What are Human Rights?

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world.

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 in 1948. For the first time, the Universal Declaration set out the fundamental rights and freedoms shared by all human beings.

These rights and freedoms - based on core principles like dignity, equality and respect - inspired a range of international and regional human rights treaties. For example, they formed the basis for the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. The European Convention protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe. This includes the United Kingdom.

Until recently, people in the United Kingdom had to complain to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if they felt their rights under the European Convention had been breached.

However, the Human Rights Act 1998Image: External Icon made these human rights part of our domestic law, and now courts here in the United Kingdom can hear human rights cases. Find out more about how human rights workImage: External Icon

How do human rights help you?

Human rights are based on core principles like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy. They are relevant to your day-to-day life and protect your freedom to control your own life, effectively take part in decisions made by public authorities which impact upon your rights and get fair and equal services from public authorities.

How do Human Rights work?

Where are your human rights set out?

The Human Rights Act 1998Image: External Icon sets out the rights in the UK which are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Act did not invent human rights for British people. Instead, it introduced into our domestic law some of the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents.

More specifically, it gave greater effect within the UK to the rights and freedoms protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty which British lawyers helped to draft.

So the Act meant that these basic rights and freedoms are now more easily protected within the UK.

Who does the Human Rights Act apply to?

The Act applies to all public authorities (such as central government departments, local authorities and NHS Trusts) and other bodies performing public functions (such as private companies operating prisons). These organisations must comply with the Act - and your human rights - when providing you with a service or making decisions that have a decisive impact upon your rights.

Although the Act does not apply to private individuals or companies (except where they are performing public functions), sometimes a public authority has a duty to stop people or companies abusing your human rights. For example, a public authority that knows a child is being abused by its parents has a duty to protect the child from inhuman or degrading treatment.

Who is protected by the Human Rights Act?

The Human Rights act covers everyone in the United Kingdom, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Anyone who is in the UK for any reason is protected by the provisions in the Human Rights Act.

The rights in the HRA are known as 'justicible', which means that if an individual thinks they have been breached, they can take a court case against the public sector body that has breached them. For more information on how rights work in practice, see Using your human rightsImage: External Icon

Your rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 are not the only rights you have. To find out how the law protects other rights, see Your rightsImage: External Icon

Can human rights ever be restricted?

Some human rights - like the right not to be tortured - are absolute. These 'absolute' rights can never be interfered with by the government in any circumstances.

However, most human rights are not absolute. Some of these rights can be limited in certain circumstances, as set out in the specified Article of the European Convention on Human Rights. For example, your right to liberty can be limited only in specified circumstances such as if you are convicted and sentenced to a prison term. Other rights can only be restricted when certain general conditions are met, for example where this is necessary to protect the rights of others or in the interests of the wider community. For example, the government may be able to restrict your right to freedom of expression if you are encouraging racial hatred. 

The Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act 1998 (also known as the Act or the HRA) came into force in the United Kingdom in October 2000. It is composed of a series of sections that have the effect of codifying the protections in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.

All public bodies (such as courts, police, local governments, hospitals, publicly funded schools, and others) and other bodies carrying out public functions have to comply with the Convention rights.

This means, among other things, that individuals can take human rights cases in domestic courts; they no longer have to go to Strasbourg to argue their case in the European Court of Human Rights.

The Act sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms that individuals in the UK have access to. They include:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The foremost statement of the rights and freedoms of all human beings

All human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms

On 10 December 1948 in Paris, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration was the first international recognition that all human beings have fundamental rights and freedoms and it continues to be a living and relevant document today.

The UDHR is a living document that matters not only in times of conflict and in societies suffering repression, but also in addressing social injustice and achieving human dignity in times of peace in established democracies. Non-discrimination, equality and fairness - key components of justice - form the basis of the Declaration. It consists of an introduction and 30 articles that set out a range of fundamental human rights and freedoms to which all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled.


The ideas and values of human rights can be traced through history to ancient times and in religious beliefs and cultures around the world. In Britain key developments include the Magna Carta of 1215, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and the Bill of Rights of 1689. See the British Library's star itemsImage: External Icon for more information on these and other key icons of liberty and progress.

After the Second World War, the international community vowed never again to allow such atrocities to take place. The United Nations was created and world leaders drew up a document to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere, always. The first draft of the Declaration was proposed in September 1948 with over 50 Member States participating in the final drafting. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at Palais de Chaillot, Paris.

It was drafted by representatives of all regions and legal traditions. It has over time been accepted as a contract between governments and their peoples. Virtually all states have accepted it. The Declaration has also served as the foundation for an expanding system of human rights protection that today focuses also on vulnerable groups such as disabled persons, indigenous peoples and migrant workers. It has been translated into more than 360 languages.

United Nations organisations around the globe have used the 60th anniversary year to focus on helping people everywhere to learn about their human rights. The theme of the UN campaign, 'Dignity and justice for all of us', reinforces the vision of the Declaration as a commitment to universal dignity and justice and not something that should be viewed as a luxury or a wish-list.

Since the Universal Declaration

The Universal Declaration is often considered the foundation stone for modern human rights. Since the Declaration was adopted in 1948 it has inspired over 80 international conventions and treaties, as well as numerous regional and domestic conventions, bills and legislation.

The Universal Declaration along with two very significant covenants makes up what is known as the International Bill of Rights. These are:

Find out more about the International Bill of Rights from the Office of the High Commisioner for Human RightsImage: External Icon

Other international conventions that have been key to the development of human rights and of particular relevance to the work of our Commission are:

  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

Each of these conventions have committees that monitor and develop the conventions to make sure they are effective. You can find out more about these conventions and committees from the United Nation's Office of High Commission of Human Rights' websiteImage: External Icon

Bringing the Universal Declaration home

The Universal Declaration has been adopted into regional versions to make clear how it applies in a specific region. In Europe, we have the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental FreedomsImage: External Icon which is monitored by the Council of EuropeImage: External Icon

This Convention in turn was interpreted for the UK in the Human Rights Act (1998)Image: External Icon

Human Rights Guidance: Health

Key messages in this guidance:

  • The CQC requires inspectors and assessors to apply a human rights 'lens' to their work since human rights are intrinsic to the quality and safety of health and adult social care services.
  • Human rights are a useful decision-making tool: they provide a framework for balancing competing rights and duties and for determining the least restrictive course of action in any given circumstance.
  • Public authorities must not only avoid breaching individuals' rights; there are times when they must also take concrete action to promote and protect human rights.
  • Equality Analysis is an important tool for NHS organizations to evidence that 'due regard' or consideration is given to each of the local protected groups in all our planning and decision making processes (and from the earliest stages of consideration). CCGs and CSUs working with local interest groups (patient or staff reps from protected groups) scrutinize for any adverse impacts arising from key changes, on those affected by those changes. Mitigation is a key outcome from such considerations, ensuring all our practices and services are fully inclusive of vulnerable protected groups. A Human Rights flow chart , an EA Guide and template for completion are available as part of the Equality Analysis process. EAs can become public documents and should audit trail our consideration of due regard leading to good equality outcomes.