4.2.4.2 Enforcement of Human Rights

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4242.htm)

The mechanisms for the enforcement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1) largely depend upon what is incorporated in the law of the country concerned, as will be discussed later (5.2.2), but the law can only provide partial protection:

  • Article 2 specifies inclusiveness:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

As with other Articles, it is left to individual countries to choose a mechanism of implementation and many have introduced at least some legislation.  Women’s rights, though, are weakly enforced in many countries because much oppression of women takes place within the family and authorities are reluctant to challenge cultural traditions.  Later in this chapter it is argued that such reluctance is mistaken: any apparent contradictions can be, and should be, resolved (4.4.4).

  • The State may legally permit “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Article 18), but people’s actual freedom to choose their own religion, or to reject all religions, is much more likely to be constrained by moral (or immoral) pressure from their families (4.3.2) or by other people of the same religious group.
  • The law can be used to enforce a necessary minimum standard for people’s behaviour, but it does not define the standard that ought to be reached. As Penny Smith, of Cardiff University, wrote:

“…concentrating on legal rights runs the risk of forgetting or downplaying virtue, trust, self-discipline, sacrifice, and restraint.  A just society does not emerge solely on the back of the effective enforcement of legal rights, but neither does it occur without them.” [1]

  • The purely moral rights listed in the UDHR do not have formal mechanisms for implementation and enforcement. They record a society’s recognition of what constitutes good behaviour, to lend authority to people when they are trying to exert moral influence on others – as discussed later in this chapter (4.3.1).

These points illustrate that moral influence has a role in upholding human rights, irrespective of whether they are enforced by law.  People expect higher standards of behaviour from each other than the law can enforce.  As is seen in the next chapter, the law complements, but does not replace, the role of morality in society (5.1.4).

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[1] Penny Smith commented that morality has to be about more than legal rights, in Making Rights Work, introduction p.  xiii.