Universal Declaration of Human Rights Timeline


King John of England is forced to sign the Magna Carta by members of the English aristocracy. Although intended for the nobility, the document forced the king to respect certain rights of his subjects and imposed legal limits on his power. 


  • English philosopher John Locke sets forth the notion of natural rights and defines them as the rights to "life, liberty and property."
  • The Bill of Rights is adopted in England. It establishes the rights of the representatives of the people (the "House of Commons") to limit the king's actions and even remove him from power if he should act against their interests. The Bill sets guarantees against unjust taxation and cruel and unusual punishment and for the right to religious toleration.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau publishes his philosophical tract The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right. In it Rousseau argues that government must heed the general will of society, and that the needs of society as a whole come before the specific needs of the individual.


The US Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson and others, is adopted by Congress. It presents the rationale for American independence from Britain on the basis that "all men are created equal" and endowed with rights that cannot be taken from them, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is adopted during the early stage of the French Revolution. This document proclaims the end of the monarchy and the rights of all citizens to liberty, property, security, and the resistance to oppression.


Containing the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, the US Bill of Rights extends citizens' rights to include freedom of speech, of the press, and to a fair trial, among others.


The first section of the Geneva Conventions, protecting the rights of sick and wounded soldiers, is adopted by European powers, This agreement would eventually be expanded to include the rights of prisoners and of all war victims.

1899 and 1907

Building on the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions codify laws and customs of war on land, set procedures for use of peaceful diplomacy and arbitration to settle international conflicts, limit the use weapons of mass killing, and provide rules for maritime warfare.


World War I begins after the Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand is murdered in June.


The Turkish genocide of Armenians begins. One to 1.5 million Armenians are killed. The governments of Russia, France, and the United Kingdom declare the massacres a "crime against humanity."


  • The Treaty of Versailles, drawn up to end World War I aggressions, sets the terms for world peace on the basis of democratic diplomacy, national sovereignty, and self-determination.
  • The League of Nations—a peacekeeping international organization—is formed. Ineffective owing to lack of international support, it fails to prevent World War II (1939-1945).


Led by Gandhi, the Salt March to Dandi—a campaign of nonviolent protest against the British salt tax in colonial India—begins in March. The Salt March draws widespread attention to the independence movement in India, to the injustice of colonialism, and to nonviolence as a powerful political tool.


World War II begins following Germany's invasion of Poland.


  • Signed by Great Britain and the United States, the Atlantic Charter creates a blueprint for the postwar peace and the basis of the mutual recognition of the rights of all nations.
  • US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) gives his famous "Four Freedoms" speech in which he claims that postwar peace must be rooted in the recognition of "the Freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of religion, freedom from want, and the freedom from fear."
  • FDR coins the term "United Nations" for the Allies he led against the Nazis.


The Declaration of the United Nations is signed by the Allied Powers who pledged to form a peacekeeping organization by that name, on the basis of the Atlantic Charter.


The Tehran Conference, the first of three wartime conferences between Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, is held. The most significant development for human rights from this gathering was the agreement by the three powers to form an organization of "united nations" after the war.


At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, the charter of the United Nations is drafted and negotiated. Its membership and structure are also debated and set.

Spring to Summer 1945        

  • World War II ends. The Nazi concentration camps are liberated. The United States drops the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The United Nations Conference on International Organization in held in San Francisco and adopts the United Nations Charter, as ratified by the original 51 signing nations. The UN Charter states that one of its main purposes is the promotion of "respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion."


At the Military Tribunals at Nuremberg (and later, in Tokyo), the Allied Powers prosecute accused war criminals for crimes against humanity.


The Commission on Human Rights is established by the United Nations. Eleanor Roosevelt is selected by the General Assembly to be its chairperson. The committee would later draft a declaration of human rights.


  • On December 9 the UN General Assembly adopts the Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of Genocide.
  • On December 10 the UN General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as proposed by the Commission on Human Rights.


In response to a decline in international support for the UDHR, Amnesty International, an international organization devoted to the monitoring and protection of human rights, is established. 


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights enter into force after sufficient UN member states sign it.

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