Understanding of Human Rights
Where do Human rights come from?
Ideas about human rights have evolved over many centuries. But they achieved strong international support following the Holocaust and World War II. To protect future generations from a repeat of these horrors, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and invited states to sign and ratify it. For the first time, the Universal Declaration set out the fundamental rights and freedoms shared by all human beings.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rigts
In 1947, the UN established the Human Rights Commission to draft the UDHR. Representatives from a range of countries, including the UK, were involved in the drafting process. On 10 December 1948 the Declaration was adopted by the UN.
The preamble to the UDHR sets out the aims of the Declaration, namely to contribute to ‘freedom, justice and peace in the world’, to be achieved by universal recognition and respect for human rights. These rights are then defined in 30 articles which include civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
The main innovation of the UDHR is that it recognises a universal entitlement to rights applying to ‘all members of the human family’. Before this the rights and freedoms of individuals were regarded as the domestic affair of the state within whose jurisdiction they fell. The traumatic events of the Second World War prompted the strong belief that this situation was no longer tenable, that universal protection was needed for all people, and that the international community should monitor more strongly what happens inside states.
How are Human Rights protected?
Human rights declarations, conventions and laws are the starting point for making human rights real in people’s lives. There are three different levels of human rights law – international, regional and domestic. These are enforced and monitored in different ways.
The UDHR is a declaration, and as such not legally binding. However it has inspired a range of international human rights instruments (often called conventions, covenants or treaties), such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and the United Nations Convention against Torture. These are monitored by the United Nations. Countries that have signed and ratified these instruments have to submit regular reports (usually every 4–5 years) to show how they are implementing the rights in the treaty. The reports are examined by a committee of experts, which publishes its concerns and recommendations.
The UK has signed up to the following United Nations human rights treaties:
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- The Convention Against Torture
- The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
- The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child
- The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The international human rights treaties are not part of the UK’s domestic law. This means that you cannot bring a case against the Government using one of these treaties in the UK courts. However, the UK has signed up to a mechanism under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women which allows individual women in the UK to make complaints to a committee of experts at the UN if they believe their rights have been violated.
While all of the above treaties are relevant to schools, the most important international treaty for teachers to know about is the UNCRC.
At the same time that human rights were being developed within the UN system, regional groups of states started adopting home-grown treaties dealing with human rights. These include the European Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights is arguably the most developed of these regional mechanisms. The Convention was agreed after the Second World War by the Council of Europe, which was set up to safeguard and defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law across its member states. The Council of Europe is not to be confused with the European Union. The Council of Europe represents ‘Greater Europe’ and currently has 47 member states including countries such as Russia, Turkey and the Ukraine. The Convention established a European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France.
The UK signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951; UK lawyers had been instrumental in the drafting process. Since 1966, anyone in the UK can complain to the European Court of Human Rights if they think their rights set out in the Convention have been breached. Now that the Human Rights Act 1998 has come into force (see below), human rights cases under the Convention can be heard in the UK courts, without having to go all the way to Strasbourg. The European Court will only hear cases once all domestic remedies have been exhausted i.e. they have gone through all possible UK courts. It is still possible for the European Court to consider a case even if the UK Supreme Court has passed judgment.
Many countries also have their own domestic human rights legislation. In the UK, we have our own Human Rights Act 1998 which came into force on 2 October 2000, which enables UK Courts to consider the European Convention on Human Rights. The Human Rights Act 1998 allows people to use certain rights drawn from the European Convention on Human Rights in our domestic courts.
What Human Rights are most relevant to my teaching and students?
The main conventions and laws that teachers must know about are the Human Rights Act 1998, as this imposes responsibilities on schools as public bodies, and enables the ECHR to be considered by UK courts.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is also worth discussing with children and young people in schools, as it has specific relevance to children and young people in the UK, and to those working with children and young people in the UK. The UNCRC is a foundation for learning about and using other treaties that may be relevant to young people, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.