What kinds of human rights obligations are there?

Obligations are generally of three kinds: to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights:

  •  To respect human rights means simply not to interfere with their enjoyment. For instance, States should refrain from carrying out forced evictions and not arbitrarily restrict the right to vote or the freedom of association.
  • To protect human rights means to take steps to ensure that third parties do not interfere with their enjoyment. For example, States must protect the accessibility of education by ensuring that parents and employers do not stop girls from going to school.
  • To fulfil human rights means to take steps progressively to realize the right in question. This obligation is sometimes subdivided into obligations to facilitate and to provide for its realization. The former refers to the obligation of the State to engage proactively in activities that would strengthen people’s ability to meet their own needs, for instance, creating conditions in which the market can supply the healthcare services that they demand. The obligation to “provide” goes one step further, involving direct provision of services if the right(s) concerned cannot be realized otherwise, for example to compensate for market failure or to help groups that are unable to provide for themselves.

Human rights law recognizes that a lack of resources can impede the realization of human rights. Accordingly, some human rights obligations are of a progressive kind, while others are immediate.4 For economic, social and cultural rights, States have a core obligation to satisfy the minimum essential level of each right. This level cannot be determined in the abstract; it is a national task, to be undertaken in accordance with human rights principles (see question 14). However, in any situation where a  significant number of people are being deprived of their right to health, housing, food and so forth, the State has a duty to show that all its available resources—including through requests for international assistance, as needed—are being called upon to fulfil these rights.

For socio-economic rights, the following obligations are of immediate effect:

  • The obligation not to discriminate between different groups of people in the realization of the rights in question;
  • The obligation to take steps (including devising specific strategies and programmes) targeted deliberately towards the full realization of the rights in question; and
  • The obligation to monitor progress in the realization of human rights. Accessible mechanisms of redress should be available where rights are violated.

Taking the right to health as an example, it is not permissible for available resources to be devoted exclusively to first-rate services for only half the population or only those living in urban areas. Available resources should be dedicated to ensuring that the standard of health of the entire population is progressively improved, with immediate planning towards that objective, and effective mechanisms for monitoring progress and, as necessary, redress.  Human rights treaties also set certain limits on human rights obligations:

  • The enjoyment of some international human rights can be limited in line with legitimate requirements of national security, “public order” (although this does not offer a carte blanche to abrogate human rights) or public health. Examples include the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of movement under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Quite a number of human rights can lawfully be derogated from, or suppressed, in times of public emergencies, such as a security crisis. Examples include freedom of expression and freedom of association, although not rights basic to immediate human survival. To be lawful, derogations must be issued according to pre-established constitutional procedures, be publicly notified, and be strictly necessary and in proportion to the severity of the crisis.
  • At the time of ratifying or acceding to a human rights treaty, States may also submit what is known as a reservation, limiting or modifying the treaty’s effect, provided the reservation is consistent with the treaty’s overall object and purpose.


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