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The Documents

Advancing the Rights of Humanity

Theme Description

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. —Magna Carta

Imprisonment begins when freedom is lost. Sometimes that prison is tangible, locked behind barbed wire and metal bars. But other times, it’s not so visible—it’s a loss within the heart and mind. Over many centuries, great thinkers have expressed that loss and attempted to define it. The idea of human rights—that everyone, by virtue of her or his humanity, is entitled to certain basic freedoms—draws upon religious, cultural, philosophical, and legal developments throughout history.

The framework for human rights as we know them today began with documents that considered what rights humans have, where these rights originate, and who should have those rights. They argued for basic freedoms—from oppression and cruelty, to make reasonable choices, to have access to food, work, and education. Oppressed people around the world have drawn on these principles to confront and mobilize against injustice.

Several of these influential documents are included in this exhibit. The power of these writings continues to shape the pursuit of human rights today, as the “right to have rights” extends to an ever-wider portion of the human community.

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