What are human rights?
Human rights are fundamental freedoms that every person enjoys, and that governments are obliged to respect, protect and fulfil in accordance with international law.
Human rights are universal, embodying a common understanding of freedom, dignity and equality.
While the values captured can be found in many traditions and philosophies, human rights emerged as an international concept following the Second World War and were set out for the first time in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.
The Declaration was not simply an exercise in idealism. Following the devastation of the war, the protection of human rights was understood as essential to preventing future atrocities and ensuring a lasting peace.
Why are human rights important?
Human rights safeguard autonomy and freedom, along with access to food, employment, healthcare and other material conditions that allow for a life with dignity. They protect against oppressive and discriminatory behaviour by governments and drive progress towards fairer, thriving societies.
As legal rights, they provide a route for accountability and for change through national courts and international mechanisms. They also facilitate collective action, enabling communities to build narratives that are based on common values and on duties accepted by states.
The world is at a critical moment for human rights. As geopolitical competition intensifies, China continues to push back on human rights norms, promoting an approach that is heavily state-centric and resistant to oversight or accountability. It points to its economic record as evidence that civil and political freedoms are not necessary for economic success.
China’s stance is emboldening others with autocratic tendencies. This stance also resonates with those frustrated by the Global North’s selective approach to human rights, which has historically downplayed socio-economic rights and been inconsistent in calling out abuses.
The Global North’s credibility has also been compromised in recent years, partly because of controversies around the US-led ‘war on terror’ and as a result of ambivalent – or sometimes hostile – comments from certain leaders about human rights norms and bodies.
This challenging geopolitical environment is complicated by the complexity and urgency of contemporary issues, including emerging technology, the climate crisis and deepening inequality, which also profoundly impact human rights. Yet, long-established human rights standards agreed by states are often missing from policy conversations on these areas.
What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the UDHR. Beyond its significant moral and political force, many of its provisions are now regarded as part of customary international law.
The Declaration was also instrumental in the development of international human rights law through the adoption of numerous treaties.
These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which, together with the UDHR, are known as the International Bill of Human Rights.
The rights covered in the International Bill of Rights include the right to life, the prohibition on torture, freedom of expression, the right to vote, the right to employment and the right to health.
Human rights treaties allow for a careful balancing between competing rights and between human rights and other societal interests. They also set up global bodies and mechanisms tasked with promoting and monitoring respect for human rights.
What are human rights in the UK?
The concept of human rights has a long history in the UK. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the Magna Carta of 1215, which established that subjects of the crown had legal rights.
Today, everyone in the UK enjoys the rights guaranteed by international human rights treaties that the UK is a party to, including the ICCPR, the ICESCR and the European Convention on Human Rights. The rights contained in the European Convention have been translated into UK law through the 1998 Human Rights Act.
The Act requires all public authorities to respect and protect the rights contained within it. It also requires UK courts to interpret legislation, where possible, in a way which is compatible with the European Convention and allows human rights complaints to be raised in UK courts.
What is the European Convention on Human Rights?
The European Convention on Human Rights is one of a number of regional human rights treaties that complement human rights treaties adopted at the global level. Other regional agreements include the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The European Convention is an instrument of the Council of Europe, an organization unrelated to the EU, and covers more than 40 countries including Azerbaijan, France, Croatia, Georgia, Iceland, Norway, Turkey, the UK and Ukraine.
The Convention – which this year marks 70 years since it entered into force – was adopted in 1950, inspired by the UDHR and largely driven by the experience of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The UK was instrumental in the Convention’s drafting and adoption.
What is the European Court of Human Rights?
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), based in Strasbourg, France, was set up to rule on alleged breaches of the European Convention. Cases can be brought by individuals, groups or states which have ratified this treaty.
The court only reviews cases once all domestic avenues for remedy have been exhausted. Its influence can be seen in policy and law reform across Council of Europe member states on issues such as labour rights, domestic violence and media freedoms.
The ECHR interprets the rights in the Convention according to its ‘living instrument’ doctrine – a dynamic approach that takes into account ‘present-day conditions’, such as changing social norms and advances in technology, in order to give effect to the treaty’s purpose.
Over the last decade or so, there has been significant pushback against the court from both architects of the European Convention system such as the UK and more recent entrants like Poland.
Controversies have tended to focus on politically sensitive issues where the court’s ‘living instrument’ approach has led to accusations of overreach, with its critics arguing that the decisions in question should properly be left to national parliaments and courts.
Tensions have arisen, for example, around asylum and deportation cases and prisoner voting rights. As rule of law deteriorates in a number of Council of Europe countries, outright attacks on the court’s legitimacy have also arisen.
Complaints by UK governments in recent years about the court’s approach have culminated in a proposal to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights. It is currently unclear whether the government will attempt to pass this legislation before the next general election.
The proposed Bill of Rights has been strongly criticised for undermining human rights protection in the UK and for damaging the UK’s international reputation. A key concern with the Bill is that it would make it harder to seek redress for human rights violations. UK courts would be restricted in the cases they could hear, forcing more individuals to take complaints to the ECHR.