Human Rights Law

As a subject that touches upon every individual's life, human rights law plays a critical role in ensuring justice and equality across the globe. Delving into the depths of its principles, history, and applications provides a profound understanding of the legal protections humans are entitled to. In this article, you will grasp the essence of human rights law, get acquainted with the UK's specific legislation, and discover how it is practised around the world. Begin by exploring the definition, list, and history of human rights, followed by an insight into the Human Rights Act and common law human rights in the UK, before concluding with a global perspective on humanitarian law and its differences to human rights law.

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Table of contents

    Understanding Human Rights Law

    Human rights law consists of crucial legal protections that ensure the basic dignity, equality, and freedom of every individual. This field of law has a vast history that goes back centuries and has evolved over time to provide numerous rights to all people. Let's delve into the world of human rights law and explore its foundations, examples, and history.

    Definition of human rights

    Human rights are fundamental rights and freedoms that every individual is entitled to, regardless of nationality, sex, race, or ethnicity. They are based on principles like dignity, fairness, and equality, which aim to build a just and inclusive society, promoting the moral worth of each individual.

    List of human rights

    There are several human rights, which have been explicitly stated in international treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Here are some of the most important human rights:
    • Right to life, liberty, and security of person
    • Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
    • Freedom of opinion and expression
    • Right to work in just and favourable conditions
    • Right to education
    • Right to participate in cultural, artistic, and scientific life
    • Right to an adequate standard of living
    • Prohibition of torture, inhuman, and degrading treatment

    History of human rights law

    The concept of human rights has a vast history that dates back to ancient civilizations. Some key milestones in the development of human rights law include:
    1. The Magna Carta (1215) - A charter asserting the rights of English nobles, which laid the foundation of individual rights against arbitrary state power.
    2. The English Bill of Rights (1689) - A document setting out specific protections for individuals against arbitrary actions by the monarch and the state.
    3. The United States Declaration of Independence (1776) and the United States Constitution (1787) - Both documents enshrining fundamental rights and democratic principles.
    4. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) - A key document of the French Revolution that enshrined fundamental human rights and equality.
    5. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) - Adopted by the United Nations (UN), it is considered the foundation of modern human rights law and has inspired numerous international treaties and national constitutions.

    Throughout history, the scope of human rights law has widened significantly, embracing new areas and issues. Notable developments include the International Labour Organization (established in 1919) to secure fair labor rights, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) to protect refugee rights, and many other conventions addressing gender, racial, and disability discrimination.

    Examples of human rights

    There are numerous examples of human rights, each designed to protect specific aspects of human dignity, equality, and freedom. A few of these rights are elaborated below.

    Freedom of expression - It is a fundamental right that allows individuals to express their opinions freely without interference. This right is often used by activists, journalists, and artists to voice their opinions on political, social, and cultural issues. However, this right is not absolute, and may be subject to limitations to protect the rights of others, national security, or public order.

    Right to education - Every person has the right to access education, which plays a vital role in personal development and societal progress. This right includes access to free and compulsory primary education, availability of secondary and higher education, as well as the elimination of discrimination in education. Educated citizens are essential for the development of an inclusive and informed society.

    Prohibition of torture - Human rights law prevents any cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. This prohibition extends to physical and psychological harm inflicted on an individual, making it an essential safeguard against state abuses of power. Instances of torture not only violate the dignity of the affected person but also undermines the very essence of a just and humane society.

    Human Rights Law UK

    In the United Kingdom, human rights law manifests through various sources such as the Human Rights Act 1998, common law principles, and multiple other legislative and regulatory instruments. These sources aim to safeguard the rights and freedoms of individuals while fostering equality and justice within society.

    Human Rights Act

    The United Kingdom enacted the Human Rights Act 1998, which serves as the cornerstone of human rights law in the country. The Act incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, allowing individuals to bring cases for the violation of their ECHR rights within domestic courts. The Human Rights Act establishes important rights, which are detailed below:
    • Article 2 - Right to life
    • Article 3 - Prohibition of torture, inhuman, or degrading treatment
    • Article 4 - Prohibition of slavery and forced labour
    • Article 5 - Right to liberty and security
    • Article 6 - Right to a fair trial
    • Article 7 - No punishment without law
    • Article 8 - Right to respect for private and family life
    • Article 9 - Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
    • Article 10 - Freedom of expression
    • Article 11 - Freedom of assembly and association
    • Article 12 - Right to marry and found a family
    • Article 14 - Prohibition of discrimination
    The Human Rights Act also requires public authorities in the UK to comply with these rights and courts to interpret legislation, as much as possible, in a way that is compatible with these rights.

    Common law human rights

    In addition to statutory human rights law like the Human Rights Act, the United Kingdom's legal system is built on common law. Common law is a legal system that develops through the decisions and judgments of courts, which creates precedents that influence future cases. Over the years, common law has developed and safeguarded various human rights. Some prominent common law rights include:
    • Habeas Corpus - The right to challenge unlawful detention
    • Legal professional privilege - The right to confidentiality in communication with legal advisors
    • The right to a fair trial, including the presumption of innocence and the right to be represented by counsel
    • Natural justice - The right to due process, including the right to be heard and the right to an impartial decision-maker
    • Freedom of speech - Although more regulated than in countries like the United States, the common law protects freedom of speech and expression to a certain extent
    While the Human Rights Act and the ECHR have strengthened the protection of human rights in the UK, common law continues to play a vital role in safeguarding these rights and providing further protections not explicitly mentioned in statute law.

    Areas of human rights law in the UK

    In the United Kingdom, human rights law touches upon various specific legal areas. Some relevant areas where human rights law has a significant impact include:
    • Employment law - Here, human rights play a critical role in protecting against workplace discrimination, ensuring fair wages, and guaranteeing safe working conditions.
    • Family law - Human rights help protect the right to marry, family unity, and the welfare of children in family and matrimonial disputes.
    • Immigration law - Human rights principles are crucial in safeguarding the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants, ensuring that they are treated with dignity and respect.
    • Criminal law - Human rights law helps protect the rights of defendants throughout the criminal justice process, including the right to a fair trial and the prohibition of torture and inhuman treatment.
    • Privacy law - Here, human rights protections extend to privacy rights, including the right to respect for private and family life and the protection of personal data.
    • Equality law - Human rights law helps enforce anti-discrimination legislation, promoting equal treatment and safeguarding against prejudice on various grounds such as race, gender, disability, and more.
    In conclusion, human rights law is a crucial component of the United Kingdom's legal structure, with complex interactions between the Human Rights Act, common law, and various legal areas. It continues to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs and aspirations of society, ensuring the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms for all individuals.

    Exploring Human Rights Law around the world

    Human rights law has been evolving and developing throughout history, varying across different cultures and nations. This dynamic field of law aims to provide protections and safeguards for individuals in distinct regions and contexts. To gain a deeper understanding of human rights law globally, let us examine the first human rights law, the relationship between humanitarian law and human rights law, and the differences between these two legal domains.

    First human rights law

    The first known human rights law can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Babylon, where the Code of Hammurabi (around 1754 BCE) set out a collection of laws and regulations aiming to establish a fair legal system. However, while the Code of Hammurabi was an early attempt to enshrine certain principles of justice in law, it did not specifically focus on individual rights and freedoms in the modern understanding.

    On the other hand, the concept of human rights as we know it today began to take shape with the Magna Carta in 1215. The Magna Carta represents an essential turning point in human rights history as it limited the king's power in England and granted certain rights and protections to nobles. Although the Magna Carta did not enshrine universally applicable human rights, it set the stage for later developments in the field of human rights law, such as the English Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

    Meanwhile, across the world in different regions, similar principles and rights began to emerge in the form of various cultural, religious, and philosophical beliefs. For example, the Cyrus Cylinder from ancient Persia (539 BCE) and the Indian Edicts of Ashoka (around 260 BCE) both aimed at promoting principles of justice, tolerance, and compassion.

    In conclusion, the first human rights law can be found in various forms and manifestations throughout history and across different civilizations. However, the present understanding of human rights law finds its roots in documents like the Magna Carta, which paved the way for subsequent expansions of individual rights and protections in both national and international legal systems.

    Humanitarian law vs human rights law

    Both humanitarian law and human rights law are concerned with the protection of individuals and the safeguarding of their dignity. However, they differ in scope, focus, and application. Let's briefly discuss each:

    Humanitarian law

    Also known as the law of armed conflict or the law of war, humanitarian law is a body of international law that governs the conduct of armed conflict. Its main objectives are to:

    • Protect persons who are not, or are no longer, directly participating in hostilities, such as civilians, prisoners of war, and the wounded
    • Limit the methods and means of warfare, including prohibiting certain weapons and practices
    • Ensure that humanitarian relief operations can be carried out effectively during armed conflict

    Humanitarian law finds its foundation in numerous treaties and conventions, such as the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, as well as customary international law. It is primarily applicable during armed conflicts, distinguishing between international and non-international armed conflicts, and focuses on the conduct of parties to the conflict, including states and non-state armed groups.

    Human rights law

    As discussed earlier, human rights law concerns fundamental rights and freedoms that every individual is entitled to, regardless of nationality, sex, race, or ethnicity. Human rights law finds its basis in various international treaties and conventions, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Human rights law applies in all situations, both during peacetime and armed conflict, and is primarily concerned with the relationship between the State and individuals within its jurisdiction.

    Difference between human rights law and humanitarian law

    While both fields of law share a common goal of protecting individuals, they differ in several key aspects:

    1. Scope of application: Humanitarian law is specifically designed for situations of armed conflict, while human rights law applies universally, both during peacetime and armed conflict.
    2. Protected persons: Humanitarian law focuses on protecting persons directly affected by armed conflict, whereas human rights law protects all individuals within a State's jurisdiction.
    3. Binding parties: Humanitarian law governs the conduct of parties to an armed conflict, including states and non-state armed groups, while human rights law is primarily concerned with the obligations of states towards individuals within their jurisdiction.
    4. Legal sources: Humanitarian law and human rights law are derived from different sets of treaties, conventions, and customary international law, with humanitarian law being primarily based on the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, and human rights law on documents like the UDHR, ICCPR, and ICESCR.
    5. Limitations and derogations: Human rights law permits certain rights to be limited or derogated from during situations of emergency or public interest, while humanitarian law sets absolute limits on the conduct of armed conflict and provides specific protections for affected persons, regardless of the situation.
    In summary, although both humanitarian law and human rights law revolve around the protection and safeguarding of individuals, they differ in scope, application, and focus. While both fields of law are essential components of the international legal framework, they operate independently, each addressing specific challenges and situations to ensure the respect for human dignity and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms.

    Human Rights Law - Key takeaways

    • Definition of human rights: Fundamental rights and freedoms entitled to every individual regardless of nationality, sex, race, or ethnicity, based on principles like dignity, fairness, and equality.

    • List of human rights: Examples include the right to life, liberty, and security, freedom of thought and expression, right to education, and prohibition of torture and inhuman treatment.

    • History of human rights law: Key milestones include the Magna Carta (1215), English Bill of Rights (1689), US Declaration of Independence (1776), French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

    • Human Rights Law UK: Encompasses the Human Rights Act 1998 (incorporates European Convention on Human Rights into UK law), common law human rights, and various legislative and regulatory instruments.

    • Difference between human rights law and humanitarian law: While both aim to protect individuals, they differ in scope, application, and focus; human rights law applies universally while humanitarian law is specific to armed conflict situations.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Human Rights Law
    What is Human Rights Law?
    Human Rights Law is a set of legal principles and international treaties that aim to protect and promote the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals. It encompasses a wide range of rights, including but not limited to, the right to life, liberty, freedom of speech, and protection from torture. These rights are considered universal and apply to all humans, regardless of nationality, race, or gender. Human Rights Law is enforced by international bodies like the United Nations, as well as through national legislation and judicial systems.
    How does common law protect human rights in the UK?
    Common law in the UK protects human rights through the application of legal principles developed over time by judges in various court cases. These principles establish and enforce fundamental human rights, such as the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, and the prohibition of torture. Additionally, UK common law utilises the concept of judicial review to challenge decisions made by public authorities that might infringe upon human rights. However, since the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998, common law protection of human rights has been supplemented and strengthened by this statutory framework.
    Are human rights considered international law?
    Yes, human rights are a part of international law. They are enshrined in numerous international treaties, conventions, and declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These instruments set out the fundamental rights and freedoms that all individuals are entitled to, and states that ratify these treaties are legally obligated to uphold and protect these rights for everyone within their jurisdiction.
    How many human rights are there?
    There is no fixed number of human rights, as they constantly evolve and expand to accommodate the needs of society. However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948, comprises 30 fundamental rights that are universally recognised as the basis for protecting human dignity and ensuring social justice. Additionally, there are other international human rights instruments and treaties that articulate further rights.
    Which legislation protects human rights?
    The primary legislation protecting human rights in the UK is the Human Rights Act 1998. This Act incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, covering civil and political rights such as the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, and the prohibition of torture. Additionally, other domestic laws, such as the Equality Act 2010, safeguard human rights by prohibiting discrimination. Internationally, the UK is also bound by human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which ancient civilization's legal code laid down principles of justice and property rights that influenced modern human rights understanding?

    Which two documents adopted during the Age of Enlightenment served as foundations for modern human rights principles?

    Name one of the regional human rights instruments that contribute to the protection and understanding of human rights worldwide.

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