Limited Rights

The truth of the matter is that most human rights are limited, and not absolute. This means that apart from certain (absolute) rights such as the right to be free from discrimination, torture, and slavery, other rights can in one way or another be overridden.

 ‘A right is absolute when it cannot be overridden in any circumstances, so that it can never be justifiably infringed and it must be fulfilled without any exceptions.’[1]

State and government officials may limit rights if they think it is necessary to do so. This is clearly seen in the articles of human rights treaties. For example, the European Convention on Human Rights in article 2 on the right to life states that:

‘1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally…. 2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary: (a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence; (b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; (c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.’

Some of these special circumstances include the protection of democracy, peace, national security, and situations where other people’s rights are being infringed upon by someone else. The right to life is not guaranteed to a person if such person poses a threat to the safety, security and life of others. However, the questions that arise are plenty: Who gets to make the split second decision on whose life is worth taking? And for what specific reason? Ingrained prejudices by law enforcers play an intrinsic role in a situation where it is believed that someone may be posing a threat to other people.

Now more than ever, there is the pressing need for government and state officials who execute the power of the law, to be educated on human rights principles and laws, and most importantly, on equality and non-discrimination.  

States often exploit the notions of ‘national security’ and ‘public peace’ and consequently violate human rights while still appearing to be adhering to the law. The state’s ‘margin of appreciation’ is a legal doctrine used to balance individual rights with national interests. The European Court of Human Rights uses this ‘margin’ in order to judge whether any state party to the European Convention on Human Rights should be sanctioned for limiting the enjoyment of rights.

The possibility for states to invoke national security considerations to justify reductions in the protection which must be afforded to human rights is inevitably a source of concern, as the risk of abuse cannot be entirely ruled out. National security is often referred to in connection with terrorist threats and, in our post 9/11 society it is relied on as justification for various restrictions on rights (with the relative approval of the public).[2]

A worrying idea in today’s world is the fact that all the states of the world have at one time or other, violated human rights. One need only look at the regional level to see that there have been cases brought forward against all the States in Europe. The official website that lists all the judgments decided by the ECtHR provides a long list of cases against state members.

The 21st century has seen human rights discussions infiltrate public discourse, all inspired by the human rights agenda that has been building up since the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In theory, it seems that now more than ever, people are becoming bearers of human rights. However, digging deeper, a contradictory truth crops up. Human Rights violations are still a common occurrence, despite the human rights advancements of the last seventy years. What then, are the missing links between the aims of human rights and what actually goes on in our daily life?

How do we create bridges that effectively bring people closer to the goals of human rights principles?


[1] Alan Gewirth, ‘Are There Any Absolute Rights?’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 31.122, (1981), 1-16 (p. 3).

[2]  Council of Europe/ European Court of Human Rights, Case Law Research Report: National Security and European Case-law (Research Division, 2013), p.5. 

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