Defending Human Rights in Court

Will the courts be a bulwark to protect human rights?

Human rights are set out and protected in law—international treaties, national constitutions, and many other laws set out key human rights protections and guarantees. Human rights advocates try to have these laws enforced, including by taking cases to court.

But a court is not necessarily a rights-friendly venue. Costly delays, obstructive procedural rules, legal chicanery, and unsympathetic judges may individually or in combination mean even the most compelling cases of injustice are dismissed. The risks of failure are even higher in countries where the judiciary’s full independence and impartiality is in doubt. Judges may be wary of upholding rights when repressive and/or discriminatory laws enjoy wide support and are championed by politicians.

Still, experience in many countries shows there are real victories to be won in court. The question is when to seek justice through the courts, and – beyond success or failure in an individual case—what might be achieved by litigating rights? What might be lost? As discriminatory policies gain greater political support, will the courts be a bulwark to protect human rights, or is it naïve to expect judicial rulings will stem the populist tide?     

 

Economic and social rights force us to pressure a return to the state

November 6, 2019
By: Katharine G. Young
Español | Français

Constitutional entrenchment is only part of the battle for recognition of economic and social rights, ...

Polish activists fight for rights already guaranteed in their constitution

October 23, 2019
By: Małgorzata Szuleka
Español

The democratic community in Poland is under threat, but activists and judges who use the constitution ...

Engaging justice amidst inequality in Latin America

April 4, 2019
By: Lisa Hilbink & Janice Gallagher & Juliana Restrepo Sanin & Valentina Salas
Español | Português

Despite low levels of trust in the justice system, citizens in Chile and Colombia still make legal claims, ...

Strategic litigation in a perfect storm—South Africa

April 2, 2019
By: Jason Brickhill
Español | isiXhosa

The courts have done much in South Africa to advance human rights and promote equality, but in what ...

Litigating rights under occupation

March 12, 2019
By: Jessica Montell
Español | עברית | العربية

Israeli occupation is the root cause of Palestinian suffering. Litigation won’t change that, but it ...

Landmark case from Romania expands possibilities for LGBT rights

March 5, 2019
By: Adrian Coman
Español

A landmark case on same-sex marriage in Romania could expand the possibilities for LGBT rights in the ...

Seizing opportunities and broad strategy both essential in human rights litigation

February 26, 2019
By: Wolfgang Kaleck
Español | Deutsch

To bring real human rights change, legal actions usually need to be linked to broader political strategies, ...

Human rights—tackling inequality by catalyzing the agents of social change

February 12, 2019
By: Jackie Dugard
Español | Français

Some argue human rights are insufficient to tackle inequality but overlook the emancipatory power of ...

Turning to the courts: lessons from Amnesty Canada’s litigation experience

January 24, 2019
By: Alex Neve
Español | Français

When human rights NGOs go to court, there are many key factors to consider beyond just “winning”.

Litigating rights carries risks as well as rewards

January 17, 2019
By: Martín Abregú
Español

Where possible, challenging authoritarian and illiberal regimes in court is an important tactic, but ...

Caliban Unleashed: What role for strategic litigation in an illiberal era?

December 5, 2018
By: Alicia Ely Yamin
Español

There are inherent limitations in litigating health rights, but it has led to important victories, and ...

India’s Supreme Court is making landmark judgements in social change

November 22, 2018
By: Jayna Kothari
Español

In the last few years, public interest litigation at India’s Supreme Court has brought significant wins ...

Strategic human rights litigation in tough times

November 21, 2018
By: Dimitrina Petrova
Español | Русский | 简体中文

There are many good reasons to pursue human rights claims in the courts, especially given the rise of ...

The value of strategic litigation amidst rising illiberal democracies

November 20, 2018
By: James A. Goldston
Español | Français | العربية

In an increasingly authoritarian world, courts are among the few spaces where ordinary people can challenge ...

Court judgements are shaking political foundations—and upholding rights

September 14, 2017
By: James A. Goldston
Español

In Kenya, Guatemala and Brazil, courts have defied presidents and shaken up politics—is court-centric ...

Closing the doors of justice? The South African Constitutional Court’s approach to direct access

May 25, 2015
By: Jackie Dugard
Español

Legal interventions can help improve poverty and inequality, but in South Africa the poor don’t have ...

Legal mobilization: a critical first step to addressing economic and social rights

December 14, 2014
By: Shareen Hertel

Legal mobilization for economic and social rights is a critical first step, not the end goal, as India's ...

Can legal interventions really tackle the root causes of poverty?

November 14, 2014
By: Sara Bailey

Legal interventions can ameliorate some of poverty’s most harmful consequences, but they cannot address ...

Poverty and human rights: can courts, lawyers and activists make a difference?

September 30, 2014
By: Chris Jochnick
Français

We have long known that poverty is rooted in power, yet traditional power-blind approaches to poverty ...