Human Rights Areas of Practice

Without enforcement, universal human rights are just a concept. Instruments like treaties and laws are necessary to ensure everyone’s human rights are protected. Human rights lawyers, advocates, and other defenders of human rights pressure governments, companies, and individuals to uphold the law, create new laws, and hold violators accountable. What are the main areas of practice for human rights? Here are seven examples.

#1 Anti-discrimination

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to be free from discrimination. It’s also protected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and other human rights laws. Anti-discrimination legislation works to prevent discrimination against certain groups of people, who are often referred to as “protected groups” or “protected classes.” Various laws have been established around the world, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States, which made it illegal to discriminate against people based on their race, color, religion, nationality, or sex. In anti-discrimination law, specific areas of focus can include voter registration, schooling, public accommodations, and more.

#2 Freedom of expression

The right to freedom of opinion and expression can be found in Article 19 of the UDHR. It includes the right to “hold opinions without interference.” Freedom of expression is often threatened by the powers that be in the name of national security or religion. While governments do have a duty to prohibit hate speech, that authority can be abused to squash activists, journalists, and NGOs. The definition of hate speech is constantly debated in the world of human rights law. Learn more about freedom of expression in an online course.

#3 Disability law

People with disabilities endure significant barriers and discrimination. Their human rights are often violated because they require more accommodations than able-bodied or neurotypical people. This discrimination can affect schooling, healthcare, voting, employment, and more. Disability rights lawyers and activists work to improve laws that prevent discrimination and better encompass different disabilities. They also raise awareness of how discrimination spreads. Today there are various master programs that are specifically focused on disability law.

#4 Women’s rights and gender equality

Women’s rights and gender equality are major areas of humans rights law. While universal human rights (such as the right to life, work, freedom from discrimination, etc) apply to all people, women have not historically enjoyed equal rights. In 1979, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, acknowledging that while other instruments exist, women still don’t have the same rights as men.

Globally, progress has been uneven. Depending on the region, significant violations of women’s rights are commonplace. This includes discrimination in the workplace, barriers to education and healthcare access, and other structural problems. Human rights lawyers work in firms and organizations to advocate for equal pay, equal education access, better healthcare, and more social protections against abuse and trafficking.

#5 Domestic violence

Domestic violence is often grouped with women’s rights because it mostly affects women. In the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), the document stated that “violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms” that keeps women lower on the social ladder. Domestic violence also has a significant impact on children. While less prevalent, men can also be affected by domestic violence, so human rights laws need to include them. Laws on domestic violence vary by country. Human rights lawyers focus on advocating for better (and more inclusive) domestic violence laws. They also work to see that laws are enforced properly and justice is served. Learn more about how gender-based violence can be tackled in an online course.

#6 Refugee law

Displaced people are owed human rights like everyone else. They are also uniquely vulnerable because of why they were displaced (which includes conflict, food insecurity, climate change and more) and the stigma placed on them as they seek a new home. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a mandate to provide international protection. International instruments include the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Lawyers working in refugee law advocate for displaced people, help them through the complex process of seeking asylum, and provide resources.

#7 Access to education

The right to education is found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments. It’s considered crucial because of its effect on other human rights. Research shows that if all adults completed secondary education, poverty rates significantly go down. Education also narrows the gender gap. The right to education includes universal and free primary education, accessible secondary education, and accessible higher education. Human rights defenders focus on challenges to the right to education, such as migration and displacement, financing, and discrimination. Various international human rights instruments provide a framework for the right to education, so the countries that ratify these treaties need to be held accountable.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.