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4 Indivisibility and Interdependence, or A Hierarchy of Rights?
UNIVERSALITY, INTERDEPENDENCE AND CATEGORIES OF RIGHTS
2.5 Interdependence and Indivisibility
A further factor to consider is the overlap between rights thus the interdependence of all rights: for
example failure to secure the right to adequate healthcare (a social/economic right) may result in
a threat to life, the right to life being a primary civil and political right. Many more examples can
be found: right to education and right to vote and political participation; right to adequate rest
periods for workers and freedom from degrading and even life-threatening treatment.
2.5.1 Example of right to clean water and adequate sanitation
The following figure illustrates the interdependence of rights, focusing on the right to clean water
and adequate sanitation.
Access to clean water and sanitation clearly has a bearing on a number of other rights and freedoms.
A standalone right to clean water and adequate sanitation would not, of course, be sufficient to ensure
that all elements of the right to education or the right to health are satisfied. On the other hand, fully
implementing the right to health would require the supply of clean water and adequate sanitation.
Right to life—
Right to adequate
standard of Living
illnesses borne by
Right to development
and freedom from
Right to health
Right to education—
not everyone lacks
importance of clean
2.5.2 The right to life
Life, and thus the right to life, is clearly a fundamental prerequisite to the exercise of many of the
other rights and freedoms. However, this does not mean that the right to life is totally sacrosanct.
That would place unrealistic burdens on the State – to preserve all life! Rather, each instrument
notes the instances in which life may be forfeited.
EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS 1950, Article 2
1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life
intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for
which this penalty is provided by law.
INTERDEPENDENCE AND INDIVISIBILITY
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.
Not all rights are necessarily equal at all times, despite the concept of universalism outlined above.
Moreover, individual situations will affect which rights are prioritised at any given time. This will
usually be a subjective decision. Someone under house arrest for a prolonged period of time on
account of political activities may well prioritise civil and political rights. Indeed, such a person
may be willing to die for freedom of expression and political freedoms. In contrast, a child caught
up in HIV/AIDS with a terminally ill parent and three younger siblings to support is unlikely to be
as interested in political participation, freedom of expression and equality before the law. These
rights are all factors and may be important to the child. However, his or her focus is more likely to
be on the rights needed for immediate survival.
Consider the plight of those involved in recent natural disasters: earthquakes in Italy, Turkey and Iran, droughts in northern
Africa, floods in the UK, hurricanes, cyclones, tropical storms. Tragically, the list could continue. Which rights would be a
priority for those caught up in the trauma and why?
2.5.3 A family of rights
Having addressed the issue of a ‘hierarchy’ of rights, now consider the extent to which the following
three rights and freedoms overlap. Is it possible to have full political participation without at least
some freedom of expression? Can education and freedom of expression be mutually exclusive?
Does an education (of whatever kind) assist with participation in the political process and the
exercise of associated democratic rights?
Rather than consider human rights in diverse categories, it is perhaps best to consider them as
an organic whole, a family of rights, each category performing an important function; each
contributing towards vibrant richness of rights and freedoms.
UNIVERSALITY, INTERDEPENDENCE AND CATEGORIES OF RIGHTS
2.6 Evolving and Developing Rights
Finally, the rights enshrined in the various international and regional instruments are not static.
Rather than remain frozen in time, the rights constantly evolve, responding to international events,
reacting to social advancements and political change. The role of the courts and committees in
achieving this change was discussed in Chapter 1; see also Chapter 6.
In conclusion, it appears true to say that international human rights are universal, indivisible,
interdependent and inalienable.
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Rights Law’, 7 Asia-Paciﬁc Journal on Human Rights and the Law (2006) 67.
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States and Treaty Obligations
‘Universal Human Rights’ and Ratiﬁcation
Limitations on State Compliance: Reservations,
Declarations, Derogations and Denunciations
STATES AND TREATY OBLIGATIONS
To achieve universal acceptance of all human rights, obviously States must accept fully the existence
of all human rights. Generally, the law concerning State acceptance of human rights is public international law. This chapter examines the relevant aspects of public international law as it relates to
States and treaty obligations.
How do States accept treaty obligations?
Is a State always bound by the entire treaty?
How does a State opt out of treaty obligations?
Can a State opt out of fundamental human rights given they are universal?
Can a State opt out of complying with human rights during a national emergency (a natural
disaster or an armed conflict, for example)?
The Millennium Declaration adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2000
emphasised the need for respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN Doc. A/55/L.2,
para 25), and for heads of State and government to spare no effort promoting democracy
and strengthening the rule of law, respecting all internationally recognised human rights
and fundamental freedoms (para 24). For any system of international human rights to work,
it is essential that as large a number of States as possible participate, embracing the rights and
obligations enshrined in the salient instruments. In other words, their participation should be
VIENNA DECLARATION AND PROGRAMME OF ACTION WORLD CONFERENCE ON HUMAN
RIGHTS, VIENNA, 14–25 JUNE 1993, UN Doc. A/CONF.157/23
26. The World Conference on Human Rights welcomes the progress made in the codiﬁcation
of human rights instruments, which is a dynamic and evolving process, and urges the
universal ratiﬁcation of human rights treaties. All States are encouraged to accede to these
international instruments; all States are encouraged to avoid, as far as possible, the resort to
By definition, international human rights are adopted in the understanding they will achieve international and, indeed, universal acceptance. To date, the only instrument to come close is the
Convention on the Rights of the Child, with ratification by all but three Member States of the UN
(the USA, South Sudan and Somalia). This chapter will encapsulate material relating to the obligations incumbent on States and the methods by which States may limit them. The next chapter will
focus more on the systems of monitoring and enforcing human rights.
3.1 ‘Universal Human Rights’ and Ratiﬁcation
An essential part of the new world order created through the United Nations is the concept of
universal rights. Materials relating to the debate between universality and cultural pluralism have
already been discussed in Chapter 2. In contrast, this section examines the practical problems
encountered by the international community in trying to ensure the universal application of rights.
Problems arise through the myriad of ways a State can legitimately limit its obligations under any
given instrument. It is inevitable that universality was the goal of the United Nations: a truly global
organisation derives continued legitimacy from international endorsement. However, even without
the problems caused by cultural relativism, the goal of universality encounters hurdles due to the
lack of State ratifications.
Compare and contrast the following views of universal ratification.
‘UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS’ AND RATIFICATION
A critical viewpoint
Professor Anne F. Bayefsky, York University, Canada. Committee on International Human
Rights Law and Practice Report on the UN Human Rights Treaties: Facing the
Implementation Crisis, International Law Association
Helsinki Conference (1996)
The implementation crisis facing the principle UN human rights legal standards is now of
dangerous proportions. For a great many States ratiﬁcation has become an end in itself, a
means to easy accolades for empty gestures. The problem has arisen in part because of a
deliberate emphasis on ratiﬁcation.
The primary goal of the UN community has been to achieve universal ratiﬁcation of the
human rights treaties. The underlying belief is that once universal ratiﬁcation is realized, the
implementation techniques can be strengthened. Once committed to participation, States will
ﬁnd it difﬁcult to pull out and will ﬁnd themselves ensnared in an ever-expanding network of
international supervision and accountability.
In the meantime, ratiﬁcation by human rights adversaries is purchased at a price, namely,
diminished obligations, lax supervision, and few adverse consequences from non-compliance.
The cost of membership has been deliberately minimized. One signiﬁcant example of
this phenomenon is the acceptance into the treaty regime of States that ratify only with broad
reservations. These reservations purport to limit the obligations assumed. For example, many
Islamic and Asian States only ratify the treaties with the caveat that any obligation sustained
must ﬁrst be compatible with Islamic law or a similar broad reservation.
Such reservations are inconsistent with international law which requires reservations to
conform to the object and purpose of the treaty, and in the case of human rights treaties means
identifying and applying overriding, universal standards. Nevertheless, few States are prepared
to challenge other States on the legitimacy of their reservations, and some important States
like the United States and the United Kingdom currently are resisting attempts by the treaty
bodies themselves to challenge reservations.
Are Bayefsky’s criticisms realistic and justified or unduly pessimistic?
Bayefsky’s criticisms should be borne in mind when progressing through this chapter, not least as
you re-evaluate whether or not they are justified.
A programme of practical solutions in the push towards universal ratification was suggested by
Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations appointed Independent Expert who prepared a series of
reports on rendering the United Nations process more efficient.
United Nations support of universalism
Professor Philip Alston, UN Independent Expert. Final report on enhancing the long-term
effectiveness of the United Nations human rights treaty system, UN Doc. E/CN.4/1997/74
23. The emphasis upon promoting universal ratiﬁcation is an essential one in order to strengthen
and consolidate the universalist foundations of the United Nations human rights regime. Despite
the fears of some critics, the quest for universal ratiﬁcation need not have any negative consequences for the treaty regime as a whole. One such critic, Professor Bayefsky, has argued that the
‘implementation crisis’ which she perceives to exist is due in part to ‘a deliberate emphasis on
ratiﬁcation’ which for many States, has ‘become an end in itself, a means to easy accolades
for empty gestures’. In her view, ratiﬁcation is often ‘purchased at a price, namely, diminished