On the History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Middle Ages
It is difficult to lay down the exact history of the origins and development of human rights, mostly because it is so complex and chaotic. One cannot simply pinpoint any particular moment in history and proclaim with absolute certainty and confidence that that moment marks the birth of the concept of human rights as we know it and understand it today.
However, scholars and historians have managed to gather up a rough timeline of the history of human rights with the help of various studies and sources.
Since in my previous essay on human rights, we have already discussed what exactly we mean by human rights, in this essay we shall only briefly look into the history and progression of human rights from ancient times through to the middle ages. Since I obviously cannot address and cover every single detail of this vast history, I shall only stick to what is generally regarded as the most significant ones.
Belief in the sanctity of human life can be seen expressed in almost all the ancient, major religions of the world. Certain notions of righteousness and the sanctity and significance of every single human life can be found in the sacred texts of these religions and in ancient laws as well, which, more often than not, were mostly based on religious texts.
However, these laws and religions expressing the concept of human rights were not really adhered to or even understood in the same way as the modern concept of human rights. And although these ancient laws are often included in the history of human rights, the present modern-day version of the concept stems from the thinkers and philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, which was an intellectual and philosophical movement prevalent in 17th and 18th century Europe.
Although ancient laws relating to basic human rights come from notions of divine law and natural law, our ancestors back then did not even remotely have the same modern-day conception of inalienable, universal, fundamental human rights, which today is closely associated with the modern sense of citizenship.
One of the earliest known reforms in the ancient world is the reforms of King Urukagina of Lagash (also known as Shirpurla), an ancient city-state located northwest of the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and east of Uruk. Lagash was one of the oldest cities in the Ancient Near East.
These reforms were believed to be carried out sometime around 2350 BC and are often regarded as the earliest known legal code. The oldest legal code surviving today is the Neo-Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu from Mesopotamia, which is written on tablets in the Sumerian language sometime around 2050 BC.
Over the course of the centuries, other such codes were written in Mesopotamia, such as the famous Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal text written in the old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian sometime around 1750 BC. It is the longest and best-preserved legal text from the Ancient Near East.
These ancient codes laid down certain rules and the punishment for breaking those rules on matters such as men’s and women’s rights, slave rights, children’s rights, etc. Needless to say, these rights were nowhere close to being as liberal, generous, equal, and humane as they are today, but for their times they were sought of pioneering, wherein the rights of every human being, whether for their better or for their worse, were laid down in writing.
Outside of Ancient West Asia, traces of what may resemble human rights can be found in the Northeast African civilization of Ancient Egypt under the reign of the Pharaohs, who have, oddly enough, become infamous for their excessively cruel, inhumane, oppressive, and exploitative rule over their slaves and subjects.
During the rule of Pharaoh Bakenranef (also known as Bocchoris), from 725 to 720 BC, individual rights, reformed laws regarding the transfer of property, and prohibiting imprisonment for debt were introduced and promoted.
Although such rights would today be considered very basic, they were still a step up and a major improvement from the past.
According to several historians, the Achaemenid Empire (also known as the First Persian Empire) of ancient Iran, founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, was responsible for establishing pioneering and unprecedented principles of human rights under the rule of Cyrus in the 6th century BC.
Cyrus issued what is now known as the Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient clay cylinder on which a declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script was written in the name of Cyrus. The cylinder was discovered in 1879 in the ruins of ancient Babylon (present-day Iraq) and is often regarded as the first human rights document.
Although some scholars and historians disagree with this claim, the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah, declared it the world’s first charter of human rights and used it as a symbol of his political ideology. The document stated the freedom to practice one’s faith without forced conversions and persecution, and it bestowed upon the people of Babylon and the Persian Empire the right to full religious freedom.
The document is also often linked to the decrees of Cyrus allowing the Jews to return to their homeland from their Babylonian captivity.
As the centuries passed by, gradual progress took place in the development of human rights.
The ancient Greece period saw the birth of the concept of citizenship in which all free citizens of the empire had the right to speak and vote in the political assembly.
Then came the Laws of the Twelve Tables, which was the legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman Law promulgated in 449 BC. The legislation established the principle Privilegia ne irroganto, which means privileges shall not be imposed.
Then came the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who, from 268 to 232 BC, ruled over the great Mauryan Empire, which became the largest empire in South Asia under his rule. Ashoka, after the disastrous and destructive Kalinga War, became a staunch adherent of Buddhism and adopted humanitarian reforms after rejecting and abandoning his expansionist policy.
During Ashoka’s reign, a collection of more than 30 inscriptions on pillars, cave walls, and boulders attributed to Ashoka (which came to be known as the Edicts of Ashoka) were erected throughout his empire, laying emphasis on the law of piety.
These laws, or principles, prohibited cruelty against humans and animals, advocated the importance of tolerance in the government’s public policy, condemned the capture and slaughter of prisoners of war, and prohibited religious discrimination.
Even ancient Rome bestowed upon its citizens the right of ius gentium or jus gentium, which was a right to which a citizen was entitled by virtue of his citizenship. It is from the word ius or jus that the word justice is derived. The Roman concept of ius is a precursor to a right as conceived in the western European tradition.
Emperor Constantine the Great established complete freedom of religion in the Edict of Milan, which was an agreement made in 313 AD to treat Christians benevolently within the Roman Empire. And under Emperor Antoninus Pius, the legal principle of the Presumption of innocence was introduced in the 2nd century. This principle, which is now considered one of the most important and foundational legal principles under any law across the world, basically means that any person accused of any crime is considered innocent until proven guilty.
Many historians and scholars have also shown that several significant improvements and developments in the concept of human rights originated in the Islamic world, beginning with Prophet Muhammad himself.
Not many know that Prophet Muhammad openly and boldly preached against the social evils of the time, such as murder, exploitation of the poor, robbery and theft, female infanticide, false contracts, treatment of women, treatment of slaves, usury, etc. He even preached against hierarchy in society and condemned aristocratic privilege, while simultaneously encouraging brotherhood and equality in the community.
He advocated and promoted social reforms in matters such as family structure, rights of women, rights of ethnic minorities, slavery, social welfare, etc., all of which were intended to improve upon the Arab society of the time.
The Charter of Medina (also known as the Constitution of Medina), believed to have been drafted by Prophet Muhammad in 622 AD, was a formal written agreement (although there are no existing copies of it) between Muhammad and all the important tribes and families of Yathrib (Medina), including Muslims, Jews, and pagans. It is said that the purpose of the charter was to bring an end to the inter-tribal fighting and violence in Medina between the Khazraj and Aws tribes.
The charter laid down the rights, duties, and obligations of all the communities concerned, and brought them all together within the fold of one community, known as the Ummah.
Islamic social reforms improved the stature of women in society by allowing them to possess rights in marriage, divorce, and inheritance as was not present in other cultures of the time, including the west where such reforms only came centuries later.
Marriage under Islamic law was not viewed as merely a status anymore but as a contract that required the woman’s consent as well. Women were given inheritance and were allowed to retain the dowry as part of their personal property rather than it belonging to their fathers.
Muhammad’s reforms ensured that women had the right to own property and administer the wealth brought by them into the family. The reforms also recognized a woman’s full personhood.
Muhammad also advocated improving the status of slaves in a society where slaves were treated as chattel. Two major changes advocated by him were, first, the presumption of freedom, and second, prohibiting the enslavement of free persons except in rare, strictly defined circumstances. These two changes greatly improved a slave’s position in society, as they were no longer treated as chattel but were regarded as human beings with religious rights and certain legal rights.
These social reforms undertaken by Muhammad and his followers in the early Islamic period were considered modern, liberal, and pioneering for the times. No society or culture of the time had successfully undertaken such social reforms that served to improve the life of each member of a community.
Even the principles of early Islamic law regarding military conduct and treatment of prisoners of war are regarded as pioneering precursors to international humanitarian law. These principles stated how prisoners of war need to be treated, such as they must be provided with food, shelter, and clothing, they must be protected from acts of rape, execution, and revenge, and their cultures must be respected.
These military laws also made a distinction between combatants and civilians, provided guidelines for ceasing hostilities, caring for the sick and wounded, preventing unnecessary destruction, and trying to limit the severity and casualties of war. Many of these military laws introduced under early Islamic law would not be codified in western international law until very recently.
Now, coming to the middle ages, the most significant influence on the development of human rights can be traced back to the Magna Carta, a royal charter of rights agreed to by King John of England in 1215 to make peace between King John and a group of rebel barons. The charter aimed to protect the barons from illegal imprisonment, limit feudal payments to the crown, protect church rights, and provide the barons with access to swift justice.
Although, in the end, the charter had to be annulled by Pope Innocent III as both parties failed to stick by their promised commitments, it did not fail to influence the development of the common law of England, and subsequently other significant constitutional documents, statutes, and charters relating to human rights such as the 1689 English Bill of Rights and the Scottish Claim of Rights, the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
The Magna Carta forced the king to respect and accept legal procedures and the due process of law, as well as requiring him to renounce certain rights. It expressly gave and protected certain rights to the subjects of the king, regardless of whether they were free or enslaved.
However, in modern times, perhaps the most lasting and significant legacy of the Magna Carta is the introduction of the writ of Habeas Corpus, a recourse in law through which a person can report and appeal unlawful detention or imprisonment to a court and request it to order the custodian of the prisoner to bring the prisoner to court to determine whether the detention or imprisonment is lawful.
The Magna Carta also established the right to due process for any and every person accused of any crime, through which no person could be imprisoned, outlawed, exiled, robbed of his property or liberties or rights, or be destroyed in any other way whatsoever, or be condemned without the due process of law.
Of course, this above-mentioned history is not exhaustive and I have definitely not covered all of it. Not even close. Now, one might wonder if these so-called rights provided to human beings over the course of the centuries were actually adhered to and respected or not. I wonder the same, and although I do not really have any accurate or true answer, in all likelihood, the answer to that question is probably no.
Even though these rights were laid down in charters and in statutes and whatnot, which in itself was a big step forward in the development of human rights, the chances of them actually being respected and followed were probably very slim. They acted as checks and guidelines but were probably not enforced to their full potential. But then, even today human rights are not enforced to their full extent and potential.
However, there is no doubt that these early documents on human rights improved upon the prevailing situation of the time to some extent at least, and also played a great role as foundations upon which subsequent developments in the field took place. Such influence cannot be denied. These documents probably had a minor impact during the times when they were drafted and a much greater impact in the long run.
As the centuries piled up to the present times, so did the influence of these documents. Little known or respected during their times, they are now significant historic pillars upon which our modern-day conception of human rights is based.
These fundamental human rights as we know them today have become an integral part of international policy and politics and humanitarian law, compelling nations across the world to take them seriously and to cooperate with each other to further the cause of human rights and enforce it on a wider scale with more intent and seriousness.