How Human Rights Help Us Define Who We Are

By Benson Egwuonwu, Writer 6 Apr 2017
Discrimination, LGBTQ+, Privacy, Race

Identity is a complex but crucial thing. It’s how we define ourselves – it’s who and what we are. 

What’s more, human rights can often be fundamental part of helping us do this. The European Court of Human Rights claims the Convention On Human Rights enables people to, “establish details of their identity as human beings.” This post celebrates some of the judgments that have helped people fight back against discrimination to realise their true identities.

What’s in a Name?

Albert Schnyder married Susanna Burghartz in 1984. The couple applied to use “Burghartz” – the wife’s surname – as the family name, making the husband’s surname double-barrelled (“Schnyder Burghartz”). However, Swiss laws did not allow them to do this, even though a wife was allowed to have a double-barrelled name.

The Human Rights Court ruled that the Swiss state had violated the couple’s rights to private and family life, along with their right not to be discriminated against. There was no good reason why the couple’s choice of surnames should have been disallowed.

Biological identity 

Montana Mikulic was born in 1996 to unmarried parents. In 1998, she and her mother brought a case against her father – Mr H – in order to establish paternity. There were many delays and Mr H repeatedly dodged his DNA testing appointments. However, in 2001, the Croatian court finally established that he was indeed Montana’s father.

The Human Rights Court ruled the delays and the failure of the Croatian court to force Mr H to be DNA tested violated Montana’s right to determine her identity under Article 8, the right to a private and family life. The Court stated children like Montana had the right to, “uncover the truth about an important aspect of their personal identity.”

Conscientious objection 

Vahan Bayatyan was a Jehovah’s Witness living in Armenia. When Bayatyan turned 18 years old, he was required by Armenian law to do military service. He refused on the basis that it conflicted with his beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness.

The Armenian police arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned Vahan for almost a year. The Court ruled that his right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (under Article 9 of the Convention) had been violated.

The court stated there was a right to refuse to do military service if that refusal was motivated by, “deeply and genuinely held religious or other beliefs.” This was a very important judgment, as it was the first time the court had found that there was a right of conscientious objection under the Convention on Human Rights.

Sexual orientation 

The right to establish your identity also covers sexual orientation. Take the case of Jeffrey Dudgeon, a Northern Irish clerk and activist: in 1975, police arrested and interrogated him, because he was gay.

The Human Rights Court ruled Northern Ireland’s criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults violated Dudgeon’s right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the Convention. Soon after the Dudgeon decision, male homosexuality was decriminalised in Northern Ireland.

Gender re-assignment 

Image: GoToVan / Flickr

The Convention has also helped to develop transgender rights. One of the key cases involved Christine Goodwin, a trans woman.

Even after Christine underwent male-to-female gender reassignment surgery, UK law still regarded her as a man. The Court ruled that the UK’s refusal to recognise Christine’s gender-reassignment violated her right to respect for private and family life. Because of this case, the UK Parliament passed laws that provided trans people with legal recognition of their gender reassignment.

Want to know more about this kind of stuff?:

  • Have a look at our infographic poster on right to private life in plain English
  • Check out our infographic poster on freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • Read our explainer on family life

Subscribe to RightsInfo and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more human rights news, views and information.

Featured Image: CreateHerStock

About The Author

Benson Egwuonwu Writer

Benson holds a BA in jurisprudence from St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice from BPP Law School. He is part of the RightsInfo volunteer team.

Benson holds a BA in jurisprudence from St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice from BPP Law School. He is part of the RightsInfo volunteer team.