Some historians suggest that the Achaemenid Persian Empire of ancient Iran established unprecedented principles of human rights in the 6th century BC under Cyrus the Great. After his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, the king issued the Cyrus cylinder, discovered in 1879 and seen by some today as the first human rights document. The cylinder has been linked by some commentators to the decrees of Cyrus recorded in the Books of Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Ezra, which state that Cyrus allowed (at least some of) the Jews to return to their homeland from their Babylonian Captivity.
In opposition to the above viewpoint, the interpretation of the Cylinder as a "charter of human rights" has been dismissed by other historians and characterized by some others as political propaganda devised by the Pahlavi regime. The German historian Josef Wiesehöfer argues that the image of "Cyrus as a champion of the UN human rights policy ... is just as much a phantom as the humane and enlightened Shah of Persia", while historian Elton L. Daniel has described such an interpretation as "rather anachronistic" and tendentious. The cylinder now lies in the British Museum, and a replica is kept at the United Nations Headquarters.
Many thinkers point to the concept of citizenship beginning in the early poleis of ancient Greece, where all free citizens had the right to speak and vote in the political assembly.
The Twelve Tables Law established the principle "Privilegia ne irroganto", which literally means "privileges shall not be imposed".
A declaration for religious tolerance on an egalitarian basis can be found in the Edicts of Ashoka, which emphasize the importance of tolerance in public policy by the government. The slaughter or capture of prisoners of war was also condemned by Ashoka. Some sources claim that slavery was also non-existent in ancient India. Others state, however, that slavery existed in ancient India, where it is recorded in the Sanskrit Laws of Manu of the 1st century BC.
In past centuries, many landmark laws, declarations and agreements have contributed to rights ideals and protections.
For example, the Magna Carta (The Great Charter) of 1215 laid out the principle that everybody, including royalty, was subject to the law. In 1689, the first English Bill of Rights affirmed rights such as free elections, freedom of speech and freedom from “cruel and unusual punishment.” It was followed a century later by the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizens. The United States Constitution of 1791 contained a Bill of Rights that remains in effect today.
These early documents carried important guarantees about rights and freedoms for certain groups. But they typically excluded references to the rights of women, Indigenous peoples and many social, religious and political groups.
Despite such limitations, the basic principles they set out were drawn upon all over the world to support struggles for self-determination and individual rights.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen), passed by France's National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, is a fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human and civil rights. The Declaration was directly influenced by Thomas Jefferson, working with General Lafayette, who introduced it. Influenced also by the doctrine of "natural right", the rights of man are held to be universal: valid at all times and in every place, pertaining to human nature itself. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by law. It is included in the preamble of the constitutions of both the Fourth French Republic (1946) and Fifth Republic (1958) and is still current. Inspired in part by the American Revolution, and also by the Enlightenment philosophers, the Declaration was a core statement of the values of the French revolution and had a major impact on the development of liberty and democracy in Europe and worldwide.
The declaration, together with the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, inspired the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights for a large part.