Code of Hammurabi / Mesopotamia. The king of Babylon stipulated “these laws so as to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak”.
The Cyrus Cylinder / Persia. Cyrus the Great proclaimed the freedom of religion and banned slavery.
Magna Carta / England. The Charter of the Barons of England which was addressed to King John “Lackland” banned arbitrary detention.
Charter of Mandé / Mali. The Mandinka people and King Sundiata Keita banned slavery.
End 14th century
The political and military institutions of Timur / Central Asia. Emperor Timur, or Tamerlane, is said to have regulated moral conduct to be taken in regard to civil populations and prisoners in times of war.
Habeas corpus / England. This is a law against arbitrary detention.
Bill of Rights / England. The Parlement limited the king’s powers and ensured free elections.
Virginia Declaration of Rights / United States. For the first time within a community, all men are proclaimed to be equal before the law: Art 1. “That all men are by nature equally free and independent”.
Declaration of Independence of the United States / United States. For the first time within a state, all men are proclaimed to be created equal: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen / France. For the first time, the universality of human rights is proclaimed. Men are considered equal before the law: Art 1. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”
Proclamation of the Republic / France. For the first time, the economic and social rights, i.e. not only civil and political rights, were proclaimed in France: Art. 22 “Society ought to (...) put education at the door of every citizen” and Art. 23 Society ought “to secure to each the enjoyment and the maintenance of his rights: this guarantee rests upon the national sovereignty”.
First Geneva Convention by Henry Dunant / Switzerland. First text which designates the universality of human rights, i.e. people’s rights and obligations in time of war.
Creation of the League for Human Rights / France. This is the first French NGO to defend Human Rights following the hearing concerning Emile Zola.
International Federation of Leagues for Human Rights, FIDH / France. This federation marks the regrouping of associations of Human Rights Defenders into an international network .
Creation of the Commission on Human Rights, consisting of 53 member states / UN. First international “watchdog” body to monitor human rights.
Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities / ONU.
American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man / OAS Organisation of American States. The originality of this declaration is to proclame the duties of man as well, notably in regard to society and children.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights / UN. Worldwide recognition of human rights, however without legal enforcement since this text is not a convention. Art. 1. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
Geneva Conventions / ICRC-Switzerland. Worldwide recognition of humanitarian rights, i.e. rights in times of war, as signed by virtually all states. These 4 conventions are the basis of international humanitarian law IHL.
European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms / Council of Europe (Europe - 46 countries),aka European Convention on Human Rights ECHR. It created the European Commission and above all the European Court of Human Rights which was the first organ to hold states responsible for the violation of civil and political rights.
Creation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights / OAS. It became permanent in 1967.
Creation of Amnesty International which marks the globalisation of the network of Human Rights Defenders.
European Social Charter / Council of Europe. This completes the European Convention on Human Rights ECHR which only proclaims civil and political rights. However, this Charter is not of legal value contrary to the Convention: Art 1. “Everyone shall have the opportunity to earn his living in an occupation freely entered upon.”
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination / UN.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights / UN. This covenant has the same legal value as a convention, contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which does not have legal value.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights / UN. This covenant has the same legal value as a convention, contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which does not have legal value.
American Convention on Human Rights and the creation of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights / OAS. This court can judge states, not just monitor them which is what a commission does.
However, it can only be convened by the Commission and not by an individual, contrary to the European Court.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women / UN.
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment / UN.
Creation of Human Rights Watch, HRW / United States. The NGO HRW has widened the scope of human rights to be defended.
Convention on the Rights of the Child / UN.
International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid / UN.
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights / OAU (Organization of African Unity). It comprises civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights.
Africa uses the Charter form which however has the value of a convention in this case. The particularity of this text is the individual’s duties notably towards one’s family: Art 18. “The family shall be the natural unit and basis of society.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, located in Banjul, Gambia, was also created.
European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment / Council of Europe.
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families / UN. Has not entered into force.
Declaration of Vienna / UN. The universality of human rights is re-confirmed to thwart the regionalization and multiplication of conventions: “All Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.”
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia ICTY / UN. First international criminal prosecution against an individual (and not a state) guilty of violating international humanitarian law during the war in former Yugoslavia.
Creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights / UN.
José Ayala-Lasso, Equator, 1994-1997
Mary Robinson, Ireland, 1997- 2002
Sergio Vieira de Mello, Brazil, 2002-2003
Louise Arbour, Canada, 2004-
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda ICTR / UN.
Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights / UNESCO.
African Court on Human and People’s Rights / OAU. Has not entered into force.
International Criminal Court ICC / UN. First permanent body for criminal prosecution against an individual (and not a state) guilty of international crimes against humanity, however under the condition that he be a citizen of a country having officially recognised the competencies of the ICC.
Protocole 11: Cancellation of the European Commission on Human Rights and permanence of the European Court of Human Rights / Council of Europe. Its specificity is that an individual’s right to appeal is mandatory for all States that are part of the Convention.
Creation of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe / Council of Europe.
Alvaro Gil-Robles, Portugal, 1999-2006
Thomas Hammarberg, Sweden, 2006
Charter of Fundamental Rights / European Union (Europe - 25 countries). To be noted: economic, social and cultural rights in Europe are listed in a charter and not dictated by a convention. The European Court only judges violations of the Convention’s civil and political rights.
First prosecutor at the ICC: Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Argentina.
Creation of the Human Rights Council / UN. Contrary to the former Commission, the Council is permanent and plans periodic review of its members as well as peer review.
Abolition of the Commission on Human Rights / UN.
Election by the 47 member countries of the Human Rights Council / UN.
First session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva / UN.