Study Guide

On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Timeline

By Eleanor Roosevelt

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June 15th, 1215

King John and the Magna Carta

Taxes have always been unpopular—especially when they're put in place by a guy chilling on a cushy throne, completely out of touch with the people he's ruling over.

When English barons had enough of King John's heavy taxation demands in 1215, they threatened to rebel unless the king agreed to the Magna Carta, which focused on basic rights for wealthy landowners and placed limits on the king's power.

While the Magna Carta wasn't perfect (it left the little people high and dry), it did establish that even an absolute monarch had to follow the law. It also served as inspiration for the Founding Fathers as they crafted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

July 4th, 1776

The Declaration of Independence

When the French and Indian War ended in 1760, Great Britain was feeling super confident about their control over the colonies. But kicking France off the continent wasn't cheap, and ol' King George felt raising taxes in the New World was only right to help pay for the war.

The colonists didn't agree, and after years of increasingly invasive (and unpopular) taxes, they'd had enough and declared war in 1775.

Things got really real really fast when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, which said the 13 colonies considered themselves to be independent from Great Britain.

June 21st, 1788

Ratification of the U.S. Constitution

Throughout much of the American Revolution, the United States operated under a provisional government that had really limited power. Everyone was afraid of giving the congress too much control, and the first constitution reflected that fear—and it was also super ineffective.

Delegates from all 13 states met in Philadelphia in 1787 to buckle down and establish fundamental laws that were enforceable and a federal government with a system of checks and balances to avoid anyone having too much power. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1778.

August 26th, 1789

Adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

Few people (aside from those pesky rebels) thought the American Revolution would ever result in Great Britain losing complete control of the 13 colonies.

But that's exactly what happened, and one successful revolution against a tyrannical king inspired another in France. The monarchy was living extravagantly while the rest of the country was struggling to find enough food to eat, and the French people had had enough.

Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson came up with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which declared the rights French revolutionaries believed they should have.

Their road to freedom was a whole lot bumpier than what went down in the United States, but the declaration was considered a success.

December 15th, 1791

Ratification of the Bill of Rights

We've never tried it, but we imagine creating a brand-new government from scratch isn't easy. Lots of different people, lots of different ideas, lots of different fonts to choose from—it's no picnic, and we'd bet the delegates at the Constitutional Convention would've agreed with us, at least with those first two things.

The Bill of Rights was included in the Constitution in 1791 in order to address some of those different ideas, mainly the fear that a limited government wasn't enough to guarantee individual liberties and other basic rights for all Americans.

We can thank these 10 handy-dandy amendments for our right to free speech and freedom of the press, among other things.

January 1st, 1863

Emancipation Proclamation

At the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln focused more on keeping the Union, well, unified and less on abolishing slavery.

But before long, it became clear that he couldn't not address it, so after the Union victory at Antietam in 1862, Honest Abe let everyone know that as of January 1st, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate states would be free.

The Emancipation Proclamation led the way for the abolition of slavery in the United States.

December 6th, 1865

Ratification of the 13th Amendment

When the Civil War ended in 1865, Congress ratified three new constitutional amendments to address issues related to newly freed slaves. The 13th Amendment banned slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States.

While it wasn't perfect, the 13th Amendment was significant in that it was the very first time slavery was ever mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. (Source)

January 30th, 1933 May 8th, 1945

The Holocaust

While the Allies were preoccupied with preventing Adolf Hitler from taking over the world, he was giving the Nazis the go-ahead to get rid of so-called "undesirable" populations, beginning with the Jewish populations of Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.

During the Holocaust, 11 million people—including Jews, political prisoners, communists, POWs, the Roma, homosexuals, and the disabled—were systematically murdered in concentration camps throughout Europe. The Final Solution served as the impetus for the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

September 15th, 1935

Nuremberg Race Laws

When the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, they did so on a platform of horrific things, including racism and anti-Semitism, with a host of other abhorrent ideas that spelled disaster for lots of people.

At their annual rally in Nuremberg in 1935, the Nazis issued some new laws that effectively legalized discrimination and cruelty against the Jewish population in Germany. It was the first major step in the Nazi agenda to get rid of all German Jews. (Source)

September 1st, 1939 September 2nd, 1945

World War II

You might know the basics of World War II, about the German invasion of Poland that started the whole thing and the atomic bombs that ended it.

But beyond that, World War II also featured all the "isms": racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, militarism, violent nationalism—the list goes on. Before it was all said and done, 60 million people would be dead, many of whom were civilians who were beaten and deported and finally murdered in concentration camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.

The magnitude of World War II, especially the human rights violations, largely inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

January 6th, 1941

FDR's Four Freedoms Speech

We remember FDR for lots of different reasons, namely his four terms as president and his "Day of Infamy" speech.

However, his third State of the Union address, which became known as the "Four Freedoms" speech, is also worth talking about—mostly because of how much was at stake.

World War II hadn't made it to the United States yet, but Europe was all kinds of busy with it, and FDR wanted Americans to understand how serious things were. He talked about how any bad guy who attacks a democratic nation is actually attacking the very idea of democracy, and considering the United States was the most powerful democracy in the world, the country should probably be paying attention.

FDR reminded the American people that while war was hardly ideal, fighting for democracy means fighting for basic human rights, and the United States had an obligation to step up to the plate.

October 24th, 1945

Founding of the United Nations

After World War I, the Allies established the League of Nations, an international organization whose job was to resolve international disputes and avoid another world war.

However, the League of Nations wasn't successful for many reasons, including the United States' refusal to join and the fact that colonialism was still alive and well. So, when World War II spread like wildfire, the Big Three started making plans for another international organization that would negotiate peace and settle international conflicts.

But the United Nations was also tasked with protecting human rights around the world, as well as supplying humanitarian aid to countries dealing with social, economic, and cultural problems. There are currently 193 member states in the United Nations.

November 20th, 1945

International Military Tribunal

When World War II ended in 1945, the victorious Allies wasted no time indicting and prosecuting Nazis for various war crimes. The most famous of those trials took place in Nuremberg, where 24 officials were charged with committing several crimes, most notably crimes against humanity.

Only 12 of the defendants were sentenced to death by hanging, while others faced either life imprisonment or other, shorter prison terms.

June 1946

Establishment of the Commission on Human Rights

When the United Nations replaced the League of Nations at the end of World War II, it took on a more active role in maintaining peace throughout the world. In order to do that, delegates believed the U.N. needed to be involved in dictating and protecting basic human rights so the atrocities of the Holocaust wouldn't happen again.

The Commission on Human Rights was established in 1946 to do just that, and their first order of business was to create a declaration of rights and determine how to enforce it.

December 9th, 1948

On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

When Eleanor Roosevelt spoke before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1948, she was clearly frustrated. The delegation had met twice before and hadn't been able to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though they'd spent lots of time addressing proposed amendments for various articles.

She gave this speech to remind all the member nations what they were working toward—an international covenant on human rights to avoid tragedies like the Holocaust from happening again.

January 12th, 1951

U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

For the first time in international history, the General Assembly defined genocide in legal terms and said all countries had a duty to do everything necessary to prevent mass murder during times of war and punish anyone who committed the crime.

August 28th, 1963

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech

MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech illustrated for Americans and those listening around the world that lots of people in the United States didn't have access to basic freedoms guaranteed by both the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But not unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, MLK believed people would do the right thing and peacefully address the inequalities.

July 17th, 1998

Establishment of the International Criminal Court

The roots of the International Criminal Court go all the way back to World War I, when the Allies really wanted to punish Germany and there wasn't any precedent for judging international leaders accused of committing war crimes.

They ran into the same problem again at the end of World War II, and while there were a number of war crimes trials to prosecute the Nazis, before long the United Nations recognized the need for a permanent court to deal with power-crazy dictators.

However, plans stalled due to the Cold War. But after everyone decided to bury the hatchet and sing "Kumbaya" in 1989, the General Assembly revisited the idea of an international court.

It took a little time (because getting 148 countries to agree on a basic charter was super complicated), but the General Assembly voted to adopt the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998.

March 18th, 2008

Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" Speech

For the first time in American history, an African-American man was running for president—so that must mean everything was fixed, right?

Um, no.

In "A More Perfect Union," Barack Obama addressed some inflammatory remarks made by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, while simultaneously contextualizing them in the history of race relations in the United States.

He wanted the American people to understand that African-Americans still faced a lot of discrimination, even in 2008, but that didn't mean the problems couldn't be fixed. Rather, Obama had faith in the country and what it was built on—a union that was good at heart but could always stand to be perfected.

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