Human Rights: An Introduction


The Human Rights Act is a piece of legislation most people have probably heard of but there’s a lack of understanding about what it actually says and does.

For a start there’s a difference between the Human Rights Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The former is a set of laws from the 1990s based around the European Convention on Human Rights. The latter is a state from the UN just after the Second World War which was envisioned as a roadmap to a better, more humane world.

This is a brief introduction, I’m not a lawyer, going into the detail is beyond me and probably only useful for a very small minority of stories. Keep in mind that I’m UK based and the content and enforcement of human rights laws varies from country to country.

Behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a rather revolutionary idea: that everyone, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, is entitled to a basic standard of treatment simply because they’re human.

I’m going to go through the Universal Declaration as a quick, bullet point list to give an idea of what people see as essential to human rights. I’m going to go through the articles of the Human Rights Act in more detail to give an idea of how countries turn the ideals into law.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  1. All human beings are born free and equal.
  2. Everyone is equal regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, politics or where they were born.
  3. Everyone has the right to life and to live in freedom and safety.
  4. Everyone has the right to be free from slavery.
  5. Everyone has the right to be free from torture.
  6. Everyone has the right to be recognised before the law.
  7. We are all equal before the law.
  8. Everyone has the right to seek justice if their rights are violated.
  9. Everyone has the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
  10. Everyone has the right to a fair trial.
  11. Everyone has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
  12. Everyone has the right to privacy and freedom from attacks on their reputation.
  13. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and to be free to leave and return to their own country.
  14. Everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution.
  15. Everyone has the right to a nationality.
  16. Everyone has the right to marry and to have a family.
  17. Everyone has the right to own property.
  18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
  19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
  20. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
  21. Everyone has the right to take part in government and to have equal access to public service.
  22. Everyone has the right to social security.
  23. Everyone has the right to work, to equal pay, to protection against unemployment and the right to form and join trade unions.
  24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.
  25. Everyone has the right to a decent standard of living, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services.
  26. Everyone has the right to education.
  27. Everyone has the right to participate in and enjoy culture, art and science.
  28. Everyone has the right to a social and international order where the rights in this Declaration can be fully realised.
  29. We have a duty to other people and we should protect their rights and freedoms.
  30. Nobody can take away these rights and freedoms from us.

The Human Rights Act

There are 14 Articles in the Human Rights Act. I’m not covering Article 1 and Article 13 because they effectively state that countries should apply the Human Rights Act and enforce laws protecting human rights. There’ll be a sentence or two about what each Article says and a little bit of unpacking what that means.

Article 2: Right to life.

This actually has quite a broad application. It does mean that nobody has the right to end another person’s life, but it also means that states have a responsibility to protect people’s lives and consider whether any action effects life expectancy. Making a hospital inaccessible to a group of people could breach their right to life if it means their life expectancy drops.

An exception is made for authority figures using ‘proportionate force’ in the course of arrest, escape from prisons or to prevent violence against other people.

Article 3: Right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

This does what it says on the tin. It bans to use of deliberately inflicted pain (mental or physical) using the legal definition of torture. It then expands that to include the same acts in scenarios that wouldn’t legally be torture.

Article 4: Right to freedom from slavery and forced labour.

This Article defines and bans slavery. You can read more about modern slavery in this ask.

There are a couple of exceptions, the first is sentenced community service or prison labour. The next is state-sponsered relief efforts in an emergency. So if there’s an earthquake and your character is capable of taking part in relief efforts governments can require them to take part. It also doesn’t cover things that are classed as normal parts of being a citizen, such as jury duty.

Article 5: Right to liberty and security.

The idea behind this is individual protection from unreasonable imprisonment. Essentially it means that if you’re arrested you need to be told why and what the charges are. You need to be taken to court promptly, have a trial as quickly as is practical and be able to challenge your imprisonment in court if you think it’s unlawful.

It essentially means that a character can only be imprisoned by the state if there’s a clear, lawful reason for it, such as being found guilty of a crime or being sectioned under laws relating to mental health.

Article 6: Right to a fair trial.

This counts for characters charged with a crime and for characters who think state action has impacted their civil rights.

It means that cases need to be held in a reasonable time, by impartial decision makers. People involved are given all the relevant information and have access to lawyers and interpreters.

It also means that a character who is going to court should: be presumed innocent, allowed to remain silent, told what they’re charged with, provided with a lawyer, given time to prepare their case, given any relevant information, allowed to attend their trial, put forward their side of the story and question or call witnesses.

There are restrictions on Article 6. In the UK there are exceptions under immigration law, tax law and laws to do with voting rights. People can also be restricted from accessing courts if they miss a defined time limit for bringing a case to court or if they repeatedly bring cases that are judged as a waste of time.

Article 7: No punishment outside the law.

This means that a character shouldn’t be charged with a crime if their action wasn’t against the law when they did it.

There is an exception for anything that is ‘against the general law of civilised nations’. What that essentially means is that if a character commits war crimes (ie genocide) they can be charged even if there isn’t a specific law on the books.

Article 8: Right to a private and family life.

This one is pretty broad. It essentially boils down to the idea that a state can’t tell you who to form a relationship with or how valuable those relationships are. The state also can’t dictate what your lifestyle should be, so long as you’re not harming anyone else.

The simplest part of this is characters having a right to remain in contact with their families. But it also means a right to developing a personal identity, covering things like figuring out sexuality, deciding how to dress, how to live and how to participate in society. In it’s broadest sense this means a state has an obligation to make sure all groups of people can participate in social, cultural, economic and leisure activities. It also means a state should make sure no one’s personal information is shared without their consent.

Interfering with a character’s rights under this Article need to be proportionate and there needs to be a good reason, such as preventing a crime or protecting the rights and freedoms of other people.

Article 9: Freedom of thought, belief and religion.

This Article protects the right to hold beliefs, change them and, to a certain extent, put them into practice. It includes no-religious beliefs, such as atheism and pacifism. But it does need to be sincere, serious and concern important aspects of human life.

The right to hold and change beliefs is regarded as absolute but the right to put them into practice can be suspended in order to protect public safety, health or the rights and freedoms of other people. Once again, this is supposed to be proportionate.

Article 10: Freedom of expression.

This covers public protest but it also covers the media, books, art, TV and the internet. It counts for the person giving and receiving information, so it doesn’t just cover the producers of a show but the audience as well.  

It’s supposed to protect an individual if they want to criticise the government or other prominent individuals but it also covers fiction and the arts.

And once again there is an allowance for proportionate restrictions to prevent crime and protect other people. Which means that hate speech is not protected. Information can also be suppressed to prevent prejudicing judges and to prevent release of private information that was given in confidence.

Article 11: Freedom of assembly and association.

The crux of this Article is that people should be allowed to form and join peaceful groups and shouldn’t be forced to join any groups. The usual examples are political parties and trade unions.

Again, this can be suspended if it’s a proportionate response that’s necessary to prevent a crime or protect other people’s rights.

Article 12: Right to marry and start a family.

Restrictions on this right mostly come from national laws about things like the age of majority (legal adulthood) and what counts as incest.

Article 14: Protection from discrimination in respect to these rights and freedoms.

This essentially means that all the rights and freedoms defined in the act apply to everyone. It covers things like race, disability and religion but it also covers things that aren’t discussed as often, like ‘illegitimate’ births, trade union membership and linguistic minorities.

It also covers indirect discrimination. Which means that if a general rule disadvantages a particular group it’s going against Article 14.

In short-

Human rights are a powerful, levelling concept and regardless of whether your story is set in the modern era they can be relevant. Consider whether the cultures in your world have equivalent concepts and whether they prioritise the same rights. If you’re writing fantasy or sci fi consider whether these rights and broader conception of personhood are extended to any non-human groups.

The concept of human rights grew out of violations of them. This codified standard came from a background of war crimes, and that means that the factors deemed worthy of protection say something about the cultures and history which fed into them.  

Do all these factors apply to your world? Do the same kinds of discrimination exist, historically or in the present? What do people deem ‘proportionate’? Did historical trauma feed in to the concept of dignity and correct behaviour? Did it pre-date them? Is there even an attempt at defining universal rights or is everything dependent on the local law and culture?

Most stories are not going to need you to go through and define an equivalent (or not) of the Universal Declaration. But a rough idea could help you sketch out ideals about right and wrong, it can help to make a world feel more consistent, deeper and richer.

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