodians were executed in the “killing fields” by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.


International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is ratified by the United Nations.


The Africa Charter of Human and People’s Rights is unanimously approved.


International Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ratified by the United Nations.


International Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ratified by the United Nations.


Tiananmen Square Massacre in China follows weeks of peaceful protests calling for political reform. Government troops fire on unarmed protesters, killing thousands


International Convention of the Rights of the Child ratified by the United Nations.


The signing of peace accords in Central America, ending decades of killings and enforced disappearances in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.


Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi receives Nobel Peace Prize. She remains under house arrest despite repeated calls from the international community for her release.


International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia established.


Estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed in Rwandan genocide.


Apartheid system of racial segregation is dismantled in South Africa.



International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda


The Fourth World Conference on Women is held in Beijing, China. Participants agree on a five-year action plan to enhance the social, economic, and political empowerment of women, improve their health, advance their education, and promote their marital and sexual rights.


Srebrenica massacre, more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys killed in largest mass murder in Europe since World War II.


The Rome Statute, signed by 120 countries in 1998, entered into force on July 1, 2002, establishing the legal basis for the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC has jurisdiction over the most serious crimes which concern the international community, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

1998 – 2008

Estimated 5. 4 million people die In decade of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


The World Conference Against Racism. Representatives of every UN member country meet in Durban, South Africa, to address issues of minority and indigenous rights, trafficking, migration, and discrimination. The Durban Declaration lays out a plan of action to implement the goals of the conference.


Africa Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights is established.


Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia elected Africa’s first female president.


The 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The International Criminal Court charges Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, president of Sudan, with atrocities in Darfur.