History of human rights

Short description of the session

This session invites pupils to explore the history of human rights by reflecting on the images, related to the notion of human rights throughout the history of mankind.  By identifying the milestone historical events and documents, pupils will be able to see the positive development of human rights and their meaning in the life of people.

The session consists of a short introduction, group work activity Timeline of human rights, and the final discussion of the events, documents and persons, who have played a role in the creation of the international human rights system, as we know it  today. 

Learning goals

  • Make the pupils learn about the history of human rights by studying the images showing milestone events, documents and persons, who contributed to the universality of human rights 
  • Make the pupils learn more about the events, documents and people, who played big role in the development of the international human rights system as we know it today
  • Make the pupils understand that the struggle for human rights is an ongoing process, also relevant to our time 


Time: 2- 3 hours 

Requirements: Set of images on human rights, large room with possibilities for group work, 4 tables put together (2 x 2), scotch, projector 

Preparation (for the teacher)

  • Prepare a set of human rights images (images in the power–point presentation attached to this session can be used)
  • Prepare the classroom: put two table together for group work; put scotch line in the middle of the tables to mark a timeline
  • Prepare background information on every image for the final discussion with pupils. 


The end of the World War II and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 are two milestone events in the development of the international human rights system. For the first time in history, the term human rights was included in the Statutes of the international organization, the United Nations. By this, respect and fulfillment of human rights were acknowledged as necessary preconditions for societies to develop in a peaceful and democratic way. 

The first two articles of the UDHR state that no matter geographical, social or religious background, no matter language, gender or colour of skin, all human beings are born free and all people are equal in their rights. Human rights are therefore universal in its content. Today, we say that human rights and freedoms are part of our everyday life. They are protecting us from states’ misconduct. They define national, as well as international policies.

 Meanwhile, the idea of human rights is as old as humanity itself. One can find references to human dignity and justice both in religious and in philosophical texts. The Golden Rule of conduct, – Treat the others as you want to be treated yourself,-  is present in all big religions.

Already in the 3rd century BC. Greek Stoics expressed that the distinctive trait of all people is the capacity to reasoning. They believed that people did not have to be rich or have a high rank in society in order to be able to produce a good judgement. Everybody could do it. The ideas that people do have the ability to think on their own, and should therefore have the possibility to express their opinions have even become stronger during the Enlightenment, in the 17th century.  As early as 1679, the Habeas Corpus Act was adopted in England.  Protecting bodily autonomy, habeas corpus remains today to be one of the central principles of the rule of law in our societies. Gradually, understanding of preciousness of human life was spreading across the continents.

 Usually, talking about the universality of human rights, we say, that they indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. It means that it is difficult to give a priority to one particular right and neglect another. As, it is difficult to say that the right to shelter and food is more important than the right to express own opinion. People need equally both. We also say that human rights are inalienable. It means that we have them from birth, and no one can take it from us.

Still, if we look back into the history of humankind, is has not always been like this. Slave markets, where human beings could be bought and sold, were common for two hundred years ago. One hundred years ago, women were denied to take part in elections and to vote. Corporal punishment of children in schools was the reality in several countries until the late 1960s. We cannot unfortunately say that our world today is free of torture, hunger or unlawful arrests.

 Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on core historical events, adoption of the decisive judicial documents and on personal courage of people throughout the planet, making human rights concrete tools protecting human beings from abuse, injustice and discrimination.

 The activity Timeline of human rights, presented below, shows the development of human rights throughout history. Its focus is on the historical events, documents and people, who played quite a role for human rights to become universal values and be universally protected.


Activity Timeline of Human Rights

In a classroom, put scotch in the middle of two tables, set up together, in order to mark a timeline. Write down “Beginning of the 13th century” on one end, “End of the 21st century” on another. Pupils can work in groups of 4-5 persons. They are given a set of images. It can be 19 images, as suggested here. Alternatively, images can be divided into two sets, 9 or 10 each.

The task for pupils is to produce the timeline of human rights, based on images they get, by putting images chronologically on the table. Pupils do not have to know exact dates of events or persons shown on the pictures.  The idea is to let them discuss in the group the messages an image can contain, to imply the date, place or the human right the image is about.

When timelines are ready, the whole class can gather beside one of them, for debriefing. If groups were more than two, it is better to proceed directly to the discussion of images’ content with the whole class.

The questions to discuss will be:  

  •  What does the image show?
  • What connection does the image have to human rights?

During the discussion, pupils should be encouraged to come up with any suggestions and ideas they might have. It does not matter whether they give correct or wrong answers. It is not either a problem if they make mistakes, mix events or names. The main goal of this activity is to wake pupils’ interest to human rights. Moreover, they will get the right answers later, when the teacher presents images on a screen and gives a background information on each image.

Background information of the images used for the activity Timeline of Human Rights.

 Image 1, Magna Carta

Magna Carta or “the Great Charter” is an ancient document mentioning such human rights, as the rights of all free people to own a property and be protected from excessive taxes. King John of England was pressured by his subjects to sign under Magna Carta in 1215 and limit therefore own monarchical power. More information is available at the British Library: https://www.bl.uk/magna-carta

 Image 2, American Declaration of Independence

American Declaration of Independence was adopted by the United States Congress on the 4th of July 1776. The text was developed by Thomas Jefferson. The document stresses, in particular, individual rights, – right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. More information is available at: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration

Image 3, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) was adopted as an aftermath of the Great French Revolution. All citizens should be guaranteed the rights of “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression”, it said. The document has been used as a source and inspiration for development of the several national constitutions. More information about the Declaration is available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Declaration-of-the-Rights-of-Man-and-of-the-Citizen

 Image 4, Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights (1791) contains amendments to the constitution of the USA, one the oldest national constitutions. Bill of Rights protects such political rights, as freedom of speech, freedom of belief and freedom of assembly. More information about Bill of Rights is available at: https://billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/bill-of-rights/

Image 5, Geneva Convention, 1864

The first Geneva Convention was adopted in 1864 as to protect wounded soldiers and give them medical treatment, regardless of the side for which they had fought. In total, there are four Geneva Conventions. They define the rights of the wartime prisoners, protect wounded and civilians, and constitute what is called the International Humanitarian Law. More information about the Geneva Conventions is available at the International Committee of the Red Cross, www.icrc.org

Image 6, Women’s Suffrage movement

Suffrage movement was the movement of women, struggling for the right to vote on equal basis with men. The movement started at the end of the 19th century in the USA and Great Britain and developed to a broad international movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Women have been struggling for the right to vote on the elections for almost hundred years. After years of discrimination, forced medical treatment and hunger strikes, women all over the world “started” to get the right to vote. First in New Zealand in 1893, and later in other countries. Finland was the first European country to give women right to vote in 1906. More information is available at:


Image 7, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg 

Zetkin and Luxemburg were social-democratic political activists in Germany in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1910 at the International Socialist Women’ s Conference in Copenhagen, they proposed to celebrate an annual Women’s Day in order to bring more attention to women’s struggle for the right to vote. The proposal was in the beginning supported by socialist and communist countries. In 1977, General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the 8th of March to be the International Women’s Day, – the day of women’s rights all over the world. To achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls is one the Sustainable Development Goals

(URL: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/), proclaimed by the United Nations in 2016. 

Image 8, Trade unionism or labour movement

The image is symbolizing trade unionism or labour movement, which had intensified in the Great Britain in the 19th century. The goal was to make the working conditions of the workers better and safer, and to make payment more just. Many trade unions have become the fundament for political parties in the European countries. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was established in 1919 in order to argue for decent working conditions and social justice in the world.

Film A short history of trade unions (6 min), URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPPeDO4dMRA

ILO, URL: https://www.ilo.org/global/lang–en/index.htm

Image 9, Nansen passport

Nansen –passport was the name of the identity document, issued by the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations) in 1922. Passport was named after Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer and diplomat. Being commissioner for refugees, Nansen advocated for saving thousands of lives of people fleeing from hunger and Revolution in Soviet Russia, as well as more than three hundred  thousand of Armenians, fleeing form the Turkish genocide (1915- 1923). Nansen-passport was the first identity document in the world, protecting refugees. The UN Refugee Convention was one of the first international treaties, adopted by the United Nations after the World War II, in 1951.

More information about the 1951 Refugee Convention is available at:


Image 10, “Human zoo”

The so-called “human zoos” were common in Western Europe and the USA in the period from 1870 to 1930. Indigenous people were brought together and shown as “primitive” in their outlook and lifestyle. Aborigines, Indians, Sami, people of the Philippines, Fiji and several African countries were “shown” in this way. Such show-off is considered to be pure racism today. This image is from the World’s Fair in Belgium in 1958, where people from Congo were brought to Belgium to show a Congolese village. Meanwhile, people were kept on the t resembled a zoo, since visitors were encouraged to feed people, as shown in the picture. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) was adopted in 1965, and is ratified per 2020 by 182 states.  ICERD is an important tool today to tackle hate speech and racist political rhetoric.

Text of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,

URL: https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cerd.aspx

Image 11, Children at the Auschwitz concentration camp

Children at the Auschwitz concentration camp at the time of camp’s liberation in  January 1945. Mass killing of Jews, the Holocaust, and atrocities of the World War II have led to the establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. The main goal of the UN has been defined as to preserve peace in the world and reaffirm faith to fundamental human rights. For the first time in history human rights were written down in the statutes of the international organisation. 193 countries are members of the UN today.

The United Nations, URL: www.un.org

Virtual tour, Auschwitz concentration camp, http://panorama.auschwitz.org/

Image 12, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On the 10th of December in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted. UDHR is the first international document, which states that human rights are inalienable rights of all people on Earth, no matter their background, belief, gender or colour of skin. The UN working commission, led by Eleanor Roosevelt (on the picture) used two years for collecting opinions, suggestions on the rights from all the continents in order to include them into the UDHR. Human rights mentioned in the UDHR are the minimum standards people need in order to live a decent life. UDHR is considered to be the foundation of the international human rights law.

Text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, URL:


Film, UDHR @70 Perspective (4 min), URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaHwy5tdLOY

Image 13, Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was an activist of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA in the 1950s, led by Martin Luther King. Parks is known for participation in the Montgomery bus boycott, when she rejected to give a seat to a “white” person in the bus in December 1955. Montgomery bus boycott lasted for almost one year in Montgomery, Alabama, as a protest to racial segregation in public transportation in the USA. The “rule” was that the first ten rows in the buses could be only used by “white” people. Montgomery bus boycott was one of the many actions of civil disobedience, carried out in the USA in 1950-60ss as reactions to a highly segregated society.

Film on the History of the American Civil Rights Movement (6 min), URL:


Cartoon film “I am Rosa Parks” (15 min), URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcJMEDR-87w

Image 14, Independence of Ghana

Ghana was the first country on the African continent to gain independence in 1957. The process of the decolonisation sped up after the Fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945, where strengthened opinions on independence of the African states were declared. As a result, in 1975, 54 African countries became independent from the European colonial rulers (Great Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain). The African Union, established in 2002, is a kind of Pan-African parliament today, pursuing the aim of peace, security and protection of human rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (1986) and international human rights law on the African continent.  African Union, URL: https://au.int/en

African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, URL: https://au.int/en/treaties/african-charter-human-and-peoples-rights

Image 15, the European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was established in 1959, by the Article 19 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950). ECHR is placed in Strasbourg, in France. Strasbourg is also the seat of the Council of Europe, the goal of which is to uphold human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe.

European Court of Human Rights, URL: https://www.echr.coe.int/Pages/home.aspx?p=home

Film on the European Court of Human rights,  (14 min, in English), is available here:


Film on the European Court of Human rights in Bulgarian, is available here:


Council of Europe, URL: https://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/home

Text of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, URL:


Image 16, Amnesty International

Amnesty International is one of the largest non-governmental organisations, working on human rights worldwide. Amnesty Int. was founded by the British lawyer Peter Benenson in 1961. Amnesty International is the example of a grassroot initiative, which role is crucial for development of a free and just society. Having more than eight million supporters all over the world, the organisation works on the fulfilment of human rights in accordance with the international human rights law.

Amnesty International, URL: www.amnesty.org

Image 17, Unknown man at the Tiananmen Square

A man standing in front of a column of tanks at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, in June 1989 is an iconic picture. Tanks were on their way to suppress mass protests at the Tiananmen Square, where thousands of students, workers and intellectuals had gathered demanding political freedoms and democratic reforms in China.

For further reading: Peter Li, Marjorie H. Li, Steven Mark Culture and Politics in China: An Anatomy of Tiananmen Square, 2011

Image 18, trial of Slobodan Milosevic

Trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former President of Yugoslavia, was held at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Hague, in 2002. ICTY was established in 1993 by the UN’s Security Council Resolution in order to investigate war crimes on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

The main charges against Milosevic were crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. War atrocities on the territory of former Yugoslavia, causing deaths of thousands of people, were the most tragic events in Europe after the World War II.

Hague in the Netherlands is also the seat for the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was established in 2002 with mandate to prosecute individuals for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. International Criminal Court, URL: https://www.icc-cpi.int/

Image 19, prisoners at the Abu-Ghraib prison

The picture is from the Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq. It is one of many pictures, published in 2004 by CBS News, CNN, The New Yorker revealing serious human rights violations, – abuse and torture used by the personnel of the United States Army. International Human Rights Law prohibits use of torture or degrading inhuman treatment under any circumstances.

The whole set of images can be downloaded from here.

How to use museums


As values and legal obligations of the States human rights have contributed to the humanization of life in general. Our societies are in constant development and changes bring new dimensions in understanding of human rights as protection tools.

An interesting project to offer to schoolchildren could the task to identify museums in own town or country, which might have exhibitions related to human rights or to the history of human rights in the country.

Museums to look after can be

  • Historical museums and their focus on the history of the country, development of the Constitution, political ideologies through time, etc.
  • Ethnographic museums and their focus on people or groups of people living on the territory before and now
  • Photography museums and their focus on telling a personal story. What is the message? Is there any relation to human rights? In what way?
  • Museums and exhibitions, attached to institutions and national authorities, like parliament, supreme court, media, ministries of health care, education, ministry

An additional task can be to identify as many “interesting” facts as possible in the history of own country and development of human rights, and find out whether these facts are present in museums/ exhibitions. Following topics could be taken for further investigation:

  • Development of the right to vote in my country
  • Development of the right to get married in my country
  • Diversity of the society today: what groups of the society have experienced more discrimination throughout history and nowadays? Why?
  • Development of the right of the child in my country during the last hundred years
  • Crime and punishment in the history of my country. Development of the right to life and personal security. Reforming the prison system in my country.
  • Freedom of expression in my country: before and now, what has changed?
  • The history of trade unions and labor rights in my country