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The Legal Right to Human Dignity

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Human dignity is recognized a foundational value and as a legal right in international law from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) to the Sustainable Development Goals (2015) and in most of the world's constitutions. It is integral to public law, private law, criminal law, and administrative law in areas ranging from environmental protection to housing to procedural rights of political participation and access to justice.

"As constitutions explicitly protect human dignity, and courts [give it] meaning, people around the world increasingly develop a feeling of dignity – an internalized awareness of their own worth and of the power it carries."

-Dignity Rights: Courts, Constitutions, and the Worth of the Human Person


"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…"

-- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Preamble

“We believe in democracy as a path, a future, and a way of life [and] affirm the right of the people to make their future. They, alone, are the source of authority. Freedom, human dignity, and social justice are a right of every citizen.”

-- Constitution of Egypt 2014, Preamble

"The defense of the human person and respect for his dignity are the supreme purpose of the society and the State."

--Constitution of Peru 1993, Title I, Chapter I, Article I

Dignity Rights

Human dignity refers to the inherent humanness of each person. It is not an attribute or an interest to be protected or advanced, like liberty or equality or a house or free speech. Rather, human dignity is the essence of our being, without which we would not be human. Human dignity recognizes and reflects the equal worth of each and every member of the human family, regardless of gender, race, social or political status, talents, merit, or any other differentiator.

The modern concept of dignity applies to all persons. It functions as an equalizer: if everyone has dignity, then everyone is subject to the same obligations and is entitled to the same benefits under the law. And, as rendered in constitutions and enforced by constitutional courts, it is a right that can be and often is asserted against the state or others and enforced by a court.

The right to dignity is recognized in more than 150 of the world's constitutions including almost all in the Middle East and North Africa; today, few constitutions are adopted or meaningfully amended without adding a reference to human dignity. Sometimes it is a stand-alone right (e.g., German Basic Law 1949: "Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority"), sometimes it is associated with certain important values (equality, bodily integrity) (see e.g. the Constitution of Italy 1948: "All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions") or it is associated with segments of the population (women, children, the elderly, prisoners), and sometimes it is recognized as a fundamental value on which the constitutional state, or rule of law rests (Constitution of South Africa 1996: " The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values: Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms...") or, as in Tunisia, as an element of the republic's motto. (Some of the constitutions that resulted from revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring identify dignity as a motivating factor; see e.g., the preambles of the 2014 constitutions of Tunisia and Egypt). Most often, it appears multiple times in a single constitution, as in South Africa, Kenya, Colombia, Morocco, and elsewhere. As a right, it may look like most other constitutional rights: it is enforceable by a claimant who argues that his or her right has been violated and who seeks a judicial remedy.

This primer aims to provide an introduction to dignity rights, including what they are (or are not), how they are embodied constitutionally around the globe, and how courts interpret and apply them (or don’t). It concludes with an appendix that lists common issues in vindicating dignity rights.