Enforcement of Human Rights

The enforcement of human rights is essential if they are to provide meaningful protection for everyone in the world.

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 national laws can only provide partial protection.  The Role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as “the principal human rights official of the United Nations”, is to investigate and remedy reported abuses.  National adoption of international rights law is fragmented, as described above (, so legal protection is not always available.

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 in the introduction to her book, Making Rights Work:

“…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.” [introduction p. xiii]

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).



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4242.htm