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Online exhibits: Human Rights

From the late 1600s, some thinkers began to define rights not as privileges to be granted by government, but as an essential part of what it meant to be human. To win rights was to win back what naturally belonged to you.

This section shows how 18th-century British radicals were inspired by these new ideas and revolutions in the American colonies and France. Other philosophers and political leaders remained sceptical of abstract ideals, preferring a more 'commonsensical' view of liberty and fairness. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for example, called natural rights 'nonsense upon stilts', while humanitarian and religious rhetoric dominated social campaigns.

Nonetheless, this country played a central role in the development of the modern idea of international human rights after World War II. Today, the Human Rights Act (1998) has again placed the issue at the centre of British political debate.

Some significant stops on the route of Human Rights

1689 Locke's 'Two Treatises of Government' published
1772 Slavery effectively outlawed in England as slave James Somerset is freed
1789 French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
1791 'Rights of Man' Part 1 by Thomas Paine published
1792 'Rights of Woman' by Mary Wollstonecraft published
1794 William Blake writes 'The Tyger'
1807 Slave Trade abolished in all British possessions
1834 Slaves throughout British Empire become legally free
1895 Criminal trial of Oscar Wilde for gross indecencies
1940 HG Wells publishes 'Rights of Man'
1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by UN
1950 European Convention on Human Rights signed in Rome
1957 Wolfenden Report recommends legalising homosexual acts
1965 Race Relations Act prohibits public racial discrimination
1976 Equal Pay Act fully implemented; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gives legal status to most of UDHR
1995 Disability Discrimination Act
1998 Human Rights Act
2004 Gender Recognition Act; Civil Partnerships Act
2006 Age Discrimination Act

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