21 of the most important human rights milestones in the last 100 years

Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., surrounded by crowds carrying signs, Washington, DC, 1963.

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Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., surrounded by crowds carrying signs, Washington, DC, 1963.
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Library of Congress

  • The last 100 years saw many changes in the way of human rights.
  • Widespread women’s suffrage, the end of segregation in the United States, and regulations on working conditions are a few examples.
  • The gay rights movement in the United States has seen huge progress in the last century.
  • Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman to be elected head of government in the world in 1960 in Sri Lanka.

Widespread women’s suffrage, the end of segregation in the United States, and regulations on working conditions are a few milestones that today’s society can credit to the last 100 years.

In the early 1900s, change was brewing amidst the violence and devastation of World War I and World War II. In the wake of the Holocaust, the creation of the United Nations on October 24, 1945, cast a new lens on the idea of universal human rights for every individual.

According to the UN, these rights were inherent to all human beings, including “the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more,” and they are still a cornerstone of foreign policy and human rights law in 2018.

Of course, it’s worth noting that there is still a long way to go in ensuring human rights for everyone.

Here are 21 of the most important human rights milestones in the last 100 years that continue to shape the world today.


February 6, 1918: Representation of the People Act gave women over age 30 the right to vote in the UK.

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The women also had to own property to vote at this time.
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National Archives UK

Although New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote in 1893, women’s suffrage in Europe didn’t gain momentum until after World War I.

Post-conflict, women’s contributions to the war effort were credited with changing the tide of popular opinion in favor of women’s suffrage. And in 1918, the Representation of the People Act finally gave UK women over the age of 30 who owned property the right to vote.

However, it wasn’t until 1928 that all women in the United Kingdom over 21 were granted universal suffrage.


August 18, 1920: Women won the right to vote in the United States.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were leaders in the movement.
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F. J. Mortimer / Stringer/GettyImages

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott held the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls where they shared a “Declaration of Sentiments” proclaiming women’s rights to the same freedoms enjoyed by men.

However, it wasn’t until 72 years later that the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote in the United States, was signed into law.


October 11, 1933: The League of Nations adopted the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of Full Age.

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Human trafficking is still a prominent issue today.
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Flickr Creative Commons

The League of Nations, an international organization created after World War I and ceased operations in 1946, aimed to more completely secure the suppression of trafficking in women and children.

Although the original treaty concluded in Geneva in 1933, it wasn’t amended and signed by the United Nations General Assembly until 1950, under the title “The Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Other.”


June 25, 1938: Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a minimum wage and working conditions in the United States.

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Working conditions saw improvement with the passing of this act.
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Hulton Archive / GettyImages

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the revolutionary Fair Labor Standards Act, which banned extreme child labor while setting a minimum hourly wage (25 cents at the time) as well as a maximum workweek of 44 hours before overtime pay.


December 10, 1948: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is adopted by the United Nations.

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first of its kind.
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Three Lions/GettyImages

After the atrocities of the Holocaust, the world recognized a need to set up a protective code of conduct to ensure that the devastation would never happen again.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed and adopted by the United Nations in 1948, marked the first time that multiple countries had come together to draft a joint statement about inalienable human rights.


May 17, 1954: The Supreme Court made segregation illegal in public schools.

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The case asked the question: Does the segregation of public education based solely on race violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
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Michael Ochs Archives /GettyImages

In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The case would become a foundation of the Civil Rights Movement with its rejection of the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been touted in earlier court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson.


1960: Described as “The Year of Africa,” 17 states gained the right of self-determination.

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Somalia gained independence on July 1, 1960.
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Andrew Renneisen/GettyImages

Between January and December of 1960, 17 sub-Saharan African nations regained their independence from their former European colonists in what’s known as the “Year of Africa.”

Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, and Benin were just a few of the 17 countries who won the fight for independence and underwent rapid political development.

Fourteen of the colonies were previously under French control while two were under British control and one under Belgium control.

The history-making year began in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 3 with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivering his “Wind of Change” speech.

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it,” Macmillan famously said.


July 21, 1960: Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman to be elected head of government in the world.

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Sirimavo Bandaranaike resigned in 2000.
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KeyStone/GettyImages

In the summer of 1960, Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman to be elected Prime Minister in the world, setting the stage for India’s Indira Gandhi and other female contemporaries. After four decades in power, she resigned in 2000 at the age of 84.


July 2, 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended lawful segregation in the United States.

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The act outlawed segregation in businesses such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels.
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William Lovelace /GettyImages

After a wave of protests, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – originally proposed by President John F. Kennedy – into law.

It ended de facto discrimination and voter suppression stemming from Jim Crow Laws by prohibiting segregation in public spaces as well as discrimination from employers based on race, color, religion, or sex.


August 6, 1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed voter discrimination on the basis of race.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson presented one of the pens used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to James Farmer, Director of the Congress of Racial Equality on August 6, 1965.
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National Archives/Handout

One year later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited discriminatory voting practices. Some states had been enforcing the grandfather clause, poll taxes, and literacy tests to prevent African Americans from exercising their 15th amendment right to vote.

The signing of the Voting Rights Act effectively protected the right of all minorities to vote.


January 4, 1969: The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was drafted.

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The document stated that “the existence of racial barriers is repugnant to the ideals of any human society.”
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UN Library of International Law

The United Nations took an important step against racial discrimination worldwide when 156 countries signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1969.

Not only did the document condemn discrimination based on race and promise a unified effort to end racism, but it also called out colonialism and apartheid.


June 28, 1970: The first gay pride parades were held in the United States.

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The gay pride parades serve as demonstrations for legal rights such as same-sex marriage.
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Steve Eason/GettyImages

On the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, where police clashed against members of the LGBT community during a violent raid, gay pride parades were held for the first time in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.


1972: Sweden became the first country to allow transgender individuals to legally change their gender.

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Sweden paved the way for progressive laws surrounding people who identify as transgender.
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Wikimedia Commons

Sweden was at the forefront of LGBT rights in the 1900s. In 1972, Sweden was the first country to allow transgender individuals to undergo gender-change surgery in addition to free hormones (although sterilization was mandatory).

Later, in 1979, Sweden would be among the first countries to declassify homosexuality as an illness, and in 1995, it passed a domestic partnership law.


January 22, 1973: Roe v. Wade gave American women the right to an abortion.

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Protestors frequently exercise their right to ensure Roe v. Wade isn’t overturned.
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Alex Wong/GettyImages

In 1973, the contentious Roe v. Wade ruling became the law of the land, pushing back on the constitutionality of restrictions to abortion access.

Currently, 97% of countries allow women to have abortions if the pregnancy is life-endangering, although it is still seen as a very controversial law. While the United Nations has stated that women have the right to make “their own decisions about their pregnancy,” the future of Roe v. Wade is uncertain in the United States.


April 1, 1980: The Refugee Act of 1980 regulated US asylum policy for refugees.

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Refugee status is a form of protection that may be granted to people who meet the definition of refugee and who are of special humanitarian concern to the US.
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David McNew/GettyImages

On March 17, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980 into law, and it went into effect just weeks later on April 1. The law, which was an update on the earlier Immigration and Nationality Act and the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, provided a clear national policy for handling refugees that’s been in place since.

It raised the annual limit from 17,400 to 50,000 refugees with a set protocol should that limit be exceeded. Carter’s amendment also created the Office of U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs and the Office of Refugee Resettlement to work with those seeking asylum.


April 27, 1994: Apartheid ended in South Africa.

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The inhumane system existed for over 40 years.
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Keystone /GettyImages

The struggle to bring racial apartheid to an end in South Africa was a long one. The system of segregation was in place from 1948 until the early 1990s, when the imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela began working with President F.W. Klerk to create a new constitution.

On May 10, 1994, Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s president, signaling the official end of apartheid. The election day on April 27 is still celebrated as a holiday in the country.


July 17, 1998: The United Nations adopts the International Criminal Court Statute.

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International Criminal Court (ICC) has a chief prosecutor (Luis Moreno-Ocampo is pictured) to prosecute on the grounds of war crimes.
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Mario Tama/GettyImages

At the end of the 20th century, the United Nations set the stage for an international court that could try individuals for crimes against humanity, although its effectiveness has been called into question in recent months after threats of sanctions from the United States and Israel.

First adopted in Rome in 1998, the International Criminal Court Statute didn’t go into effect until July 1, 2002. The International Criminal Court has the authority to try individuals on four charges: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression.


2007: Members of the UN sign the declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Member of the UN voted on September 13, 2007, to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which aimed to address the human rights of Indigenous Peoples around the globe and to promote their own needs and aspirations and to maintain and grow their own institutions.

It’s worth noting that Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States initially voted against adopting the declaration, but have all since adopted it.


2007: Members of the UN sign the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In 2007, 177 parties of the United Nations signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

A press release about the act claimed that it aimed to shift the perception of people with disabilities and grant those people full protection under the law. Some of the main features of the convention were requiring an adequate standard of living and social protection and eliminating discriminations dealing with marriage, family, and personal relations.


2011: “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” was repealed in the US military.

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Former US President Barack Obama repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In June 2011, then-President Barack Obama announced that the United States military would be ending its policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a 17-year-long law that had prevented openly gay people from participating in the military, the following September.

Of course, it’s worth noting that this repeal did not extend to all LGBT people, as President Donald Trump announced a ban on some transgender people from serving in the military earlier this year.


2015: Same-sex marriage was legalized nationally in the US.

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It had been legalized elsewhere before.
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Reuters / Kimberly White

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court struck down the ban on same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Same-sex marriage was legalized in certain states before the ruling, but this gave all same-sex couples federal rights that are given to married couples no matter where they lived in the country. But there are still some limitations on adoption depending on where you live.

Of course, it’s worth noting that it was actually the Netherlands that was the first country to fully legalize same-sex marriage in 2001.


2018: The ban was lifted on women driving in Saudi Arabia.

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Activists said there was still more work to be done.
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Sean Gallup/ Getty

In June 2018, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving for the first time. As CNN noted, the kingdom also recently lifted a ban on women having to ask a male guardian’s permission to travel.

Though this was a welcome change for many, activists in the country said it was only the first step on a long road to equal rights.

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