Human Rights Instruments

What are human rights? Simple question. Difficult to answer. It’s an incredibly contentious area of the law. Which rights are fundamental? Should prisoners actually have a right to vote? Or, any rights at all? What about the rights of victims? How can companies have human rights? How many have judges simply made up?

Human rights seem to provoke people. And most newspapers. What might begin as an interesting chat in the pub will probably end with you both fighting in a car park. You might very reasonably have started by expressing your opinion that maybe prisoners should forfeit more than their liberty on conviction? Or that, on balance, perhaps even terrorists should be entitled to due process?  They will undoubtedly “hear what you’re saying” but then make very clear they disagree by repeatedly slamming the door of a Ford Cortina on your face. AND EVERYTHING THEY SAY WILL BE IN UPPER CASE.

To a large extent, arguments for universality notwithstanding, your rights and your ability to enforce them depends on where you are in the world. Some countries prioritise civil and political rights. Others, economic, social and cultural rights. It also depends whether the country you’re in has simply signed a treaty or ratified it. Even then, there may be derogations. This page will attempt to provide an introduction to many of the legislative sources of human rights law. It’ll be fairly wide-ranging – everything from the Human Rights Act 1998 to the Alien Tort Claims Act 1789.  Given the sheer volume of treaties, I’ll be updating this periodically. What this page won’t do is discuss case law. For recent case discussions affecting the UK, I’d thoroughly recommend the UK Human Rights Blog.

Magna Carter 1297
The Petition of Right 1628
The Bill of Rights 1689
The Human Rights Act 1998
The Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) 1998
The Scotland Act 1998


The Council of Europe:
The European Convention on Human Rights 1950
The European Social Charter 1961
European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1987
The European Union:
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union 2000

African Charter on Human and People’s Rights 1981

American Declarations of the Rights and Duties of Man 1948
American Convention on Human Rights 1969

Inter- American Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities 1999
Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights 1988

Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1965
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 1979
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989

If you’re at all interested in finding out more about human rights generally, there any number of sources of information. My favourite is the the UK Human Rights Blog. Also, you could do worse than look at the websites of LibertyJUSTICE, or the Scottish Human Rights Commission. Finally, Lord Bingham’s 2009 lecture on the subject is also worth a read.


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