Human Rights - an introduction


The United Nations Department of Public Information

What are human rights?

Human rights are commonly understood as being those rights which are inherent to the human being. The concept of human rights acknowledges that every single human being is entitled to enjoy his or her human rights without distinction as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. Human rights are legally guaranteed by human rights law, protecting individuals and groups against actions which interfere with fundamental freedoms and human dignity. They are expressed in treaties, customary international law, bodies of principles and other sources of law. Human rights law places an obligation on States to act in a particular way and prohibits States from engaging in specified activities. However, the law does not establish human rights. Human rights are inherent entitlements which come to every person as a consequence of being human. Treaties and other sources of law generally serve to protect formally the rights of individuals and groups against actions or abandonment of actions by Governments which interfere with the enjoyment of their human rights
The following are some of the most important characteristics of human rights:

UK Government’s DirectGov - UK's Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights

Citizens of the UK now have certain basic human rights which government and public authorities are legally obliged to respect. These became law as part of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act 1998 gives legal effect in the UK to 16 of the fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). These rights not only affect matters of life and death like freedom from torture and killing but also affect your rights in everyday life: what you can say and do, your beliefs, your right to a fair trial and many other similar basic entitlements.
The rights are not absolute – governments have the power to limit or control them in times of severe need or emergency. You also have the responsibility to respect the rights of other people – and not exercise yours in a way which is likely to stop them from being able to exercise theirs. 

Your human rights are:

If any of these rights and freedoms are abused you have a right to an effective solution in law, even if the abuse was by someone in authority, for example, a policeman. ...

Where you believe your rights have not been respected and you cannot resolve the problem outside court, you are entitled to bring a case before the appropriate court or tribunal in the UK. The court or tribunal will then consider your case. ...


The UN drug Conventions and UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act affect these rights:

In reverse order:

These are 'qualified rights'

But not ALL drug consumers, traders and producers are denied these rights. Those drugs used by politicians, and by the majority of voters (whose votes politicians’ power depends on), are excluded from the law - alcohol and tobacco. Repressive restrictions are then applied to those drugs included, drugs used only by minorities. This 'inequality before the law' contravenes:

The discrimination claim:

Consumers, traders and producers of drugs currently classified with illegal status are denied equal property, privacy and liberty rights with those of equally harmful drugs currently classified with legal status. There is no objective and reasonable justification for the discrimination between these groups. The justification provided by governments is that the two groups differ in:

These grounds for discrimination are unrelated to the objective, the protection of the public from drug harm, and so they do not have a 'legitimate aim' and are therefore unlawful. More details from Liberty.


Imagine a law to protect the public from car harm. You would expect this to target the harmful use of cars - such as speeding and reckless driving - and perhaps also minimum standards for car production, car maintenance and driver training etc. But no, this law prohibits all possession, supply and production of cars. Why? Because cars are harmful and no-one should use them. But not all cars are included within this law - cars produced in the UK are excluded (and are referred to as 'vehicles', not 'cars') while foreign imports are included and therefore banned. This is justified by saying that cars produced within the UK have been:

Fair balance:

Government has a duty under Article 2, the right to life, to protect the public from harm. So they have a right to restrict property, privacy and liberty rights only for the purpose of protecting the public from drug harm. But they also have a duty to protect the property, privacy and liberty rights of individuals. So the courts recognise that there must be a ‘fair balance’ between the public’s right to protection and individuals’ rights to property, privacy and liberty.

The discrimination claim asks why is this fair balance so extremely different for equally harmful drugs? Why focus on public protection for illegal drugs but focus on individual rights for legal drugs? The answer is that governments' legal power to prevent drug harm is misused for political purposes, to gain favour with the majority of voters at the expense of minorities. This is an abuse of power:

Justice Jackson described this political abuse of power in the US Supreme Court in Railway Express Agency Inc v New York (1949), para 112:

There is no more effective practical guarantee against arbitrary and unreasonable government than to require that the principles of law which officials would impose upon a minority must be imposed generally. Conversely, nothing opens the door to arbitrary action so effectively as to allow those officials to pick and choose only a few to whom they will apply legislation and thus to escape the political retribution that might be visited upon them if larger numbers were affected. Courts can take no better measure to assure that laws will be just than to require that laws be equal in operation.





Key documents:

Government guidance on Human Rights

Human Rights: human lives - a handbook for public authorities