The concept of human rights as we know it today has a very recent history or a very old history, depending on how you look at it. Belief in moral universals has historically been the domain of philosophy and religion, reflected in every system of thought ever recorded, but belief that governments are obligated to respect the fundamental equality and autonomy of all individuals is an idea that just began to achieve currency in the 20th century—and is still in its infancy today.
2350 BCE: The Praise Poem of Urukagina
One of the first acknowledged champions of human rights was the local Mesopotamian governor named Urukagina, who weeded out corruption in his local government, regulated slavery, and issued decrees protecting widows, orphans, and the poor.
539 BCE: The Cyrus Cylinder
Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian empire, was such a liberating force in the ancient world that the people of Israel described him as a messiah. His reforms allowed local cultures to flourish, protected religious freedom and diversity, and allowed for more localized government control.
231 BCE: The Edicts of Ashoka
When the Indian king Ashoka converted to Buddhism, he preached nonviolence and issued a series of edicts, carved on 33 pillars throughout his empire, protecting the rights of the poor and vulnerable.
AD 161: The Institutes of Gaius
Gaius' magnum opus, the Institutes, formed the basis of legal education and jurisprudence for much of the Roman Empire's later history. It was Gaius who drew a distinction between jus civile, or Roman laws, and jus gentium, the "laws of nations," which regulated interactions between Romans and non-Romans. His principle of jus gentium assumed that some legal concepts could be universally applicable, a fundamental principle of human rights law.
622: The Charter of Medina
Muhammad was quite a libertarian by the standards of his day, protecting religious freedom, granting women greater autonomy, and ending ethnic segregation policies. For centuries to come, Islam would occupy the same role that secular progressivism occupies today: as a protector of minority opinions (such as Greek paganism; the survival of Greco-Roman texts can largely be traced to Islamic protection), a promoter of science, and a symbol of pluralism and modernity.
1100: The Charter of Liberties
While the Coronation Charter of King Henry I (sometimes called the Charter of Liberties) is referred to as a predecessor to the Magna Carta of 1215, it's really more of a guarantee of royal good behavior than anything we would recognize as a human rights agreement. Still, it set the precedent of an English monarch voluntarily restricting his own power.
1215: The Magna Carta
The Magna Carta of 1215 established basic due process rights for nobles, limited the power of the throne, and formed the basis of bills of rights for centuries to come. While it wasn't particularly libertarian, and (like its predecessor, the Coronation Charter) was more about rights voluntarily granted than rights universally owed, it remains central to the development of the British and American criminal justice systems.
1689: The English Bill of Rights
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 was the most advanced document of its kind at the time, guaranteeing free speech in parliament, the right to bear arms, the right to petition leaders, and certain due process rights.
1789: The U.S. Bill of Rights
The U.S. Bill of Rights didn't really have teeth until the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as extending its rights to the states in 1925, but even as an unenforceable statement of principles it was top-notch by 18th-century standards. Our civil liberties as Americans depend on it to this day.
1948: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
World War II left the world weary of fascism in all forms, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—drafted largely by Eleanor Roosevelt—addressed the Axis' authoritarian horrors by describing a vision of universal human rights that, to this day, remains unachieved.