Human rights are like armour: they protect you; they are like rules, because they tell you how you can behave; and they are like judges, because you can appeal to them. They are abstract – like emotions; and like emotions, they belong to everyone and they exist no matter what happens.
They are like nature because they can be violated; and like the spirit because they cannot be destroyed. Like time, they treat us all in the same way – rich and poor, old and young, white and black, tall and short. They offer us respect, and they charge us to treat others with respect. Like goodness, truth and justice, we may sometimes disagree about their definition, but we recognise them when we see them.

 Question: How do you define human rights? How do you explain what they are?

When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education and opinion.
John Stuart Mill

A right is a claim that we are justified in making. I have a right to the goods in my shopping basket if I have paid for them. Citizens have a right to elect a president, if the constitution of their country guarantees it, and a child has a right to be taken to the zoo, if her parents have promised that they will take her. These are all things that people can be entitled to expect, given the promises or guarantees that have been undertaken by another party.
Human rights, however, are super claims with a difference. They are not dependent on promises or guarantees by another party. Someone's right to life is not dependent on someone else promising not to kill him or her: their life may be, but their right to life is not. Their right to life is dependent on only one thing: that they are human.

An acceptance of human rights means accepting that everyone is entitled to make these claims: I have these rights, no matter what you say or do, because I am a human being, just like you. Human rights are inherent to all human beings as a birthright. Why should that claim not need any particular behaviour to back it up? Why shouldn't we require human beings to deserve their rights?
A human rights claim is ultimately a moral claim, and rests on moral values. What my right to life really means is that no-one ought to take my life away from me; it would be wrong to do so. Put like that, the claim doesn't need backing up. Every reader is probably in agreement with it because we all recognise, in our own cases, that there are certain aspects of our life, our being, that ought to be inviolable and that no one else ought to be able to infringe, because they are essential to our being, who we are and what we are; they are essential to our humanity and our human dignity. Without human rights we cannot achieve our full potential. Human rights simply extend this understanding on an individual level to every human being on the planet. If I can make these claims, then so can everyone else as well.

Every time justice dies, it is as if it had never existed.
José Saramago

Question: Why is it wrong to infringe someone else's right to life?
Why is it wrong to take their life away?Are these the same questions?

Key values

I regard the death penalty as a savage and immoral institution that determines the moral and legal foundations of a society. I am convinced  - that savagery begets only savagery.
Andrei Sakharov

Two of the key values that lie at the core of the idea of human rights are human dignity and equality. Human rights can be understood as defining those basic standards which are necessary for a life of dignity; and their universality is derived from the fact that in this respect, at least, all humans are equal. We should not, and cannot, discriminate between them.
These two beliefs, or values, are really all that is required to subscribe to the idea of human rights, and these beliefs are hardly controversial. That is why human rights receive support from every culture in the world, every civilised government and every major religion. It is recognised almost universally that state power cannot be unlimited or arbitrary; it needs to be limited at least to the extent that all individuals within its jurisdiction can live with certain minimum requirements for human dignity.

Many other values can be derived from these two fundamental ones and can help to define more precisely how in practice people and societies should co-exist. For example:
Freedom: because the human will is an important part of human dignity. To be forced to do something against our will demeans the human spirit.
Respect for others: because a lack of respect for someone fails to appreciate their individuality and essential dignity.
Non-discrimination: because equality in human dignity means we should not judge people's rights and opportunities on the basis of their characteristics.
Tolerance: because intolerance indicates a lack of respect for difference; and equality does not signify uniformity.
Justice: because people equal in their humanity deserve fair treatment
Responsibility: because respecting the rights of others entails responsibility for one's actions and exerting effort for the realisation of the rights of one and all.

Characteristics of human rights

["Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of equality treat other with respect and compassion."
Suman Suttam]

Philosophers may continue to argue about the nature of human rights, but the international community started its astonishing commitment to human rights through the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, the international community has established the UDHR's powerful concepts in numerous international, regional and domestic legal instruments. The UDHR was not intended to be legally binding, but the establishment of its norms in numerous subsequent binding treaties (otherwise known as ‘conventions' or ‘covenants') makes the legal standing of its norms unquestionable today.  According to these principles:

Human rights are inalienable.
This means that you cannot lose them, because they are linked to the very fact of human existence, they are inherent to all human beings. In particular circumstances some – though not all – may be suspended or restricted. For example, if someone is found guilty of a crime, his or her liberty can be taken away; or in times of national emergency, a government may declare this publicly and then derogate from some rights, for example in imposing a curfew restricting freedom of movement.

Human rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.
This means that different human rights are intrinsically connected and cannot be viewed in isolation from each other. The enjoyment of one right depends on the enjoyment of many other rights and no one right is more important than the rest.

Human rights are universal,.
Which means that they apply equally to all people everywhere in the world, and with no time limit. Every individual is entitled to enjoy his or her human rights without distinction of "race" or ethnic background, colour, sex, sexual orientation, disability, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, birth or other status.

"State sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself." Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001

We should note that the universality of human rights does not in any way threaten the rich diversity of individuals or of different cultures. Universality is not synonymous with uniformity. Diversity requires a world where everyone is equal, and equally deserving of respect. Human rights serve as minimum standards applying to all human beings; each state and society is free to define and apply higher and more specific standards. For example, in the field of economic, social and cultural rights we find the obligation to undertake steps to achieve progressively the full realisation of these rights, but there is no stipulated position on raising taxes to facilitate this. It is up to each country and society to adopt such policies in the light of their own circumstances.

A historical outline

The idea that people have inherent rights has its roots in many cultures, and traditions. We can see from numerous examples of revered leaders and influential codes of practice that the values embodied in human rights are neither a "Western creation" nor a 20th-century invention. They are a response to universal human needs and for the search for justice. All human societies have had ideals and systems of ensuring justice, whether in their oral or written traditions, although not all of these traditions have survived.

Ancient History

  • The Code of Hammurabi in Babylonia (Iraq, c. 2000 BCE) was the first written legal code, established by the king of Babylon. It vowed to "make justice reign in the kingdom, to destroy the wicked and violent, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, ... to enlighten the country and promote the good of the people".
  • A Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt (c. 2000 BCE) reportedly gave instructions to subordinates that "When a petitioner arrives from Upper or Lower Egypt, ... make sure that all is done according to the law, that custom is observed and the right of each man respected."
  • The Charter of Cyrus (Iran, c. 539 bce) was drawn up by the king of Persia for the people of his kingdom, and recognised rights to liberty, security, religious tolerance, freedom of movement, freedom from slavery, and some social and economic rights.
  • The teachings of Confucius (c. 500 bce) contain the concept of ren or compassion and loving others as a central theme. Confucius said, "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others". Dr Peng-chun Chang, the Chinese expert on Confucianism, who played an active role in drafting the UDHR believed that Confucianism laid the groundwork for human rights ideas.
  • Imam Ali Ibn Al Hussein wrote the Epistle on Rights in the early 8th century ce. To our knowledge, this letter is the first document to set out the main rights as perceived in that age and the first attempt that does not approach the concept of rights in its negative dimension. The Epistle listed 50 of these rights methodologically. They are, in spirit, anchored to the early Islamic precepts.
  • The Charte du Mande or Charte de Kurukan Fuga (c.a 1236 CE), based on the codification of oral traditions from West Africa, uphold principles such as decentralisation, environmental conservation, human rights, and cultural diversity.

"A person is a person through other people." Desmond Tutu

  • The African worldview ‘ubuntu' captures the essence of what it means to be human. Ubuntu emphasises respect for all members of the community, hospitality and generosity. The Ubuntu notion is summed up in this: "A person is a person through other people". This notion has profound implications for human rights. If we are human through others, then dehumanising another also dehumanises us – hence the need to promote the rights of others, to give and receive forgiveness and to respect the human rights of others.

Question: Which figures (political, literary and religious) in your country's history have championed or fought for human rights values?

13th to 18th centuries

"At every stage of history, voices of protest against oppression have been heard; in every age, visions of human liberation have also been eclipsed. As we moved toward modern times, these voices and visions have been translated into programs of social action, and at times incorporated into the constitutions of states." Micheline R. Ishay

"Liberty is the power that we have over ourselves" Huig de Groot

The evolution of the idea of universal human rights drew from the foundations of notions of dignity and respect in civilisations around the world over centuries. However, the idea that this respect should be enshrined in law took many more generations to develop. We often draw this resolve for legalising the notion of rights from certain historical experiences. These are certainly not exhaustive. As our knowledge of the history of other cultures grows, no doubt we will discover the historical impetus for legislating rights in other cultures too.

  • In 1215, English nobles and members of the clergy made the King of England agree to abide by the law by drawing up a Great Charter of liberties (Magna Carta). The Magna Carta protected mainly the rights of the privileged (nobles) and is not, therefore, about human rights as such.  It became a widely cited document in defence of liberties because it represented a limitation of the king's power and recognition of other people's liberties and rights.

 A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse."
Thomas Jefferson, 1787

  • In 1689, the English parliament passed a bill declaring that it would no longer tolerate royal interference in its affairs. This bill, known as the Bill of Rights, forbade the monarch to suspend the law without Parliament's consent, specified free elections for members of Parliament and declared that freedom of speech in Parliament was not to be questioned, in the courts or elsewhere.
  • Huig de Groot (1583–1645) is widely regarded as having invented international law. His book On the laws of war and peace proposes a system of general principles based on ‘natural law', which he believed should bind all nations, regardless of local laws or custom. During the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, a number of philosophers developed further the concept of ‘natural rights'.
  • John Locke (1689) developed the theory that every human being has certain rights that derive from their own nature and not from their government or its laws. The legitimacy of government, in fact, rested on the respect that it afforded these natural rights. The idea that these natural rights should entitle people to certain legal protections became more widely accepted and began to be reflected in the constitutions of some countries.  Human rights reformulated this idea and also asserted the same for the relationship between governments and citizens.
  • In 1776, most of the British colonies in North America proclaimed their independence from the British Empire in the United States Declaration of Independence. This was largely based on the "natural right" theories of Locke and Montesquieu. Based on a belief that containing government power and protecting liberty was of the essence, the Declaration served to advance notions such as the following: unalienable rights; the protection of individual rights; freedom of speech, press, petition and assembly; privacy; due process of law; equality before the law and freedom of religion.

The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.  Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789. France

  • In 1789, the French people overthrew their monarchy and established the first French Republic. The French Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen came out of the revolution and was written by representatives of the clergy, nobility and commoners, who wrote it to embody the thoughts of Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, the Encyclopedists and Rousseau. The Declaration attacked the political and legal system of the monarchy and defined the natural rights of man as "liberty, property, security and the right to resist oppression". It replaced the system of aristocratic privileges that had existed under the monarchy with the principle of equality before the law. Its egalitarian terms and theoretical concept of equal rights, however, took time to be translated into reality. Society was deeply unequal and implementation would take generations.

Man being… by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be… subjected to the political power of another, without his consent.
John Locke

Early international agreements: slavery and work

In the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of human rights issues came to the fore and began to be addressed at the international level, beginning with such issues as slavery, serfdom, brutal working conditions and child labour. It was at around this time that the first international treaties concerning human rights were adopted. Though offering useful protections, the basis of such agreements was mutual commitments between states. This is in sharp contrast with modern human rights agreements, where obligations are owed directly to individual rights holders.

  • Slavery became illegal in England and France in the nineteenth century.  At the Brussels Conference of 1890, an anti-slavery Act was signed, which was later ratified by eighteen states. This declared the intention to put an end to the traffic of African slaves

Better to starve free than be a fat slave.

  • This did not, however, address forced labour and ongoing and brutal working conditions. Even the 1926 International Slavery Convention, intended to abolish slavery in all its forms, did not have an impact on the common practice of forced labour until well into the 1940s.
  • The creation of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919 reflected a belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if based on social justice. The ILO has developed a system of international labour standards upholding decent and productive work, freedom, equity, security and dignity.
  • One of the areas of work for the ILO has been its action to combat child labour, particularly in its worst forms. It pursues numerous lines of action in this area to this day, including its promotion of international treaties on child labour, such as ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour and ILO Convention no. 138 on the Minimum Age for Employment.  
  • Between 1899 and 1977 a number of major treaties in the area of international humanitarian law were adopted, marking another field of early co-operation among nations. International humanitarian law regulates the conduct of armed conflict. Human rights may of course be applicable alongside international humanitarian law in many areas, for example in relation to the treatment of prisoners. However, international humanitarian law is more specialised and detailed regarding many other concerns in times of conflict, for example in relation to the permissible use of weapons and military tactics.  

Question: Why do you think that the need for international agreements arose, rather than individual countries simply drawing up their own standards?

The 20th century

Wars will continue to be waged for as long as mankind fails to notice that human nature is identical, no matter where on earth we find ourselves.
Pierre Daco

The idea of protecting the rights of human beings in law against the abuse of governmental authority had begun to receive ever wider acceptance in the 20th century, especially with the coming into being of the League of Nations and International Labour Oganisation and their work on the rights of minorities, on labour and other matters. The importance of codifying these rights in written form had already been recognised by states and, in this way, the documents described above became the early precursors to many of today's human rights treaties. However, it was the events of World War II that really propelled human rights onto the international stage. The terrible atrocities committed in this war – including the holocaust and massive war crimes - sparked the emergence of a further body of international law and, above all, the creation of human rights as we know them today.
The Charter of the United Nations, signed on 26 June 1945, states that the fundamental objective of the United Nations is "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women".
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was drawn up by the UN Commission on Human Rights, one of the organs of the United Nations, and was adopted by the General Assembly on the 10 December 1948. The UDHR is undoubtedly ground breaking and continues to serve as the most important global human rights instrument. Although not setting out to be legally binding, the UDHR has served as the inspiration behind numerous commitments to human rights, whether at the national, regional or international level. Since then, a series of key instruments to safeguard its principles have also been drawn up and agreed by the international community. More information on some of these international treaties can be found further down in this chapter.

Human rights around the world

Following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several regions of the world have established their own systems for protecting human rights, which exist alongside that of the UN. To date, there are regional human rights institutions in Europe, the Americas and Africa. Some steps are also underway in the Arab world and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) towards institutionalising regional human rights standards. However, most countries in this part of the world have also ratified the major UN treaties and conventions - thereby signifying their agreement with the general principles, and voluntarily becoming bound by international human rights law.

In Europe, various human rights standards and mechanisms are upheld by the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog. Its role, notably through the European Convention and the European Court of Human Rights, will be further elaborated below.
Alongside the Council of Europe, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also play important roles.

European Union

The European Union's commitment to human rights protection received a boost with the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, giving full legal effect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Containing civil, political, social and economic rights, the Charter requires that both member states and the European Union itself uphold these rights. The Court of Justice of the European Union will strike down EU legislation that contravenes the Charter and will review compliance with EU law of member states, although the day-to-day enforcement will be decided by domestic courts. The Charter outlines rights under the six ‘titles' or headings: dignity, liberty, equality, solidarity, citizens' rights and justice. The title ‘dignity' guarantees the right to life and prohibits torture, slavery and the death penalty; ‘liberty' includes rights to privacy, marriage, thought, expression, assembly, education, work, property and asylum; ‘equality' covers the rights of children and the elderly; ‘solidarity' protects social and workers' rights, the right to fair working conditions, protection against unjustified dismissal, and access to health care; ‘citizens' rights' includes the right to vote and free movement, and ‘justice' covers rights such as the right to an effective remedy, fair trial and the presumption of innocence.
The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) is an expert body which collects evidence about the situation of fundamental rights across the European Union and provides advice and information about how to improve the situation. It does not play a monitoring role but co-operates with relevant institutions in advising on improved enjoyment of fundamental rights.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) brings together 57 states from Europe, Central Asia and North America. Although not specifically dedicated to the protection of human rights, its comprehensive approach to security allows it to address a wide range of issues, including human rights, national minorities, democratisation, policing strategies, counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities. The OSCE action in the field of human rights is carried through the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Based in Warsaw, the ODIHR is active throughout the OSCE area in the fields of election observation, democratic development, human rights, tolerance and non-discrimination, and rule of law. Its activities targeted to young people include human rights education, fighting antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Organisation of American States

In the Inter-American region, human rights standards and mechanisms stem from the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights. Specific instruments have also been adopted relating to refugees, the prevention and punishment of torture, the abolition of the death penalty, disappearances, violence against women, the environment and other matters.

African Union

The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights came into force in October 1986 and by 2007 it had been ratified by 54 states. The Charter is interesting for a number of differences in emphasis between the treaties that have been adopted in other parts of the world:

Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible."
Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • Unlike the European or American Conventions, the African Charter covers social, economic and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights within the same treaty.
  • The African Charter goes beyond individual rights, and also provides for collective rights of peoples.
  • The Charter also recognises that individuals have duties as well as rights, and lists specific duties that the individual has towards his or her family, society, the State and the international community.

Question: Why do you think that duties are referred to in a charter on human rights? Do you think they should be listed in all human rights documents?

Arab Charter on Human Rights

The regional Arab Commission on Human Rights has been in operation since 1968, but only with very selective and limited powers regarding the promotion of human rights. A revised Arab Charter on Human Rights was adopted by the League of Arab States in 2004 and came into force in 2008. 

This document includes social-economic rights as well as civil-political rights, and also makes reference to the "common civilisation" shared by Arab States. The coming into force of the Charter and its monitoring mechanisms – the Arab Human Rights Committee and the Arab Sub-Commission on Human Rights – have been welcomed as hopeful signs for the advancement of human rights in the region. However, it has also come under heavy criticism, for example, due to the lack of prohibition for cruel punishment, for guaranteeing economic and social rights only to citizens, for making some rights contingent on the Islamic Sharia, for allowing the imposition of the death penalty on children if the national law provides for this, and also for allowing limitations on freedom of thought, conscience and religion if so provided by law.


The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) was established in 2009 as a consultative body of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The human rights commission exists to promote and protect human rights, and regional co-operation on human rights in the 10  member states of ASEAN. The Terms of Reference for this Commission mandate it with upholding "Respect for international human rights principles, including universality, indivisibility, interdependence  and inter-relatedness of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as impartiality, objectivity, non-selectivity, non-discrimination, and avoidance of double standards and politicization".

How can we use our rights?

Human rights exist for us all. So how can we make use of them? It is clear that their mere existence is not enough to put an end to human rights violations, since we all know that these are committed every day, in every part of the globe. So can they really make a difference? How can we use them?

Question: Do you know what to do if your human rights are violated?

Recognising your rights

Values are invisible like the wind. From the flutter of leaves you know there is wind. And you realize values through the actions of people.
Éva Ancsel

In the next section we look at the different types of rights that are protected under international law. If we know which areas of human existence are relevant to human rights law and we are aware of the obligations of governments under this body of law, then we can begin to apply pressure in different ways. That section illustrates that almost every area of injustice is relevant to human rights: from small-scale poverty, through environmental damage, health, working conditions, political repression, voting rights, genetic engineering, minority issues, conflict, genocide ... and beyond. And the number of issues is increasing even today.
Some of the issues concerning the application of human rights legislation are addressed directly in the section "Questions and Answers". These provide brief responses to some of the more common questions often asked about human rights.
If you are concerned to find out how a particular issue – for example, the right to health, to education, or fair working conditions – can be better protected, you will find it helpful to look at the background information relevant to that issue.

Using legal mechanisms

We shall look at the legal mechanisms that exist for protecting the different areas of people's interests. In Europe – but also in Africa and the Americas, there is a court to deal with complaints about violations – the European Court of Human Rights. Even where complaints do not fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court, we shall see that there are other mechanisms for holding states accountable for their actions and forcing them to comply with their obligations under human rights law. It helps that the law is there, even if there are not always legal means of enforcing compliance by states.

Lobbying, campaigning and activism

One important role in exerting pressure on states is played by associations, non-governmental organisations, charities, and other civic initiative groups. This forms the subject matter of the section on activism and the role of NGOs. The role of such associations is particularly relevant to the average man and woman on the street, not only because such associations frequently take up individual cases, but also because they provide a means for the ordinary person to become involved in the protection of human rights of others. After all, such associations are made up of ordinary people! We shall also look at how they act to improve human rights and at some examples of successful action.

Question:  Have you ever been involved in any campaigning or human rights activism?

Becoming involved

In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. UDHR, Article 29 (2)

Chapter 3, Taking Action, brings these types of actions down to an everyday level and offers a number of examples of action in which you could become involved. Youth groups have enormous potential for putting pressure on states or international bodies and ensuring that cases of human rights violations are either prevented or brought to the public eye. The examples in this section should provide you with concrete measures that could be undertaken by your or other groups and will also give a greater insight into the way that non-governmental organisations work at an everyday level

Human Rights Dilemmas

Realising rights means facing a range of obstacles. Firstly, some governments, political parties or candidates, social and economic players and civil society actors use the language of human rights without a commitment to human rights objectives. At times this may be due to an impoverished understanding of what human rights standards call for. At other times this is due to willful abuse, of wanting to misrepresent themselves as respecting human rights in order to look good in the eyes of the world. Secondly, governments, political parties or candidates or civil society actors may criticise human rights violations by others but fail to uphold human rights standards themselves. This is often criticised as a double standard. Thirdly, there may be cases when human rights are restricted in the name of protecting the rights of others. These could, of course, be legitimate. Human rights are not boundless, and exerting your rights should not impinge on other's enjoyment of their rights. However, we need to be vigilant so that ‘protection of the human rights of others' is not just an empty excuse for imposing limitations. An active civil society and independent judiciary is important in monitoring such cases. Fourthly, there are instances when protecting the rights of one group of people may, in itself, involve restricting the rights of others. This should be distinguished from the above case of limiting rights. It is not always easy to judge such cases.

Conflicts of rights

However, rights can also conflict. "‘Conflicts of rights' refers to clashes that may occur between different human rights or between the same human rights of different persons. One example can be when there are two patients who need a new heart in order to survive; however, there is only one available heart for transplantation. In this case, one patient's right to life conflicts with the same human right of another patient.  Another example occurs in the case of euthanasia, when one's right to life may conflict with his/her own right to die or right to be free from degrading treatment. In this way, the different human rights of one person conflict. A third case concerns situations when different human rights of different people conflict.  One example of this is reflected in the case taken to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in the Jewish community of Oslo v. Norway. In 2000, a group known as the ‘Bootboys' marched in honour of the Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. The participants wore ‘semi-military' uniforms and the leader of the march Mr Terje Sjolie made an antisemitic speech after which the crowd repeatedly made the Nazi salute and shouted, "Sieg Heil." The clash in this case was between Mr Sjolie's right to freedom of expression and the Jewish community's right not to be discriminated against. The UN Committee held that statements made by Mr. Sjolie contained ideas of racial superiority and hatred, and that therefore this kind of exceptionally offensive speech is not protected by the right to freedom of expression.

Cultural traditions

It is becoming increasingly clear that female genital mutilation, crimes of honour, forced marriages and other practices will not be eradicated until women are considered as full and equal participants in the social, economic, cultural and political life of their communities. Halima Embarek Warzazi1

Traditional cultural practices reflect values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods often spanning generations. Every social grouping in the world has specific traditional cultural practices and beliefs, some of which are beneficial to all members, while others are harmful to a specific group, such as women. These harmful traditional practices include the following: female genital mutilation (FGM); forced feeding of women; early marriage; the various taboos or practices which prevent women from controlling their own fertility; nutritional taboos and traditional birth practices; son preference and its implications for the status of the girl child; female infanticide; early pregnancy; and dowry price. Despite their harmful nature and their violation of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not questioned and take on an aura of morality in the eyes of those practising them.
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights

Harmful Traditional practices

A range of practices that negatively impact on the health of women and children, and violate international human rights standards, are often referred to as "harmful traditional practices". This is not to imply that all traditional practices are harmful and violate human rights, but when they do, we need to be able to question and tackle them.
Arranged marriages are common practice in many cultures, where young women – and also men – are expected and obliged to marry someone who has been chosen by their family, often at a very young age. (note that an arranged marriage is not the same as forced marriage.) Should such a practice be banned in order to protect the children and young people's rights? Or would that be failing to respect a cultural tradition?
Other examples can be found in the continued practice of female genital mutilation in many countries. Thousands of people suffer the consequences of such practices and most people would certainly regard them as a serious violation of rights. Should female genital mutilation be considered a cultural specificity that should be 'tolerated' or a violation of the human right to bodily integrity and health?

"While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms". The Vienna Declaration (1993)

The protection of all human rights for all determines a refusal of harmful traditional practices. No-one can be denied their human rights and dignity on the grounds of tradition and culture, not least because traditions and cultures are not written in stone: they change and evolve; what was often true twenty years ago does not make sense to today's generation. Harmful traditional practices are also a reminder that the promotion of human rights relies on educational programmes and efforts. Many harmful traditional practices cannot be overcome by repression and condemnation alone: they require education and the engagement of all those concerned in order to be effective. Even if states as signatories of international human rights treaties have the ultimate responsibility, it is the actions of individuals, often supported by families and communities, which maintain those practices. Changing them cannot be imposed "from above" but requires regular educational work with the families and communities concerned, the only way through which the promotion of human rights can be reconciled with what may be perceived as specific cultural rights and practices.

Question: Should cultural practices override the universality of human rights?

In the name of a good cause

Sanctions are sometimes used by the international community to penalise regimes that are considered to be systematically violating human rights. Sanctions may forbid trade with the violator country, in order to put pressure on the government to modify their actions. These actions are sometimes decided unilaterally by one state and at other times they are adopted by the UN Security Council. Some countries have been completely isolated by the international community: South Africa was isolated for years because of its abhorrent system of apartheid, and over the decades sanctions have been imposed on Iraq, North Korea, Iran and others. There is no doubt that the effects of such sanctions may be felt by normal people, but they are felt particularly by the most vulnerable sectors of society. Is this an acceptable means for the international community to put an end to human rights violations by particular states?
In its report ‘Responsibility to Protect' the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty called for caution and for an emphasis on prevention rather than reaction. When, however, the international community needs to resort to the ‘exceptional and extraordinary measure' of ‘military intervention for human protection purposes', they insist on the threshold of large scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing. Even then, they declare the following ‘Precautionary Principles':

  • Right intention: The primary purpose of the intervention, whatever other motives intervening states may have, must be to halt or avert human suffering. Right intention is better assured with multilateral operations, clearly supported by regional opinion and the victims concerned.

Justice is the right of the weaker.
Joseph Joubert

  • Last resort: Military intervention can only be justified when every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis has been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing lesser measures would not have succeeded.
  • Proportional means: The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective.
  • Reasonable prospects: There must be a reasonable chance of success in halting or averting the suffering which has justified the intervention, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction.

With the benefit of hindsight, how do you think these precautions related to, for example, the international community's response to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, to Nato-led bombings in Kosovo in 1999 or to intervention in Afghanistan in 2001? Can such actions be justified in terms of their end results if they cause large numbers of casualties?

Question: Can the defense of human rights be used to justify a military campaign?

Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it,  the principle of non-intervention  yields  to  the  international  responsibility to protect."
Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001

In April 2001, a resolution of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights rejected the notion that fighting terrorism could ever justify sacrificing human rights protections.  Resolution 2001/24 condemned armed attacks related to the conflict in the Republic of Chechnya of the Russian Federation and breaches of humanitarian law perpetrated by Chechen fighters, as well as certain methods used by Russian federal forces in Chechnya. It called for the Russian Federation to establish an independent national commission of inquiry, in accordance with recognised international standards, to investigate the violations. 

Human Rights: Ever Changing, Ever Evolving

The questions raised in the previous section do not all have clear-cut answers: they remain the subject of fierce debate, even today. Such debates are, to a certain extent, important. They are an indication both of the pluralistic approach that is fundamental to the notion of human rights and of the fact that human rights are not a science, not a fixed 'ideology', but are a developing area of moral and legal thought. We should not always expect black and white answers. These issues are complex and they can only be appropriately balanced on a case-by-case basis.
However, that does not mean that there are no answers and no areas of agreement. There are many, and they increase almost daily. The issue of slavery is one which used to be debated, but where tolerance is no longer regarded as acceptable: the right to be free from slavery is now universally accepted as a fundamental human right. Female genital mutilation, although defended by some in the name of culture, is broadly condemned as a violation of human rights. And the death penalty is a similar issue – at least in Europe, where members of the Council of Europe have either abolished capital punishment or announced a moratorium on executions. In fact, abolition of the death penalty is nowadays a prerequisite for membership of the Council of Europe. According to Amnesty International, more than two-thirds of the countries of the world have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. While 58 countries retained the death penalty in 2009, most did not use it.
So we should be confident that many of these questions will also reach their resolution. In the meantime, we can help the debate and make our own judgments on the more controversial issues by referring back to the two fundamental values: equality and human dignity. If any action treats any individual as lacking in human dignity, then it violates the spirit of human rights.


1UN special rapporteur on traditional practices affecting the health of women and the girl child.