Why Laws Must Be More Than Paper

Personal stories: What rights mean on the ground


The Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous Peoples in Paraguay live in temporary homes on a narrow strip of land beside a busy highway with severely limited access to clean water, food and medicines. Their ancestral land is in the hands of private owners. In 2005 and 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the lands should be returned to the Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa.

Key members of the Paraguayan government, encouraged by economically powerful landowners, have resisted implementing the judgements. In October 2009, the Paraguayan Senate voted against the return of Indigenous lands to the Yakye Axa. The government is now seeking to provide them with alternative lands rather than returning the lands to which they have a close cultural tie.

The deadlines set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for the return of the lands have long passed and the lands have yet to be returned to the communities. In the meantime, both communities suffer the cumulative effects of the lack of essential services available to them, with deficient education and health provision, and limited access to water and food.


In India, in April 2001, an NGO, the People’s Union on Civil Liberties, brought a petition before the Indian Supreme Court arguing that the government was violating the right to food by failing to address chronic malnutrition. Despite a funded programme of midday school meals and food rations for families below the poverty line in many states, inefficiencies meant that the quality and reach of such schemes were often limited.

In November 2001, the Court ruled that minimum food ration guarantees for families living below the poverty line should be legally binding and implemented in full. The Court ordered state authorities to provide cooked midday meals with specified minimum calorific and protein content to all school children for a minimum of 200 days a year. The order strengthened the bargaining power of civil society groups campaigning for the right to food. In addition, the Court appointed commissioners to monitor its implementation.

It is estimated that an additional 350,000 girls per year are enrolling in school due to the increased availability of school meals following the litigation.


In South Africa in 2000, the government refused to provide the anti-retroviral drug Nevirapine – used to prevent mother-to child HIV transmission – to all those who required the treatment, even though 70,000 infants were being infected each year. The authorities decided that the drug would only be provided at certain pilot locations until they had fully devised their own programme. This decision was made despite support for the drug by the World Health Organization and the South African Medicines Control Council, and an offer by the manufacturer to provide the drug free for five years.

The advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign carried out extensive mobilization on the issue and took the government to court. In 2002, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government must permit and expedite the use of Nevirapine throughout the public health sector in order to ensure the right to health. The decision helped to undermine the government’s opposition to widespread provision of antiretroviral drugs. Additionally, it bolstered Treatment Action Campaign’s lobbying work for the wider provision of anti-retroviral treatment. In 2003, South Africa’s cabinet adopted an operational plan to combat AIDS that included anti-retroviral treatment as one of its core components.

In the USA, despite recent legislation to significantly extend health insurance coverage, it is anticipated that over 20 million people will remain uninsured. The US Medicaid scheme for people on low incomes involves complicated, bureaucratic requirements, with the result that eligible women often face significant delays in receiving prenatal care. Some low-income women have no source of affordable care and therefore go without prenatal care altogether. Public health education is inadequate and there is insufficient information about and access to contraception.

Because the USA does not recognize the right to health in national law, women have limited options to seek legal remedies for these gaps in access to health care

Czech Republic
In the Czech Republic, Romani children are frequently excluded from mainstream education and placed in practical schools and classes intended for pupils with “mild mental disabilities” that teach a significantly reduced curriculum. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights required the authorities to end racial segregation in schools and provide redress as far as possible.

The Czech government asked school directors and regional authorities to stop placing Romani children improperly in practical schools. However, these directions have not been properly implemented and the government has not put in place adequate legal or practical safeguards or special measures to enable Roma inclusion in mainstream education.


Return to the Making Rights Law Evidence Suitcase

  Return to the Making Rights Law Evidence Suitcase



Explore the Rights Journey

Travel the world to find out about human rights and poverty. Learn about and take action on maternal mortality, human rights abuses in slums, the need for access to justice for those whose rights have been denied. Meet people and communities, listen to their stories, tell your own.