Skip to main content Skip to footer

World Kindness Day: The Difference Between Kindness & Human Rights

Today is World Kindness Day. So I wanted to ask, what does kindness mean to you? Some dictionaries define kindness as, “the quality of being friendly, generous or considerate.” For me, it’s exactly that. Day-to-day kindness is being offered a coffee by a colleague, having a door held open by a stranger or having a friend call to check that I’m doing ok. Small gestures where someone has thought of you when they didn’t need to. And that second part is important: they didn’t need to. If a colleague returned from the staff room with a freshly brewed cup and nothing for me, I wouldn’t have any grounds (excuse the pun) to ask where my coffee was. Would I?

Kindness then, I think, is something we choose to be or to do. We can choose to be kinder to people who are kind to us, to someone who is going through a hard time or someone in a situation with which we identify. On the flip side of that, we can choose not to be kind to someone who has upset us or someone who we consider rude - we can decide that they don’t deserve those extra gestures.  

Kindness is a choice. The right choice I’m sure, although how many of us can claim we are always kind? When we are stressed or sad or in a rush? This is why it matters that we know what kindness is and what it isn’t. Too often, human rights are considered kindness. A nice thing for a person going through a difficult time. Something public bodies often declare as a special thing they choose to do which sets them apart, “we put human rights at the heart of care.” That’s great, I don’t want that to change, the more people know and use human rights the better, but it is the law. And we need to remember that. You wouldn’t have a public body proudly promoting that they follow health and safety law, would you? It's expected. 

Human rights are not kindness. Human rights are legal entitlements for everyone enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights and in our UK Human Rights Act. This means that, when we or someone we love interacts with public services, whether that is the police, hospitals, schools or mental health services, there is a way in which we can legally expect to be treated. To not be treated in an inhuman or degrading way (Article 3); to have our private and family life respected (Article 8); to have our religious beliefs upheld (Article 9); to not be discriminated against (Article 14).  These rights (unlike kindness) cannot depend on how the public official is feeling on that day, how busy they are or whether they deem you worthy.

Nina was moved 200 miles from home for mental health treatment when she turned 18. Her mother with two younger children struggled to visit and Nina began self-harming. The hospital had a policy that no family visits could occur for 48 hours after self-harm, making it even more difficult for her to see her mum and brothers. Nina had an Independent Mental Health Advocate trained by BIHR who met with her social worker and together they composed a letter to the Clinical Commissioning Group.  What did they write in that letter? That it would be kinder to move Nina closer to home? That Nina was kind to staff so we should do more for her? No. That the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) has a duty to respect Nina’s right to family life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act and that the impact this was having on Nina and her family had been going on for 18 months. The CCG, a public body, was therefore not doing all they could to protect this right. Within a few days the CCG had sent a different doctor to assess Nina. Within two weeks of the assessment, Nina was transferred to a unit closer to home. As it was within 40 miles of her family, it was close enough for her brothers to visit and Nina was able to have home visits.

What sort of society do we want to be then? A kind one or a lawful one? Here’s what I want, I want us all to be kind to each other (where’s that coffee?!) but when I or anyone else is interacting with public bodies, it's not kindness we should be demanding, it's having our human rights respected and protected and the law upheld.

About the author


Head of Policy & Programmes

Stay up-to-date

Get our newsletter

Get monthly updates on UK human rights law and our work, resources and events sent straight to your inbox.