Discrimination is an assault on the very notion of human rights.  Discrimination is the systematic denial of certain peoples' or groups' full human rights because of who they are or what they believe. It is all too easy to deny a person’s human rights if you consider them as “less than human”.

This is why international human rights law is grounded in the principle of non-discrimination. The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated explicitly that they considered non-discrimination to be the basis of the Declaration.  

Yet discrimination due to factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, class, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or health status – or a combination of factors – persists in many forms in every country in the world.

Them and us: fighting discrimination

While the perpetrators of discrimination and settings in which it occurs may vary, at the heart of all forms of discrimination are ignorance and prejudice.  Committed within society generally or at the hands of officials, discrimination and repression are an abuse of human rights as is the impunity too often enjoyed by those responsible. 

Some governments go so far as to openly justify some forms of discrimination in the name of morality, religion or ideology.  Discrimination enshrined in law – for example, where the law restricts women’s fundamental freedoms or refuses to recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights – effectively strips away human rights.

Violent manifestations of prejudice are often facilitated by official inaction.  Discrimination means that certain groups are denied equal protection of the law against violence inflicted on them, such as racist attacks, domestic violence, attacks targeted at people because of their actual or assumed religion or sexual orientation.

Discrimination in law enforcement can mean that certain groups are viewed by the authorities as ''potential criminals'' and so are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned.  It can also mean that they are more likely to suffer harsher treatment, possibly amounting to torture or other forms of ill-treatment, once in criminal justice system.

An individual’s identity or status may also affect the nature and consequences of their ill-treatment – for example, transgender women detained with male prisoners are particularly at risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Many individuals face discrimination based on more than one element of their identity – for example, Indigenous women face discrimination not only as women, but as Indigenous Peoples. Such multiple factors interact and change individuals’ experience of discrimination.

Injury to dignity

Acts of racial discrimination occur every day in every region of the world.  According to Amnesty International's research, many if not most of the victims of police brutality in Europe and the USA are black or members of other ethnic minorities.  States have an obligation to prevent racial violence by everyone, not just their own officials.

Yet in many countries racist ill-treatment is nourished by increasingly xenophobic responses to immigration, discrimination in the criminal justice system, and by parties to armed conflicts.

Violence against Indigenous Peoples, especially in the context of land rights disputes, is a continuing legacy of centuries of subjugation. Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately represented among the poorest in both developed and developing countries.

This pervasive poverty has its roots in the history of colonization and in the continuing systemic discrimination and non-recognition of Indigenous Peoples' individual and collective rights, including dispossession of their ancestral lands, loss of control over their natural resources and Indigenous knowledge, and their forced assimilation into the mainstream society and integration in the market economy.

There are numerous laws and practices restricting women’s fundamental freedoms – including freedom of movement and of expression.

From infancy, girls face worse treatment than boys in such forms as selective malnutrition and denial of equal access to education and health services. Women who are not married face many obstacles such as obtaining housing and credit; but married women or widows may also be treated as minors before the law.

Violence is used to terrorise women in the home, at work, in custody and in conflict, where rape is often used as  a “weapon of war”. Wherever it is inflicted, this violence is intimately linked to women's subordinate position in society and restrictions on women’s autonomy. Sometimes state officials perpetrate violence. Often they are complicit in the violence of others who may be employers, religious or customary authorities or family members.

Dozens of countries still have laws which criminalize homosexuality. Such discriminatory laws not only deprive a sector of the population of their human rights, they may also act as a licence to torture or ill-treat those detained.

By institutionalizing discrimination such laws can act as an official incitement to violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the community as a whole.

However, such concerns are not limited to countries where homosexuality is illegal. Institutionalized prejudice means that lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and transgender people who come into contact with the law for other reasons may be targeted for abuse. In some Central and Eastern European countries, lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and transgender people suffer limitations and restrictions on their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly ranging from the outright banning of Pride marches by municipal authorities to the provision of inadequate protection against attacks by counter demonstrators.

Key facts

International law guarantees human rights to all without distinctions based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Expert bodies of the United Nations have affirmed that this principle includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The thinking behind the principle is that it violates international human rights principles to be deprived of one’s rights because of a characteristic that one cannot change – such as one’s race or ethnicity – or because of a characteristic that is so central to one’s being that one should not be forced to change it, such as religion.

Governments are obliged to take essential measures to ensure the right of all to be free from discrimination. They must repeal discriminatory legislation which facilitates human rights abuses and denies equal access to justice. They must provide effective protection against violence in the broader community. The laws and institutions of the state must address the root causes of discrimination, rather than replicating or fomenting it for political ends.

Direct discrimination is the less favourable or detrimental treatment of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited characteristic or ground such as race or gender.

Indirect discrimination occurs when a practice, rule, requirement or condition is appears to be neutral but impacts disproportionately upon particular individuals or groups, unless that practice, rule, requirement or condition is justified. Governments are required to take account of relevant differences between groups in order to prevent indirect discrimination.

What Amnesty International is doing

Since 2009, Amnesty International has been carrying out a regional campaign against discrimination in Europe.  The Fight Discrimination in Europe Campaign recognizes that discrimination is one of Europe’s most pressing human rights concerns, affecting the lives of millions of people across the continent.  The campaign focuses on discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin, with particular focus on violations of the rights of Roma, discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and discrimination on the grounds of religious belief.  The campaign overlaps with the Demand Dignity Campaign (work on slums and Make Rights Law).

Amnesty International is campaigning to Stop Violence Against Women.  Our 2007 report on the US government’s failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence has generated several government hearings, raised money to save a shelter for survivors of sexual violence and ensured that Indigenous women’s human rights defenders were represented in the media in the USA.

In 2006, Amnesty International’s report, Stonewalled – Still Demanding Respect. Police abuse and misconduct against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the USA, documented the gender-based violence, sometimes amounting to torture and ill-treatment, that lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender individuals face in the USA, even after decades of human rights campaigning.

Amnesty International worked with Indigenous Peoples and with non-governmental organisations for the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. More than 20 years in the making, the Declaration was finally adopted in September 2007.

As Amnesty International's 2006 report "Migrant workers are also human beings" showed, migrant workers in South Korea are often subjected to human rights abuses by unscrupulous employers as well as by the government. They are denied rights at work, freedom of association, freedom of movement and the right to liberty and security of person.  Amnesty International urges the government of South Korea to support and respect the human rights of all migrant workers.

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