History teaches everything including the future.



Participants make a collective timeline of events that mark developments of the concept of rights from 2000 BCE to the present, and speculate into the future. The method can also be used to explore the histories of any group of people

Related rights

• Right to education, including human rights education
• Right to life, liberty and personal security
• Freedom of religion and belief


• To develop knowledge about the development of human rights through history
• To develop communication skills and critical thinking
• To foster curiosity about human rights and commitment to defend them


• A roll of wide masking tape
• A 10-12 metre long wall
• Blocks of "post-it" labels in 3 different colours
• Flip chart and markers of different colours


• Read pages 395-400 in Chapter 4 to get an overview of the  history of the development of human rights.
• Mark a long line on the wall with the masking tape. It should be at eye level. At about 50 cms from the left hand end, write "2000 BC", and at 50 cms from the right hand end write "2010"  (or whatever the current year is). Mark off 1000 BCE, 0 and CE 1000.
• Prepare 4 "post-its" marked: "Civilisations in Egypt and China",  "Assyrian, Babylonian and Minoan civilisations flourished",  "the Romans were a major power" and "Kingdoms in Western  Europe and the Byzantine empire in the east".

Key Date
  • 23 AugustInternational Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition


1. Introduce the participants to the timeline. Explain that about 4000 years ago (2000 BCE) the first civilisations in Egypt and China flourished. Around 1000 BCE the Assyrian, Babylonian and Minoan civilisations flourished. Around year 0 the Romans were a major power and in CE 1000 there were many kingdoms in Western Europe, and the Byzantine empire ruled much of the east. Mark today's date.
2. Explain to the group that their task is to fill out this timeline with events that relate to human rights. For instance, the birth or death dates of people who made laws or who preached or fought for justice, the dates of events that changed people's thinking about rights and triggered responses, and the making of laws or conventions that protect people's rights.
3. Hand out "post-its" of each colour to each participant. Explain that the different colours represent different categories. For instance, blue for important events relating to human rights, yellow for important persons or institutions and green for important documents and laws. Note this instruction on the flip chart for future reference.
4. Explain than the events can be local, regional, national or international. Participants should start by working individually, trying to think of one person, one event and one law or convention each. They should write the date and the name of the event or person on the "post-it" of the appropriate colour and then place it on the timeline.
5. The aim is for each person to put up 3 posts and for the group as a whole to get as many different events as possible. So if someone finds a particular event is already posted, they will have to try to think of another. If anyone gets really stuck, they may consult friends or the Internet.
6. Encourage participants to be inspired by events that others have posted. If anyone wants to post up more than three events, they may.  
7. When the work is slowing down, ask participants to gather round and review the posts. Ask members of the group to explain or elaborate on their choices of events.
8. Explain that you are going to leave the activity for today and ask everyone to return next session with something else to add. Review and debrief fully after the next session.

Debriefing and evaluationGoto top

  •  Was it easy to find information for the timeline? What were good sources?
  • Which piece of information did people find the most interesting, surprising or shocking? Why?
  • What have been the major forces behind the development of human rights throughout history?
  • Is it important to know about the history of human rights? Why?
  • What new rights will we need in the future?

Tips for facilitatorsGoto top

If there is someone in the group who is a history specialist, give him or her the task of checking the calendar.

Be aware that there are more than 40 different calendars used in the world, including Chinese, Islamic, Hindu, Hebrew, Persian and Buddhist calendars. Therefore, dates can be confusing; for instance, 2010 in the Christian calendar is 1431 in the Islamic calendar. Thus, beware of the possible confusion about dates and use the confusion to draw out the intercultural dimension.

VariationsGoto top

Prepare labels with the dates and events given below and use them as a quiz. Read out the name of the person, event or law and ask participants if they can guess the dates. Then put the labels on the timeline. Let these landmarks be an inspiration for the group.
Ask participants to find quotes from famous people, examples of music, art and literature and sporting events that have promoted human rights; add these to the timeline.

This exercise can also be used in an open space (during a seminar, in a classroom...), the timeline being completed at any time.

The method is a very good way to start a discussion about remembrance and the history of a people. To gather the information you need, search on the Internet. For example, put "timeline of Roma", "timeline of Armenia" or "timeline Saami Lappland" into any search engine.

Suggestions for follow-upGoto top

Use one of the dates you have on the calendar as a pretext for getting together with other groups to hold an event to promote human rights. 
If the group would like to find out more about some modern human rights heroes, then they could do the activity "Fighters for rights".
If the group is interested in how ideas change and develop over time they may like to do the activity "Soon to be outdated".

Ideas for actionGoto top

Illustrate the timeline with photographs or cartoons and exhibit it at an event; or set up a timeline at an open event and invite the public to participate.

Further informationGoto top

A partial summary of some of some events generally associated with the history of human rights:

1760 BCE In Babylon King Hammurabi draws up the "Code of Hammurabi". (Written on a big stone, the code promises to "make justice reign in the kingdom … and promote the good of the people".)

1440 BCE (approximately) The Torah of Moses gives the tribes of Israel the ten commandments, including detailed punishments for contravening the edict, "Thou shalt not kill".

528 BCE – 486 BCE In India, Buddha preaches morality, reverence for life, non-violence and right conduct.

26 – 33 CE Jesus Christ preaches morality, tolerance, justice, forgiveness and love.

613 – 632 CE Prophet Mohammed teaches the principles of equality, justice and compassion revealed in The Qur'an.

930 The Althing is founded in Iceland, the oldest parliamentary institution in the world.

1215 In England the Magna Carta is signed. (This is a document that limits the power of the King and gives free men the right to be judged by their peers.)

1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. (The National Assembly agrees the declaration which guarantees the rights to liberty, equality, property, security and resistance to oppression.)

1791 United States of America: Bill of Rights (The United States Congress agrees the Bill of Rights, amending the US Constitution to include rights to trial by jury, freedom of expression, speech, belief and assembly.)

1807 British and American anti-slavery laws passed.

1859 Battle of Solferino, which inspired Henry Dunant to found the International Committee of the Red Cross and led to the first Geneva conventions (on International Humanitarian Law)

1863 Creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross

1864 The Geneva Convention is adopted.

1899 The first Hague Convention is signed. Together with the Geneva Conventions it forms the basis for International Humanitarian Law.

1893 New Zealand gives women the vote. (The first country in the world to do this)

1945 End of World War II and of the Holocaust

1945 The United Nations (UN) is created. ("To reaffirm faith in human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person …")

1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is adopted by the UN.

1950 The European Convention on Human Rights is adopted by the Council of Europe.

1961 Amnesty International is created, as a result of a campaign to free two Portuguese students imprisoned for seven years for making a toast to freedom,

1965 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. (Entered into force in 1969)

1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (Entered into force in 1976)

1969 American Convention on Human Rights for the Americas, in force since 1978

1976 Soweto uprising, the turning point in the liberation struggle in South Africa

1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (Entered into force in 1981)

1981 The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. (Adopted by the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union)

1984 The Convention Against Torture (Entered into force in 1987)

1989 The Convention on the Rights of the Child (Entered into force in 1990. This is the most widely ratified human rights treaty; only the USA has not ratified it.)

1990 The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI)

1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development; Rio Declaration

1990 International Convention on the protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) (Entered into force in 2003)

2007 The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (The Convention received the highest number of signatories in history to a UN Convention on its opening day, and came into force in May 2008.)