Human Rights Law

Human rights are fundamental rights that belong to every person. Human rights law is a branch of law that ensures everyone has access to those rights and freedoms, and steps in when situations arise in which someone's basic human rights are infringed upon.


What are Human Rights?


The human rights are listed in a document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted in 1948 by representatives of the 48 nations in the UN at that time. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes 30 rights and freedoms that are deemed to be fundamental for everyone.

In 1950, these 30 rights and freedoms were used as the basis for the European Convention of Human Rights. This is an international treaty that protects human rights in Europe. The rights that are protected include:

  • The right to life

  • Prohibition of inhumane treatment, including tortured

  • Protection against slavery and forced labour

  • The right to liberty and freedoms

  • The right to a fair trial

  • Respect for privacy and family life, and the right to marry

  • Freedom of thought, belief, and religion

  • The right to free speech and peaceful protest

  • Protection from discrimination

  • Protection of property

  • The right of children to education

  • The right to free and fair elections


How does Human Rights Law Protect People?


In the UK, the Human Rights Act of 1998 is the main body of law that protects peoples' rights. The rights and freedoms it protects are those outlined in the European Convention of Human Rights Treaty; the provision of the Human Rights Act is intended to make it easier to ensure that those rights are protected in the UK.


There are two primary ways in which the Human Rights Act protects people under the law.

  • It is unlawful for public authorities to act in ways that are incompatible with Convention rights.

  • Judges must read and interpret the law in a way that upholds Convention rights.


The Human Rights Act applies to every resident regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. It places on public authorities—including the government, state hospitals, state schools, and social services—the obligation to treat every UK resident with equality, fairness, dignity, respect, and autonomy. In addition, it applies to all other public and private bodies that perform public functions, such as delivering publicly-funded healthcare or education.


Other Human Rights Treaties


Note that the Human Rights Act 1988 doesn’t cover all fundamental human rights. Some of those that aren’t covered are included in seven other international treaties that have been signed and ratified by the UK government. These seven treaties include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.


These seven treaties are legally binding according to UK international law, meaning that the government has agreed to them and must comply with them. The difference between these rights and those defined in the Human Rights Act 1988 is the means by which the rights are protected and defended. By ratifying the treaties, the UK government has agreed that its domestic laws and policies will comply with the terms of the treaties. However, the rights that are detailed in the 7 treaties are not legally enforceable in UK courts


Absolute, Limited, and Qualified Human Rights


Some human rights are absolute, which means there are no circumstances under which these rights don’t apply. For instance, the right to not be tortured is an absolute human right, meaning there are no circumstances under which a person waives their right to not be tortured.


In contrast, some human rights are “limited” meaning there are some circumstances under which these rights can be restricted. One of these is the right to freedom, which can be legally limited if a person is convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve a prison term. For as long as the prison term applies, the convicted person’s right to freedom is limited.


There are also “qualified” human rights, which are rights which can be restricted when that restriction serves the public interest, or when restriction protects the rights of others. For instance, the right to freedom of expression does not apply to hate speech, or to speech that incites violence.

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