All Born Free and Equal? How Equality Underpins Our Human Rights

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SHAFAQNA – Equality pops up all the time when we talk about human rights. In fact, the very first article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Everybody has an idea of what equality means. It’s the state of being equal in status, rights, or opportunities. It’s about fairness, justice, and non-discrimination. It’s something that we recognise as inherently good and desirable. But what does it mean exactly when we talk about it in the same sentence as human rights?

A Brief History of Equality

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the body responsible for promoting and enforcing equality and non-discrimination laws in the UK, equality is about:

Ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents, and believing that no one should have poorer life chances because of where, what, or whom they were born, what they believe, or whether they have a disability.

We don’t have to look too far back in history to find examples where this hasn’t been the case. As little as half a century ago, sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice were part of everyday life. In some cases, these attitudes were enshrined in law – homophobic laws were in force in the UK until well into this century, for example.

But as long as there has been inequality and discrimination, there have been people fighting against it. The UK has, over the past 60 years, passed laws which prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. In 2010, the government gathered all the many different pieces of law together to make the Equality Act, which sets out how individuals and organisations must avoid discriminating against others.

Sounds Good – But What Does All That Have to Do With Human Rights?

Simply put – it’s difficult to have one without the other. If people are living in an unequal society, it’s difficult to imagine that their human rights are being respected. Remember, human rights are universal: they apply to everybody, regardless of who they are or where they’re from. What’s more equal than that?

The development of human rights law has also had an obvious practical impact on equality, by creating another way for people to litigate about inequality. There have been huge numbers of cases where challenges on the basis of human rights have furthered equality – ensuring that openly gay people can serve in the armed forces; that people aren’t discriminated at work on the basis of nationality; or that transgender people have the same employment, social security, and marriage rights as anyone else.

It’s not always plain sailing, however. Take the case of Eweida v United Kingdomfor example, where a woman argued that her right to freedom of religion had been breached when she was fired from her job as a marriage registrar for refusing to conduct civil partnerships between same sex couples. The Court rejected this claim, and said that the equality rights of gay couples justified the limitation on her religious freedom. Cases like this show us that there can sometimes be tension between the two concepts.

Do I have a Right to Equality?

Well, sort of. There is a right to “freedom from discrimination” which is protected by Article 14 of the Human Rights Convention. It means that there can be no discrimination in the application of human rights on grounds of sex, race, religion, disability, gender, nationality… anything, really.

But this isn’t an independent “right to equality”. It only applies as far as there is another Convention Right involved – to claim discrimination which breaches Article 14, you would have to show that the discrimination affected your enjoyment of your other rights.

Take the example of EB v France. Here a woman who was in a relationship with another woman was refused permission to adopt a child on the basis of her sexual orientation. She successfully argued that her Article 14 rights had been breached because the discrimination had interfered with her Article 8 right to family and private life.

So, although there’s no standalone right to equality, the principle of equality is crucial to human rights and vice versa. At a time when it feels both are under attack, understanding how human rights and equality can support and empower one another is more important than ever.

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