International human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1948, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In response to the atrocities committed before and during the War, the international community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual.

The European Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe

In Europe another newly formed international body, the Council of Europe, set about giving effect to the UDHR in a European context. The resulting European Convention on Human Rights was signed in 1950 and ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951.

At the time there were only ten members of the Council of Europe (the countries subscribed to the Convention), and all were Western European. The Council has since expanded, particularly following the collapse of the communist states in Eastern Europe. Now 47 member countries subscribe to the European Convention.

Over the years a number of additional Protocols to the Convention have been adopted. Only some of these confer new rights. The United Kingdom has ratified some but not all of these substantive Protocols.

Other international human rights instruments

Over the years, a number of other international human instruments giving effect to the UDHR have been drafted and adopted. Some of these are truly international, e.g. the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while others are regional, e.g. the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Some deal with specific issues, e.g. the Convention against Torture, and some with the rights of specific groups, e.g. the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United Kingdom has ratified many of these international Conventions.

The European Court of Human Rights and enforcement of the European Convention

The European Convention system was unusual in that, very early on, a Court was set up to interpret and ensure compliance with the Convention. The European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 and the United Kingdom has allowed an individual right of application to the Court since 1966. Before applying to the Court applicants are required to pursue any legal proceedings in this country that are capable of giving them redress for the violation of their Convention rights. Now that the Human Rights Act is in force, this will usually involve pursuing a claim under the Act.

Enforcement of other international instruments

The example of a regional human rights court has been followed under both the Inter-American and African systems. Other international human rights systems have established committees to which complaints of breaches can be made, provided the relevant government allows. Apart from the European Convention the only international human rights instrument under which the United Kingdom permits an individual right of complaint is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Some international instruments require participating states to report regularly on what they are doing to ensure compliance. Groups such as Liberty often participate in these reporting cycles by commenting on their Government’s report, or by producing a shadow report.

International human rights instruments in British law

The Human Rights Act was passed in 1998 in order to 'give further effect' to the European Convention in British law. Under the Act public authorities in this country are now required to act in a way that respects people’s rights under the Convention, and people can now rely on their Convention rights in legal proceedings.

This is not the case with the other international human rights instruments that the United Kingdom has ratified. While people can refer to these in proceedings before the British courts, the courts will not directly apply them. They may still have some effect for two reasons:

  • Where there is some ambiguity as to what the law requires, the courts will assume that the law should be interpreted in a way that complies with the United Kingdom’s international obligations;
  • In interpreting the rights under the European Convention the courts here, but more particularly the European Court of Human Rights, will have regard to other international human rights instruments.