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Pike, Brigid (2016) What are human rights? Drugnet ireland , Issue 58, Summer 2016 , pp. 5-6.

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According to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), ‘human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to everyone. International law, including treaties, contain the provisions which give human rights legal effect.’1 In the decades since World War Two, human rights standards have been adopted at United Nations, Council of Europe and the European Union level. Ireland has committed to upholding many of these standards.


United Nations (UN)

Adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) spelt out for the first time in human history basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy. It set ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations'.


There are nine core international human rights instruments. Each of these instruments has established a committee of experts to monitor implementation of the treaty provisions by its States parties. 

  1. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
  2. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
  3. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)(1965)
  4. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1979)
  5. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) (1984)
  6. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)2
  7. Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990)
  8. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD)(2006)
  9. Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPPED)(2006)

Ireland has ratified the first six of these Conventions.


Additional information on the UN treaties can be found at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CoreInstruments.aspx



Protection of human rights in Europe (a ‘regional system’) is provided by two institutions with separate sets of laws and courts – (1) the Council of Europe system comprising the European Convention on Human Rights, the Revised European Social Charter and the European Court of Human Rights, and (2) the European Union system comprising the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU Directives on Equality and the Court of Justice of the European Union.


Council of Europe system

When it came to giving binding legal force to the rights in the UDHR, the Council of Europe adopted two separate treaties – the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees civil and political rights, adopted in 1950, and the European Social Charter, which guarantees social and economic rights, e.g. everyday human rights related to employment, housing, health, education, social protection and welfare, adopted in 1961. The European Court of Human Rights rules on individual or State applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.


Additional information can be found at

European Convention on Human Rights http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf

European Social Charter http://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/treaty/163  

European Court of Human Rights http://www.echr.coe.int/Pages/home.aspx?p=home&c=


European Union (EU) system

The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights brings together in a single document the fundamental rights protected in the EU. The Charter contains rights and freedoms under six titles: Dignity, Freedoms, Equality, Solidarity, Citizens' Rights, and Justice. Proclaimed in 2000, the Charter became legally binding on the EU with the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon in December 2009. The Court of Justice of the European Union interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries, and settles legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions.


Additional information can be found at

Charter of Fundamental Rights http://www.europarl.europa.eu/charter/pdf/text_en.pdf

Court of Justice of the European Unionhttp://europa.eu/about-eu/institutions-bodies/court-justice/index_en.htm



Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) was signed into law in 1937. Articles 38­–44 set out fundamental rights. The Irish courts have interpreted the Constitution as including certain other human rights, i.e. ‘unenumerated rights’, which are not explicitly set out in the Constitution but are recognised by the courts.


The European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 gives effect to the standards set out in the European Convention on Human Rights in Irish law. This allows these rights to be considered before the Irish courts. The Constitution has primacy over the ECHR Act (in cases where there is any uncertainty) and, if the two conflict, the Constitution prevails.


Additional information can be found at

Bunreacht na hÉireann http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/eng/Historical_Information/The_Constitution/

European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 http://www.ihrec.ie/legal/europeanconvent.html


This account has been compiled with the assistance of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, www.ihrec.ie


1 Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (2015) Human rights explained: guide to human rights law. Dublin: IHREC, p. 6. http://www.ihrec.ie/download/pdf/ihrec_human_rights_explained.pdf

2 Article 33 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child reads: ‘States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties, and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances.’

Item Type:Article
Issue Title:Issue 58, Summer 2016
Date:August 2016
Page Range:pp. 5-6
Publisher:Health Research Board
Volume:Issue 58, Summer 2016
Subjects:MM-MO Crime and law > Legal rights > Civil rights
MM-MO Crime and law > Legal rights > Rights of persons who use substances (users)
VA Geographic area > International aspects
VA Geographic area > Europe > Ireland

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