Human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour and are regularly protected as natural and legal rights in municipal and international law. They are commonly understood as inalienable, fundamental rights “to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being” and which are “inherent in all human beings”, regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status. They are applicable everywhere and at every time in the sense of being universal, and they are egalitarian in the sense of being the same for everyone. They are regarded as requiring empathy and the rule of law and imposing an obligation on persons to respect the human rights of others, and it is generally considered that they should not be taken away except as a result of due process based on specific circumstances; for example, human rights may include freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture and execution.
The doctrine of human rights has been highly influential within international law, global and regional institutions. Actions by states and non-governmental organisations form a basis of public policy worldwide. The idea of human rights suggests that “if the public discourse of peacetime global society can be said to have a common moral language, it is that of human rights”. The strong claims made by the doctrine of human rights continue to provoke considerable scepticism and debates about the content, nature and justifications of human rights to this day. The precise meaning of the term right is controversial and is the subject of continued philosophical debate; while there is consensus that human rights encompasses a wide variety of rights such as the right to a fair trial, protection against enslavement, prohibition of genocide, free speech or a right to education (including the right to comprehensive sexuality education, among others), there is disagreement about which of these particular rights should be included within the general framework of human rights; some thinkers suggest that human rights should be a minimum requirement to avoid the worst-case abuses, while others see it as a higher standard. In the light of emerging neurotechnologies, four new rights were identified: the right to cognitive liberty, the right to mental privacy, the right to mental integrity, and the right to psychological continuity.
Many of the basic ideas that animated the human rights movement developed in the aftermath of the Second World War and the events of the Holocaust, culminating in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Ancient peoples did not have the same modern-day conception of universal human rights. The true forerunner of human rights discourse was the concept of natural rights which appeared as part of the medieval natural law tradition that became prominent during the European Enlightenment with such philosophers as John Locke, Francis Hutcheson and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui and which featured prominently in the political discourse of the American Revolution and the French Revolution. From this foundation, the modern human rights arguments emerged over the latter half of the 20th century, possibly as a reaction to slavery, torture, genocide and war crimes, as a realisation of inherent human vulnerability and as being a precondition for the possibility of a just society.
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
— 1st sentence of the Preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
— Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
International human rights law (IHRL) is the body of international law designed to promote human rights on social, regional, and domestic levels. As a form of international law, international human rights law are primarily made up of treaties, agreements between sovereign states intended to have binding legal effect between the parties that have agreed to them; and customary international law. Other international human rights instruments, while not legally binding, contribute to the implementation, understanding and development of international human rights law and have been recognized as a source of political obligation.
The relationship between international human rights law and international humanitarian law is disputed among international law scholars. This discussion forms part of a larger discussion on fragmentation of international law. While pluralist scholars conceive international human rights law as being distinct from international humanitarian law, proponents of the constitutionalist approach regard the latter as a subset of the former. In a nutshell, those who favors separate, self-contained regimes emphasize the differences in applicability; international humanitarian law applies only during armed conflict.
A more systemic perspective explains that international humanitarian law represents a function of international human rights law; it includes general norms that apply to everyone at all time as well as specialized norms which apply to certain situations such as armed conflict between both state and military occupation (i.e. IHL) or to certain groups of people including refugees (e.g. the 1951 Refugee Convention), children (the Convention on the Rights of the Child), and prisoners of war (the 1949 Third Geneva Convention).
International law is a crucial aspect of human rights. Governments are in a powerful position to control the freedoms of individuals or groups – freedoms that may be harder to win without international agreement and pressure.
A series of human rights treaties and other instruments adopted since 1945 has developed into an influential body of international human rights. These are monitored and implemented by important international institutions including the UN Human Rights Council, UN treaty bodies, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.
Obligations in international law are binding on countries which have agreed to abide by them. This means that when the UK Government has signed a treaty and Parliament has ratified it, the country has made a formal commitment and the Government must do everything the treaty requires.
This international dimension forms part of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s remit to embed a strong human rights culture in Britain.
The United Nations (UN) is an organisation founded to promote worldwide cooperation and to protect human rights. The main institutions within the UN which are relevant to human rights in Britain are as follows.
The UN Human Rights Council. This is made up of 47 States (in 2013 the UK was elected a member for a three-year term) and is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.
- The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. This:
- Supports human rights institutions and governments
- Monitors human rights practice
- Makes sure all UN work has a human rights perspective, and
- Supports implementation of human rights on the ground.
The General Assembly Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). This is one of the UN’s six Main Committees, focusing on a range of social, humanitarian and human rights issues.
UN treaty bodies. These monitor the implementation of international treaties. The UK has signed seven core UN treaties that deal with human rights. They include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
UN agencies that address human rights issues as part of their remit include UN Women, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Council of Europe
Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe is the oldest inter-governmental organisation in Europe. It has 47 Member States, 28 of which are members of the European Union. All Member States have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The European Court of Human Rights oversees the implementation of the Convention in the Member States. The Council and the European Court is based in Strasbourg, France.
The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 28 countries. These Member States have decided to share some of their sovereignty to allow collective decision making on matters which concern them all. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights brings together a wide range of human rights and freedoms in a single document.
National Human Rights Institutions
National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are independent bodies established to stand up for those in need of protection and hold governments to account for their human rights obligations. They also help shape laws, policies and attitudes that create stronger, fairer societies. NHRIs must meet a set of minimum international standards, known as the Paris Principles, to prove they can fulfil this role and demonstrate their independence from government.
In 2009 the Equality and Human Rights Commission joined the family of ‘A’ status accredited NHRIs around the world. The United Kingdom has three NHRIs:
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (which as an NHRI covers England and Wales, and human rights issues in Scotland that are reserved to the Westminster Parliament), the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The Equality and Human Rights Commission mandate with regard to equality law covers the whole of Great Britain.