What are human rights?

Human rights are rights that you have because you are a human being. They are the values which help keep our society fair, just and equal. They are basic moral principles which are enforced by law. Laws protecting basic rights have a long history, going back at least 800 years to Magna Carta, the 1689 English Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence.

Human rights under threat

In recent years, human rights have come under attack from politicians and the media. Recent research has found that 70% of human rights coverage in the UK newspapers is negative. The Conservative government want to overhaul our human rights protections.They have said they will scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights, and reduce the influence of the European Court of Human Rights.

Rights in history

We can trace the modern human rights movement back to key moments in England, as well as other places, hundreds of years ago. In the Middle Ages, most of the population were peasants, who worked for the nobles and were permitted to live off the land. They did not have anything like the rights which we enjoy today. Then came Magna Carta (the ‘Great Charter’). Amongst other things, it granted certain fundamental rights like trial by jury – but only to the nobles. Those ideals embedded in Magna Carta are reflected in the English Bill of Rights in 1689.

The post-WW2 revolution 

After Wold War II, the democratic nations wanted to prevent the repetition of the evils caused by Fascism and Communism. This led to the founding of the United Nations, the Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions regulating the conduct of war. Winston Churchill and others formed the Council of Europe in 1949 to promote democracy and protect human rights. The Council’s first convention, the European Convention, is the cornerstone of all its activities and created the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

The ECHR international treaty which the UK signed up to in 1951. It contains a list of human rights and basic freedoms, fundamental to living a dignified life. By signing up to it, the government of a country agrees to what the treaty says about how it must treat people within its borders and, rarely, outside too. If someone thinks a country has breached their rights, they can bring a claim before the European Court of Human Rights. And if the European Court rules against a state, the government of that state has promised to abide by the ruling.

The Human Rights Act 1998 

The Human Rights Act is a law that protects all of us from having our human rights taken away by the state. Under this law, public bodies like hospitals and schools must not commit human rights abuses and must take proactive steps to ensure human rights are protected. If not, you can make a complaint or take legal action. The human rights included in the act are those set out in the European Convention of Human Rights. They include the right to life, to liberty, to free speech, to private and family life and others. For more see our explainer.

What human rights do for us – Patients at hospitals must be treated with compassion

Between 2005-8, mortality rates at Staffordshire General Hospital were higher than average, and patients received appalling care. Because of the Human Rights Act, which places duties on public bodies to fully investigate deaths and mistreatment at the hands of the state, there was a full public inquiry into the disaster which resulted in wide-ranging reforms to the NHS. Read more

What human rights do for us – Journalists can’t be forced to reveal their sources

In the 1996 case of Goodwin v UK, a journalist was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to reveal a whistle-blowing source for a story. It was unfair to punish journalists for doing their job to protect commercial interests. The judgment meant that courts were far less likely to force journalists to reveal their sources, whatever the justification. Read the whole story.

What human rights do for us – Soldiers have a right to proper equipment

Families of soldiers killed in combat in Iraq are suing the government because they believe their sons were not given adequate training or equipment. They have been allowed by the Supreme Court to pursue their claim  The court said that human rights law meant that the Ministry of Defence couldn’t hide behind immunity laws. Read more


What human rights do for us – gay people have to be treated equally

Human rights laws have resulted in huge advances for gay rights, ranging from gay soldiers being able to serve in the army, to inheritance laws not discriminating against gay couples, to sex between people of the same sex being decriminalised in Northern Ireland.

Human rights are part of our British heritage

Human rights have been greatly influenced by British history. In 1215, the Magna Carta guaranteed: ‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned….except by lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.’The Bill of Rights 1689 banned ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ In 1772, in a case called Somerset v Stewart, an English judge said that English common law didn’t support slave ownership.  The 1679 Habeus Corpus Act was the first law to ensure our right for a judge to review our imprisonment. And the English common law has long protected free speech.


Know, celebrate, protect and SHARE!

Can you name a key UK human rights case and what it does for us all? Do you know how many cases the UK actually loses against the European Court of Human Rights? We’re not in the business of telling anyone what to think. But to know your rights is to protect them. We need to make sure we’re educated.

Please help us spread accurate human rights information by sharing our animation.