The prohibition against discrimination under international law

Respect for all human beings lies at the heart of international human rights law. International law prohibits intentional discrimination through legal means (de jure), but it also prohibits discrimination in the form of disparate impact (de facto). Discrimination is both a stand-alone prohibition (e.g., a government may not pass laws segregating citizens by race) and a procedural prohibition that exists in conjunction with other rights (e.g., a government may not implement the right to vote for only those of a specified race). Multiple documents include a long, non-exclusive list of those against whom discrimination is prohibited, building from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

The UDHR’s list was created in 1948, and therefore reflects the discrimination of particular concern at that time. The drafters intentionally made the list non-exclusive in order to allow for the future inclusion of additional groups. In recent years, one example of that inclusion is the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In addition to the historical and political significance of prohibition against discrimination articulated by the UDHR, there are legally binding prohibitions against discrimination in both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Moreover, there are treaties which elaborate on the rights of particular groups, including the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Some of the most important international laws prohibiting discrimination include those listed below. This list includes both hard (binding) law and soft (persuasive) law. An asterisk appears for the treaties the United States has ratified, and which it is therefore legally bound to respect, protect, and fulfill.

Primary human rights treaties prohibiting discrimination:

Administration of justice

Equality between women and men

Immigrant rights and non-discrimination

Indigenous rights and non-discrimination

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