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What are human rights?

The concept of human rights goes back centuries, but it was only after the horrors of the Second World War that human rights began to be formally codified in a series of international treaties at global and regional level. These treaties include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948; and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), first drafted by the Council of Europe in 1950 before coming into force in 1953. Other treaties have since followed. Together, these treaties promote dignity and equality for humankind and establish fundamental human rights that are to be universally protected.

Human rights and the rule of law

Sovereign states (such as the UK and Ireland) sign up to human rights treaties and agree to be bound by their provisions. Human rights organisations, like CAJ, can therefore use the standards of international human rights law to hold states to account for abuses, and to strengthen the protection and promotion of rights through the ‘rule of law’.

We focus on the state, first to prevent its own violations; second to urge an improved criminal justice system that is more effective and reduces criminal harm because it is human rights compliant; and third, to promote human rights legislation that will reduce the harms of social, economic, cultural, and environmental injustice.

Human rights and the rule of law set the framework for ideal relations between people, and between people and the state in which they live.

By rule of law, we mean the principle that a state should have democratically made rules, consistent with human rights, which apply to all, ensure social peace is maintained, and constrain the misuse of power.

Video explainer: Why we need a rights based society

Guiding principles of human rights

The law

This encompasses the actual human rights treaties, laws, statements, and codifications produced over the years at an international level, which together provide a moral framework for an imperfect world. This framework may not necessarily represent the highest imaginable aspirations for humanity, but instead the highest aspirations that are practically and concretely achievable at this stage of history.


Human rights are universal – we all have them! They are not relativist or contingent upon secondary factors, but apply to all cultures and in all circumstances. Human rights are not comparative – the fact that worse violations occur elsewhere does not excuse any level of violation. Human rights begin at home; we should not criticise the violations of others, however bad, without also condemning the violations that take place closer to our own front doors.


We believe people gain empowerment through understanding and exercising their rights. Everyone – including you reading this now! – has rights – entitlements – within society, which give rise to legal obligations on the part of others.


Human rights encompass civil, political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental rights.


Participation in all aspects of a society is itself a human right and must be an integral part of the process of creating a rights-based society.


Rights imply duties, and duties demand accountability. This is a crucial characteristic of a rights-based society.

Non-discrimination and equality

Both of these are basic tenets of human rights, which underpin all others.

Human rights and establishing peace in Northern Ireland

Throughout history, tyranny and oppression – a lack of human rights – has often led to violence, especially by those who feel their rights are being denied. This is why human rights standards play such a key role in peacebuilding, as they have done in Northern Ireland. A human rights approach will not create a perfect society overnight, but it will put limits on its imperfections, make durable peace far more likely, and therefore help prevent a return to violence.

Peace is a core priority for human rights activists in Northern Ireland. During the conflict, over 3,600 people died out of a population of about 1.5 million. Many proven or alleged abuses were carried out by the UK state, including state sanctioned murder, torture and collusion, all of which was underpinned by a culture of impunity and the toleration of religious and other forms of discrimination. At the core of the peace process in Northern Ireland – beginning with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – has been the goal of creating a rights-based society in which people with different national aspirations can live together in harmony and equality.

In spite of the deep trauma caused by the conflict, a relatively successful peace process has been consolidated within Northern Ireland. We have had more than twenty years without a return to violent political conflict. The defence of the GFA – which was approved by a large majority of those who live on this island – remains a key priority for human rights activists and organisations, including CAJ.

Unfinished business

Despite the overall success of the peace process, many of the rights-based commitments arising from the GFA and other subsequent agreements remain unimplemented. The major unfinished business of the peace process is the UK government’s failure to legislate for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Likewise, the exposure and holding to account of elements of the state crimes committed during the conflict is a so far uncompleted task. There is currently no comprehensive method of dealing with past abuses and unsolved crimes in Northern Ireland. Because of this, the fight against impunity in Northern Ireland is another central issue for those working to advance human rights.

Nonetheless, the lessons from Northern Ireland on how to heal a fractured society and forge an inclusive peace processes on the basis of a commitment to human rights are of wide applicability to other places in the world still experiencing active conflict.

Why support CAJ?

CAJ is the leading specialist human rights organisation in Northern Ireland. It has unrivalled experience in working for peace and justice in Northern Ireland over a period of 40 years.  We produce authoritative analysis on key rights issues and advocate for reforms that will enhance the protection of human rights and make life better and fairer for people in Northern Ireland. CAJ has established a proven track record of making successful interventions and built relationships at all levels within NI society, from grassroots organisations to government ministers. We enjoy a high media profile and use this to secure coverage of rights issues in the local and international press.