Discrimination and Human Rights

Discrimination is an assault on the very notion of human rights. It is the systematic denial of certain peoples’ or groups’ full human rights because of who they are or what they believe. It is all too easy to deny a person’s human rights by labeling them “less than human.”

Since its beginning the UN has established as one of its fundamental goals “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.[1] As the human rights framework developed over the decades, the understanding of discrimination has steadily expanded to include any distinction that results in the denial of any person’s enjoyment of their full human rights. For example, the initial human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) mentions “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”[2] More than forty years later the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) includes also “the child or his or her parent’s … ethnic or social origin, property, disability.”  However, the general understanding of discrimination now includes any quality used as the basis of discrimination such as age, personal appearance (e.g., over-weight, deformed or disfigured persons), sexual orientation and gender identity, immigrant status, and language and culture.

Many of the legally binding human rights conventions that were built on the foundation of the UDHR are directed toward the protection of groups vulnerable to discrimination, such as

Discrimination against minorities and other groups

Every country in the world has national or ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities within their populations. Many violations of human rights have a basis in discrimination, racism and exclusion on the grounds of the ethnic, religious, national, or racial characteristics of the victim group.

The main document regarding the rights of minorities is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992). It includes a list of rights to which persons belonging to minorities are entitled, including the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion and to use their own language. The Declaration reaffirms the rights of persons belonging to minorities to enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law. Other key principles include the protection of existence, promotion and protection of identity, and the right to effective participation.

Forms of discrimination

Discrimination can take the forms of gross human rights violations like genocide and forced migration or more familiar, subtle, and widespread forms such as restrictions or exclusions on housing, language, health care, education, association, fair trials, or participation in public life.

Whenever an individual or group is not granted dignity and equality before the law, this is discrimination.[3]

Related Human Rights Instruments:

[1] Charter of the United Nations.

[2] Article 2.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of non-discrimination, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 119: http://www.etc-graz.at/typo3/fileadmin/user_upload/ETC-Hauptseite/manual/versionen/english_3rd_edition/Manual_2012_FINAL.pdf.