I have found this wiki page about Twelve Articles but as it says in this article:

The Twelve Articles (1525) are considered to be the first record of human rights in Europe

it considers only Europe. Is there any other earlier known document or event which says about equal human rights in the history of humanity?

  • Perhaps this is related: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule
    – James
    Jan 16, 2012 at 18:48
  • Too vague. What specific rights? For which specific groups of people? Remember that even "universal" rights actually sometimes exclude some groups (felons etc...)
    – DVK
    Jan 17, 2012 at 16:11
  • @DVK I kind of agree with You that my question is little bit :) too vague for SE site, but I really needed to recieve answer for question asked in this way so i hoped that it will pass :).
    – Archibald
    Jan 18, 2012 at 10:06
  • You need to differentiate equal wealth (socialism) equal power (democracy) equal reproductive success (monogamy), or equal freedom (libertarianism). Till today we're somewhere between with different people wanting different equality.
    – user4951
    May 13, 2012 at 17:28
  • Why don't we use the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 19, 2014 at 16:37

7 Answers 7


The Bible, in the story of Noah, has seven commandments just after the flood, that are given to the sons of Noah. The Bible explicitly states "He who spills the blood of man, his blood shall be spilled" (my translation from the Hebrew original). Jewish tradition has it as seven commandments, written out by the Rambam, who lived from 1138 to 1204. The commandments include:

  • Not spilling the blood of man (this is read as the right to life and freedom from attack).
  • Not taking property dishonestly or by force. (The Hebrew word is "Gezel", which means taking something which shouldn't rightly be yours by inappropriate means, as near as I can translate it.)
  • Incest is forbidden.
  • A system of justice must be created.

These commandments are given (according to the Rambam, "Ways of Kings and Wars", chapter 8) to all humanity, and not only to the Jewish people. In the Bible, this story appears before the inception of the people of Israel. This means that it was intended universally, for all humanity.

  • 1
    Still the Bible permits slavery. Thus it does not promote equality of all people.
    – Anixx
    Jan 16, 2012 at 20:16
  • 11
    @Anixx, those rights applied to all, including slaves. The modern conceptions of freedom (along with other rights) did not apply. So it depends which rights the OP is most interested in. Jan 16, 2012 at 20:50
  • 1
    @DVK If there was a requirement to free them after a fixed period of time I think Indentured Servant would be a better fit than POW. Jan 17, 2012 at 19:15
  • 4
    This is a terrible answer, since the Bible specifically presents these Noahide laws as an reduced subset of laws which are generally applicable to all people. Jews are required to follow a more detailed law. The Noahide laws do not advocate equality, just the opposite, they advocate that Jews have special rights and privileges towards each other than toward non-Jews. The universal faith, which made no such discriminations, is Catholicism, but it considered Jews heretics. Islam considered pagans unworthy. It is only the enlightenement philosophy that gave us universal rights.
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 29, 2012 at 6:01
  • 1
    That the law is valid for all is one part of equal human rights, but not in any way the only one. The examples you take up are not even rights in any way. Feb 16, 2014 at 10:55

After some research i have also found this verse (Galatians 3:28, NIV) in New Testament:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

It might be younger than Hammurabi Code or story of Noah but in my opinion it describes freedom in little bit wider aspect so it is still worth mentioning.

  • 2
    This is indeed the first statement of universal Christian rights, but it required you to be Christian! It excluded pagans and Jews, and later Muslims. Muslims only excluded Pagans. The only difference is today we include everybody.
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 29, 2012 at 6:07

If I were to name a non-sectarian document, I would cite the Hammurabi Code dates to somewhere in the early 18th century BC. It has the basic, "presumed innocent" idea — something we, in the United States, hold sacrosanct.

  • 4
    Yeah, sacrosant. This is not the place for flames, nor the place for opinions: only facts. Hence, please, remove (or at least modify in a satisfactory way) the last sentence since that idea is violated daily.
    – o0'.
    Jan 16, 2012 at 21:21
  • 1
    Simply because an idea or policy is sacrosanct does not mean that it isn't interfered with. While it may be violated daily, that does not mean that it is not something which our justice system and our populous professes as the standard by which the accused are measured. Jan 17, 2012 at 7:43
  • Still, put it this way, you imply it is a very respected policy. Since it is not, I think you'd better clarify your post to stop giving this wrong idea.
    – o0'.
    Jan 17, 2012 at 9:50
  • Well, I think that entirely depends on your definition of the word, "respected". If you mean, "held in high esteem" or "viewed as worthy of honor," then I would say that it is very respected indeed. If you mean, "followed", then the question becomes a good deal more ambiguous and can vary based on a variety of variables. Jan 17, 2012 at 10:37
  • And, because of that, it would be better to avoid stating it as you did.
    – o0'.
    Jan 17, 2012 at 10:45

Equality can be different: equality before law, equality before God, economic equality, racial/physiological equality, sexual equality etc etc etc.

Neither Judaism nor Christianity nor traditional classical religion provided for universal equality.


  • permits slavery (inequality before law)

  • provides that Jews are the chosen people, prefers monotheistic non-Jews to polytheistic, restricts women's rights to participate in the service and visit the temple, provides for a priest caste (levites), restricts rights of the wounded to become priests, prefers a chosen dynasty of kings (those who descended from David), alleges that blacks were punished by the God for their sins with black color of their skin. (inequality before God, sexual inequality, racial inequality)


  • permits slavery, although discourages it, permits hereditary dynasties (inequality before law)
  • provides that Christians are preferred to non-Christians (inequality before God)
  • restricts women's rights to become priests (sexual inequality)

Similar lists one can compile about any religion, doctrine and ideology.

  • 3
    Some of this is not entirely indisputable. "equality," does not mean, "literal sameness of act" but rather, "sameness of value". David was condemned for the murder of Uriah, even though Uriah's life was (technically) his to dispose of. Similarly Christian "sexual inequality" is more accurately understood as assertion of "difference of role" not "gender superiority/inferiority" Jan 17, 2012 at 7:45
  • 2
    This does not answer the question I am afraid. It just refutes some points in other posts. Could you expend it to refute all major religions (which would kind of answer the question) or better yet focus on answering the question? Jan 17, 2012 at 8:21
  • 1
    @Anixx: I don't think ancient Christianity permitted Christians to own Christian slaves, but I might be wrong.
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 29, 2012 at 6:08
  • 1
    Bah. I upvoted this before I read the last sentence. That was a mistake. Feb 16, 2014 at 10:56
  • 2
    This doesn't answer the question - this is merely an argument that two religions fall short of the goal.
    – MCW
    Feb 19, 2014 at 11:54

(I have limits on how many references I can add. I will bold important terms that have useful Wikipedia pages) The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled. It was signed in 1948 by the UN General Assembly. It elaborates on the ideas of: 1. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt that all people have "Four Freedoms": freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want 2. The original United Nations Charter which "committed all member states to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion" 3. "Code Napoléon" principles of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood.

The earliest example of a person to promote universal human rights is Sir Thomas More in the seminal work, "Utopia," published in 1516. Utopia was a fictional republic without landed gentry or lords, but rather with an elected parliament. The people have freedom of religion and common property (equality in wealth). Honors are bestowed for virtue, not for wealth or status, such as being the elected prince. The legal system is simplified so that everyone can have equal justice. Slavery, or forced labor, is disallowed except as a harsh criminal sentence and many rules are enforced to protect the criminals. The Utopians use the j*ust war theory* and avoid brutality in warfare. Women are allowed to be priests, in the military, and commonly work in the economy outside the home. Divorce is allowed in some circumstances, no arranged marriages and they have some sexual freedom before marriage.

More was a *Christian Humanist* who lived from 1478–1535, which places him decades to nearly a century to many writers of the Enlightenment on the subject of human rights, such as Voltaire. He was close friends with Erasmus, who is credited with laying the foundations for the philosophy of religious tolerance in Europe due to his close relationship with Martin Luther. More was considered the most influential philosopher in England at the time he was martyred by Henry XIII, ironically in some ways, for refusing to endorse his divorce.


Ugarkina of Lagash, circa the 24th century BCE, is generally credited* as the first effective reformer in recorded history to grant broad legal rights to commoners, the poor and disabled, and elevate many more women into the ranks of the political elite while reigning in secular corruption and abuse of power by wealthy landowners and the priestly class. These reforms and rights are documented on the Liberty Cones of Lagash. The economic reforms are based on those of his predecessor Enmetena, but Ugarkina goes further in guaranteeing the rights of his subjects, and there is evidence of both their positive outcomes, and disastrous consequences (the reactionary military class stood by while the city was conquered.)

(*Criticisms of this claim are typically from the extreme left and right wings of the political spectrum and not supported by available evidence, or worse, confused with Enmetena or other rulers not associated with Lagash.)

  • Ugakina didn't promote "equality rights for all people." A legal code is an expression of political rights, but not "human rights," since one is derived from state power and the other people are born with. Property is considered by many a human rights, but when Ugarkina made his reforms, there is no evidence that he believed the peasants had human rights rather than political rights.
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 21, 2014 at 0:48
  • @Guest - That is too fine a hair to split. Feb 21, 2014 at 20:54
  • Yeah, its almost like all these answers need to be combined to answer the question
    – Razie Mah
    Feb 22, 2014 at 19:32

(1) The teachings of Buddha, 6th century B.C..

As pointed out by Rajib, while the Principal Teachings of Buddhism may not directly strive for greater equality, but during the time of its inception Buddhism rose as an opposing force to Vedic Brahmanism and certainly held "equality" as one of its primary objectives. So Gautam Buddha makes a case for the pioneers for espousing equality.

Some of the fundamentals of the teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha are:

The Four Noble Truths: that suffering is an ingrained part of existence; that the origin of suffering is craving for sensuality, acquisition of identity, and annihilation; that suffering can be ended; and that following the Noble Eightfold Path is the means to accomplish this;

The Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration;

Dependent origination: the mind creates suffering as a natural product of a complex process;

Rejection of the infallibility of accepted scripture: Teachings should not be accepted unless they are borne out by our experience and are praised by the wise.

Anicca (Sanskrit: anitya): That all things that come to be have an end;

Dukkha (Sanskrit: duḥkha): That nothing which comes to be is ultimately satisfying;

Anattā (Sanskrit: anātman): That nothing in the realm of experience can really be said to be "I" or "mine";

Nibbāna (Sanskrit: Nirvāna): It is possible for sentient beings to realize a dimension of awareness which is totally unconstructed and peaceful, and end all suffering due to the mind's interaction with the conditioned world.

(2) Besides, the edicts of Emperor Ashoka , a devout of Buddha from the 3rd Century B.C. also qualify. He is said to have turned a pacifist and converted to Buddhism after witnessing the mass murders in the battle of Kalinga. The edicts describe in detail Ashoka's views on "dhamma", an earnest attempt to solve some of the problems that a complex society faced, besides the extent of proselytism campaigns he carried out.

Dharma is good, but what constitutes Dharma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity. Pilar Edict Nb2 (S. Dharmika)

And noble deeds of Dharma and the practice of Dharma consist of having kindness, generosity, truthfulness, purity, gentleness and goodness increase among the people. Rock Pilar Nb7 (S. Dharmika)

The full translation of the edicts could be found here

(3) Confucius, 6th century B.C., was one of the pioneers of humanism, and his teachings, later structured into Confucianism became an integral part of Chinese thought.

  • If you posted a summary of some of the edicts and why you think they would qualify, this answer would be a lot better.
    – Kobunite
    Feb 19, 2014 at 10:04
  • I updated my answer.
    – rajat
    Feb 19, 2014 at 10:25
  • Interesting argument - however I'm not sure that the capabili9ty to achieve a new dimension of awareness is related to human rights.
    – MCW
    Feb 19, 2014 at 11:55
  • @MarkC.Wallace Well, as other answers suggest, a set of teachings could sure can be used to formulate laws promoting well-being. Confucianism, for instance, endorsed Humanism and Ashoka turned from a warmonger to a pacifist.
    – rajat
    Feb 19, 2014 at 12:24
  • You've made a crucial point - are "laws promoting well being" the same as "human rights"? Do we have human rights a priori, or are they an artifact of the state?
    – MCW
    Feb 19, 2014 at 12:38

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