Originally, people had rights only because of their membership in a group, such as a family. Then, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, after conquering the city of Babylon, did something totally unexpected—he freed all slaves to return home. Moreover, he declared people should choose their own religion. The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay tablet containing his statements, is the first human rights declaration in history.

The idea of human rights spread quickly to India, Greece and eventually Rome. The most important advances since then have included:

1215: The Magna Carta—gave people new rights and made the king subject to the law.

1628: The Petition of Right—set out the rights of the people.

1776: The United States Declaration of Independence—proclaimed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

1789: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—a document of France, stating that all citizens are equal under the law.

1948: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the first document listing the 30 rights to which everyone is entitled.