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A history of human rights in Britain

The idea that human beings should have a set of basic rights and freedoms has deep roots in Britain.

Here are some of the national and international milestones that have shaped the concept of human rights in Britain over the last 800 years.

1215: the Magna Carta

This English Charter acknowledged for the first time that subjects of the crown had legal rights and that laws could apply to kings and queens too. The Magna Carta was also the first step in giving us the right to a trial by a jury of our peers.

1679: Habeas Corpus Act

Another crucial step towards the right to a fair trial, this law protected and extended the right of a detained person to go before a judge to determine whether the detention was legal.

1689: English Bill of Rights

The Bill was a landmark moment in the political history of Britain because it limited the powers of the monarch and set out the rights of Parliament. It included the freedom to petition the monarch (a step towards political protest rights); the freedom from cruel and unusual punishments (the forerunner to the ban on torture in our Human Rights Act) and the freedom from being fined without trial.

1948: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation for modern human rights. After the Second World War, the international community recognised the need for a collective expression of human rights. Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, the declaration sets out a range of rights and freedoms to which everyone, everywhere in the world, is entitled.

1950: the European Convention on Human Rights

Members of the Council of Europe used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to draw up this treaty to secure basic rights both for their own citizens and for other nationalities within their borders. The Convention was signed in Rome in 1950, ratified by the UK in 1951 and came into force in 1953. Unlike the Universal Declaration, the European Convention on Human Rights contains rights which can be relied on in a court of law.

1965: Race Relations Act

This was the first legislation in the UK to address racial discrimination. Although it was criticised because it only covered discrimination in specified public places, the act laid the foundations for more effective legislation. It also set up the Race Relations Board to consider complaints brought under the act.

1965: International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

This was the first human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations (UN). The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) defines what constitutes race discrimination and sets out a comprehensive framework for ensuring that civil, political, economic and social rights are enjoyed by all, without distinction of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin. The convention is the international human rights treaty that sets out a comprehensive framework for ensuring that civil, political, economic and social rights are enjoyed by all, without distinction of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin. The UK ratified CERD in 1969.

1966: UK signs up to the European Court of Human Rights

Six years after the European Court of Human Rights was created, the UK granted what is known as ‘individual petition’ - the right for people to take their cases directly to the court in Strasbourg.

1975: Sex Discrimination Act

The act made sex discrimination illegal in the areas of employment, education and the provision of goods, facilities and services.

1976: Race Relations Act

The Race Relations Act was established to prevent race discrimination. It made race discrimination unlawful in employment, training, housing, education and the provision of goods, facilities and services.

1976: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

The general principles expressed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were given specific legal force through these two covenants. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) make up the International Bill of Rights.  

1979: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

Often referred to as the ‘bill of rights for women’, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women defined what constitutes discrimination against women and sets out the core principles to protect their rights.

1984: UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The most comprehensive international treaty dealing with torture, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment became the first binding international instrument exclusively dedicated to preventing some of the most serious human rights violations of our time.

1989: UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Governments worldwide promised all children the same rights by adopting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, also known as the CRC or UNCRC. The basic premise is that children (under the age of 18) are born with the same fundamental freedoms and inherent rights as all human beings, but with specific additional needs because of their vulnerability. 

1995: Disability Discrimination Act

This Act represented the first far-reaching legislation on discrimination against disabled people. It covered key areas of life such as employment and training, education, goods, facilities and services, premises and transport.

1998: Human Rights Act

In force since October 2000, the Human Rights Act incorporated into domestic law the rights and liberties enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. People in the UK no longer had to take complaints about human rights breaches to the European Court in Strasbourg – British courts could now hear these cases.

2006: Universal Periodic Review

The UN’s new review system meant that, for the first time, the human rights records of all Member States would come under regular scrutiny through the Universal Periodic Review. It gave a clear message that all countries have scope to improve the way human rights are promoted and protected.

2008: UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century. It reaffirms disabled people's human rights and signals a further major step in their journey to becoming full and equal citizens.

2010: the Equality Act

The Equality Act brought together more than 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single act - a new, streamlined legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all.

Last updated: 09 Oct 2018