22 March 2018

70 years ago the world came together to set down the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rights we should all enjoy simply because we are human. This year we'll be celebrating universal human rights, and bringing them home in the Human Rights Act which also marks its 20th anniversary. Join us in the celebrations and sign our digital birthday card for universal human rights here. Read on to learn more about what these rights mean in our everyday lives...

The right to be free from from inhuman & degrading treatment, was set down in Article 5 UDHR, and is now protected in UK law through Article 3 of the Human Rights Act. 

This right protects against very serious abuse and neglect. It protects you from treatment that causes intense physical or mental suffering, or causes you to feel fear or anguish or extreme humiliation. For treatment to be 'inhuman or degrading' and protected by this right, it must have a very serious impact on you. 

This right also protects your right to be free from torture.

Under the law, torture has a very specific definition. Torture is about someone who works for government or a public authority deliberately causing severe physical or mental suffering to someone for a specific purpose, for example, to get information. Inhuman or degrading treatment, on the other hand, doesn't have to be for a deliberate or for a purpose - it can be caused by neglect. This part is especially relevant in everyday life and the experiences people may have in health and care, education, social services, with the police and emergency services.  

Public officials have a duty not to torture or treat people in an inhuman or degrading way, but they also have to take reasonable steps to protect you when they know (or should know) that someone is at risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. This includes taking positive action when someone known to be as at risk of serious harm from another person such as a family member. There is also a duty to investigate when officials may have been involved in torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. 

This right is an 'absolute right', which means it cannot be restricted or interfered with by public officials under any circumstances. There can be no legal justification for torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. 

In real life: victims' human rights must be protected

Two women, survivors of rape by John Worboys, won their legal fight to hold the police accountable for breaching their human rights because of failures to properly investigate reports of his crimes. The Supreme Court confirmed that the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment imposes a positive legal duty to investigate reported crimes perpetrated by private individuals. This means it is not enough to simply have the right processes and policies in place, failures in investigations can also breach the law.

This case is extremely important for work to end violence against women. Too often women who have experienced serious violent crimes are failed by authorities, either because they are not believed or their cases dealt with inadequately. Now the courts have confirmed that the human rights law means police action, not just words in guidance, is vital.

(Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis v DSD & Anor, 2018)

In real life: reversing a hospital decision

Lynne has a learning disability and lives in an NHS hospital. She needs to use incontinence pads overnight, but the hospital decided to stop providing them. The hospital's decision meant that Lynne was often left in soiled sheets until morning. This was extremely distressing and embarrassing for Lynne and was affecting her skin. She thought she was being treated in this way as a form of punishment.

Lynne and her advocate raised this as a risk to the right to be free from degrading treatment. As a result, the hospital re-instated the use of incontinence pads so that Lynne would not face hours of discomfort and embarrassment each night.

(Example from BIHR’s project Care and Support: A Human Rights Approach to Advocacy)

In real life: accessing much-needed physical health treatment

Moira was in her 40s and had suffered with severe tinnitus and deafness in one ear for three years. This caused an incessant loud noise in her head which was having a significant impact on her mental health. Moira’s consultant thought that she could benefit from a cochlear implant and was willing to perform the operation but the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) repeatedly refused to fund it. Moira and her family were really upset by the situation. Moira felt that her life was no longer worth living, and at one stage attempted to take her own life.

Using her right to be free from inhuman & degrading treatment, Moira told her GP that it would be inhumane to leave her suffering when treatment was available. The GP eventually managed to secure funding for her treatment from an alternative source. Moira and her family were overjoyed. Moira felt that she was getting her life back and her children were getting their mum back.

(Example from BIHR’s project Care and Support: A Human Rights Approach to Advocacy)

Take action, join in!

Show your support and sign our digital 70th birthday card for universal human rights here - it's a quick and simple way to have your voice heard and join others across the UK.

Remember we're running a digital campaign between 14 - 23 March; follow the discussion on social media using #MarchforHumanRights and #celebrating70. We'd love for you to join the conversation.