Blog: Challenging misconceptions about human rights and equalities

The 10th of December was International Human Rights Day.

At THRE, we support third-sector organisations in Scotland to adopt a human rights and equalities first approach to their organisational development. This includes changing the way we all think about the terms “human rights” and “equalities”.

Instead of human rights and equalities being seen as a nebulous, complicated or intimidating topic reserved for lawyers in Geneva or dedicated specialist organisations, our aim is to demonstrate how taking a human rights and equalities approach is relevant to every organisation.

To mark International Human Rights Day, we have put together some information about the most common misconceptions regarding human rights and equalities.

Human rights are just about the law.

Human rights do have an important place within international law, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights being one of the most fundamental international documents to come from the 20th Century. However, human rights aren’t solely about taking legal action to defend your rights. Instead, they are concerned with outlining the minimum standards for how we treat each other. They provide values which we can use to ensure that every individual (and group of individuals) is treated with fairness, respect, equality and dignity. These are values that aren’t just relevant to governments and public bodies; they are at the heart of what we all do every day.

Human rights and equalities are only relevant to equalities organisations.

All organisations can benefit from thinking about human rights and equalities. Internally, human rights and equalities are needed to ensure that best practice is being followed, that everyone within the organisation has a fair chance of success, and that the best talent is able to join the organisation. They are about making sure volunteers are treated fairly, that service users can have a say about how services are being designed, and that staff do not feel exploited or undervalued. Human rights values can be applied to everything that an organisation does, and many of us practice them every day without being aware of it.

Human rights and equalities aren’t for me.

Human rights and equalities concern everyone. Everyone has human rights and these rights apply to us all. Equalities legislation acts as a tool that supports those with additional barriers to accessing their rights. Equalities in the UK are closely associated with the nine protected characteristics- Age, Disability, Marriage & civil partnerships, Pregnancy & maternity, Race, Religion & belief, Gender reassignment, Sex, Sexual orientation.

We all fall into one or more of these at some point during our life. For example, everyone is ageing and will experience being treated differently as they age. We also interact with people who identify with an aspect of these characteristics every day.

Even if we ourselves don’t feel that we have faced barriers to accessing our rights, we are responsible for not creating those barriers for others. This could be as simple as wearing a face mask so that those more vulnerable to Covid-19 feel safe or challenging the assumptions we may make about others.

Human rights and equalities are about criticising how we’ve always done things.

When we think about human rights and equalities, there is often fear of getting things wrong or having to completely relearn what we know. Whilst human rights and equalities are an opportunity for learning, they are not about being told off or chastised. Oftentimes, thinking about human rights and equalities is a chance to recognise what’s been done right.

Organisations may find that by living their values, they are already meeting the principles of human rights and equalities. By actively working within a human rights and equalities first approach, organisations can recognise and communicate this good practice. There will inevitably be areas for improvement too, as our understanding of human rights and equalities is constantly evolving. But, the core values of fairness, respect, equality and non-discrimination, and autonomy remain the same. Even though best practice guidelines may change over time, organisations and people who actively prioritise these values and place them at the heart of what they do will be on the right track.


If you are part of a Scotland-based third-sector organisation and would like to learn more about human rights and equalities, and how to adopt a human rights and equalities first approach, please check out our resources and courses.