Category Archives: Human rights

First, do no harm: realise human rights

The topic of human rights is enormous, and beyond the scope of this blog to give a full introduction. There are plenty of websites and wikipedia pages that do go into more depth, and we encourage you to use your favourite search engine to find them. For a very quick (900 word) overview, and handy reference, read on!

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) is perhaps the most famous of all human rights documents. It was adopted at the United Nations in 1948 and is considered by some to mark the beginning of the modern human rights framework.

There are strong arguments to say the concept of ‘rights’ are modern and Western, but the ideas and values expressed in the UDHR did not just pop up out of nowhere and have roots all over the world as well as in the ‘West’. Some concepts date back thousands of years and are found in many religions and indigenous beliefs. “Do to others as you would have them do to you“, for example, occurs in a number of religious contexts, and implies justice or fairness, respect for the other, and at least a degree of equality.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), established in 1919 to protect workers rights and safety, also predates the UDHR – as do various European and American declarations and bills of rights.

Along with the UDHR, two later treaties – one on civil and political rights; and another on economic, social and cultural rights – form the basis of what is sometimes called the International Bill of Rights.  Their language can be a bit ‘legalese’ at times, but the best way to get your head around them, is simply to read them:

There are a number of other treaties, which are of particular significance and together with those listed above make up the UN’s “core international human rights instruments“:

Life gets a little complicated when we start looking into whether instruments are legally enforceable directly, or are part of what is called ‘customary international law’, or an international ‘norm’, or if they are non-binding in nature. But generally speaking:

  • Conventions and Covenants are legally binding once a state has signed and ratified them. (Heads of state or foreign ministers often sign agreements, then domestic parliaments or legislatures reaffirm the decision by ratifying and passing local laws to implement them.)
  • Declarations (as well as Resolutions or Statements), however, are usually non-binding and non-enforceable. (A major exception, however, is the UDHR which is so widely recognised and respected it is accepted as part of ‘customary international law’.)
  • When a state does not sign/ratify a treaty it is not enforceable as law. (While the existence of other treaties can be appealed to as international ‘norms’, this is no guarantee of success in the courts.)
  • Enforcement of human rights laws can be in national courts, or at regional or international bodies. (The latter two get complicated, and ‘semi-enforced’ is sometimes more accurate, or even ‘un-enforced’.)

As if all that wasn’t complicated enough, in Europe there is also the:

It is this European Convention on Human Rights that is referred to in our own Scotland Act  (under its formal and less used title of Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms). The primary implementation of ECHR for the wider UK is through the Human Rights Act.

( Quick reminder, there are two different but major non-state entities in Europe:

  • the European Union (EU), which has 28 state members who agree to certain legal matters and go to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) to sort out disputes; and,
  • the Council of Europe (CoE), which has 47 state members who sign up to treaties in a similar fashion to the international instruments. The CoE are responsible for the European Court of Human Rights, above. ) *

It’s important to note that it is States, ie. governments, who are accountable under human rights law, not individuals or businesses. States must create conditions under which citizens’ human rights can be realised, and it is their failure to do so which may be challenged under human rights law.

Of course, it is always much better if disputes and injustices can be sorted out long before anyone needs to take legal action. Lawyers, judges and courts are expensive but vital last resorts when all else has failed.

A ‘human rights based approach’, on the other hand, is one example of how public, and private, bodies can seek to implement the values and norms outlined in the international treaties in practice. The more this can be encouraged and utilised, the less we will ever need to use the courts.

* Participation in Eurovision is partially related to CoE membership, but also to membership of the European Broadcasting Union, which is even less related to geography. (Hey, we know you were desperate to ask!)

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