Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act

Authors: Kate Cameron and Mel Cadman

Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Society has become more rights conscious in recent years.

People are more likely than they were in the past to demand minimal standards that they deserve as citizens of the state.

People talk in terms of rights, freedoms and personal liberties.

They are more likely to demand certain standards from the government as a matter of right, for example the right to a certain standard of health care or the right to access to justice.

Although the term 'human rights' is relatively new, the concept is not. Philosophers, theologians and social theorists have been discussing these ideas for centuries.

Early notions of human rights were based on a recognition of basic needs. So, a basic right to food, for example, became translated into a basic right to have the means to satisfy that need.

This idea of a basic right became known as a natural right. Natural rights are those rights which grow out of the nature of mankind: they are rights that people have by virtue of being human.

A whole school of legal thought called the Natural Law School has grown out of this theory and its influence can be seen in the American Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

From: The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies, July 4, 1776.

The events in America inspired the French National Assembly who in 1789 - six weeks after the storming of the Bastille, and three weeks after the abolition of feudalism - adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Interestingly, their declaration included the right to liberty, property and resistance to oppression.

"The representatives of the French people, contituted into a "national Assembly," considering that ignorance, forgetting or contempt of the rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments, are resolved to expose, in a solemn declaration, the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man..."

From: Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, August 26, 1789.