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What is Human Rights Law? - Nicholas Clark

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

What are Human Rights?

Human rights looms large in the conscience of lawyers and laypeople alike: the term is invoked frequently in discussions about politics, current affairs, and non-profit work. It seems like a romantic, and to many people, intuitive, idea. But many would be surprised to learn that the notion of universal ‘human rights’ is a relatively new one, with specific definitions, legal instruments, and protections.

Before, natural rights were not always thought of as applying to everyone. The provisions of the Magna Carta, for instance, were primarily put in place to protect property owners. The scope of what we may now call international human rights law was limited to texts like the Geneva Convention, which regulated fair behaviour and treatment during wartime. In 1948, however, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), which formed the basis for the body of customary international human rights law. Importantly, the Declaration lays out the definition of the term “human rights” in the United Nations Charter, which is binding on signatories and thus gives member states a protective obligation to respect human rights.

But what are human rights, exactly? The UNDHR provides a useful summation, with 30 articles under the Declaration. Autonomy and protection from harm are significant. For instance, Article 3 protects “the right to life, liberty, and security of person”, while Article 5 proclaims “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Social rights, such as free speech and thought, are protected by articles 18 and 19, while articles 25 and 26 maintain that institutions like housing and elementary education should be universally accessible. Most importantly, Articles 1 and 2 protect the universality of the human rights framework, on the grounds that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. While the UNDHR is by no means the only legitimate summation or definition of human rights, the widespread adoption of the UN Charter, and the influence of UNDHR rights in customary international law, means that it provides a very useful starting point.

How does the Law work to Protect Human Rights?

The UNDHR is not the only international instrument that defines human rights, nor the only one with enforcement and accountability mechanisms. In the UK, as well as all other states within the Council of Europe, legal protection for human rights is provided through the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR, also drawn up in the aftermath of the war, was heavily influenced by the UNDHR, incorporating 18 articles. The ECHR establishes a legally binding regime that member states are compelled to incorporate into domestic law. In the UK, this is done through the Human Rights Act 1998, which allows ECHR violations to be contested by an international panel at the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights.

While domestic courts in the UK are compelled to give effect to ECHR rights via the Human Rights Act where possible and compatible, violations may be brought up to the Strasbourg court for adjudication. Human rights lawyers work across a variety of practice areas in the UK - from immigration to housing policy - and generally act under the purview of the HRA 1998 to ensure human rights compatibility in the courts.

Human rights law internationally can be thought of as a ‘patchwork’ of rights established by conventions in different countries (for instance, the ECHR), international institutions like the International Criminal Court, customary declarations like the UNDHR, and domestic law in other jurisdictions. International human rights lawyers act within domestic and international legal frameworks to prosecute human rights violations - either as part of international institutions, or non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International. There are a wide and diverse array of practice areas that human rights lawyers can work in outside of their home jurisdictions, with a large number of opportunities available with institutions at home and abroad.

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