Vulnerable Groups and Human Rights

Defining Vulnerable Groups

Vulnerable groups are not defined in the initial documents outlining human rights principles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights generally does not contain provisions that favour a particular group. However, instances arise when particular groups often require more attention. This is to ensure that they enjoy the full extent of their rights. It does not mean that the law elevates these groups above others.

In a human rights sense, certain groups often encounter discriminatory treatment or need special attention to avoid potential exploitation. These populations make up vulnerable groups. The aim of human rights instruments is the protection of these vulnerable groups.

Vulnerable groups, for various reasons, are weak and defenceless. These are groups that have traditionally been victims of violations. Consequently, they require special protection for the equal and effective enjoyment of their human rights. These include groups that are structurally discriminated against. It also includes groups that have difficulties defending themselves and are therefore in need of special protection.

Some of these vulnerable groups include:

  • Women and girls
  • Children
  • Internally displaced persons
  • Stateless persons
  • National minorities
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Migrant workers
  • Disabled persons
  • Elderly persons
  • HIV positive persons and AIDS victims
Protection of Vulnerable Groups
1. Children

Children need special protection because of their fragile state of development. They are susceptible to abuse and neglect and often do not have means to defend themselves. Recognizing that children need special protection, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. The Convention states that the child, by reason of his physical and mental maturity, needs special safeguards and care. This includes appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth. This convention specifies basic rights that every child should enjoy including:

  • Basic rights
    • In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
    • Parents and guardians have primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children. However, they should to carry out those responsibilities in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.
    • A child has the right to maintain contact with both parents. However, such contact should not be contrary to the child’s best interest.
  • Rights of expression
    • A child capable of forming his or her own views has the right to express those views with due weight given to the age and maturity of the child.
    • A child has the right to freedom of expression. This includes the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds. However, a state may restrict this right to protect the reputations of others. A state may aslo restrict this right to protect the national security, public order, public health or morals.
  • Privacy
    • A child has the right to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy. A child also has the right to be free from arbitrary inference of his or her family home, or correspondence.
  • Health and education
    • A child has the right to adequate health care. This includes treatment for mental health, social security and adequate standard of living. It also includes nutrition, clothing, housing and primary education.
    • Education of a child shall include development of the child’s personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.
    • A child has the right to rest and leisure, recreation, and participation in cultural and artistic life.
  • Identity
    • A child has the right to a name and a nationality. Further, a child has the right to, as far as possible, know his or her parents and have them care for him or her.
    • A child has a right to respect for his or her own cultural identity. This includes language and values. It also includes his or her own country and other civilizations.
  • Work and career
    • A child has a right to preparation for responsible life in a free society and development of respect for the natural environment.
    • States must protect the child from hazardous work, improper drug use, sexual exploitation and abuse and abduction and sale of children.
  • Treatment of children
    • Nobody shall subject any child to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
    • No law shall impose a penalty of capital punishment or life imprisonment without possibility of release for an offense committed by persons younger than 18 years of age.
  • Protection from conflict
    • States shall use all feasible measures to prevent children under the age of 15 from participating in hostilities.
    • States shall take measures to protect children who are affected by armed conflict.
    • A child has the right to be treated with dignity and worth during criminal proceedings against the child.
2. Women

Societies around the world generally view female status as inferior and subordinate to male status. Legal precepts traditionally exclude women from centres of male-gendered power, including legislatures, military institutions, religious orders, universities, medicine, and law. The most prominent human rights document concerning the human rights of women is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The focus of CEDAW is elevating the status of women to that of men in the area of human rights. The underlying purpose of CEDAW is to ensure that women’s human rights receive the same attention as those of men. Other important provisions of CEDAW include:

  • Equality of genders within political and public life, including equality in voting.
  • Equality of men and women in the fields of education, employment, health care, and economic benefits
  • Equality between men and women in civil matters, including the right to conclude contracts and administer property.
3. Persons With Disabilities

Another group receiving special protection within a human rights context is that of persons with disabilities, including mental illness. In 1975, the United Nations adopted a declaration on the rights of persons with disabilities. The declaration defines a person with a disability as any person unable to ensure by himself or herself, wholly or partly, the necessities of a normal individual and/or social life, as a result of deficiency, either congenital or not, in his or her physical or mental capabilities. Some of the provisions of the declaration are:

  • Persons with disabilities have the right to measures that enable them become as self-reliant as possible.
  • Persons with disabilities have the right to medical, psychological, and functional treatment, including prosthetic and orthotic appliances.
  • Persons with disabilities have the right to medical and social rehabilitations. They also have the right to education, vocational training and rehabilitation. Further, they have the right to counselling, placement services, and other services to assist in social integration.
  • Persons with disabilities have the right to economic and social security and a decent level of living.
  • People with disabilities have the right to secure and retain employment or to engage in a useful, productive, and remunerative occupation and to join trade unions.
  • People with disabilities have the right to live with their families and to participate in all social, creative, or recreational activities.
  • People with disabilities have the right to protection against exploitation and treatment of a discriminatory, abusive, or degrading nature.
4. Older Persons

VulnerablePersons aged 60 and older often find themselves in circumstances that render them less active within society. Income levels may drop off at retirement time and, in many countries, the elderly often become dependent on children or other relatives. Attention to the needs and care of the elderly can easily subside, as their presence becomes diminished within the mainstream of society. In addition, older persons may lose mental and physical capabilities, leaving them vulnerable to financial, physical, and other types of exploitation.

In 1999, the United Nations issued a document known as Principles for the Older Person. The document emphasized priority attention for older persons in these areas:

  • Independence
    • Older persons should have access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, and health care through the provision of income, family and community support, and self-help.
    • Older persons should have the opportunity to work and to participate in determining when to retire.
    • Older persons should be able to reside at home for as long as possible.
  • Participation
    • Older persons should remain integrated in society, participate actively in the formulation and implementation of policies that directly affect their well-being, and share their knowledge and skills with younger generations.
    • Older persons should be able to serve as volunteers in positions appropriate to their interests and capabilities and to form associations.
  • Care
    • Older persons should benefit from family and community care and have access to adequate and appropriate health care.
    • Older persons should have access to social and legal services to enhance their autonomy, protection, and care.
  • Self-fulfilment
    • Older persons should be able to pursue opportunities for the full development of their potential.
    • Older persons should have access to the educational, cultural, spiritual, and recreational resources of society.
  • Dignity
    • Older persons should be able to live in dignity and security and be free of exploitation and physical or mental abuse.
Handling Vulnerable Groups in Conflict with the Law

People taken into law enforcement custody are vulnerable in some way and detention in police custody can be particularly detrimental to their welfare. Vulnerable people may come into contact with law enforcers in a range of contexts, some involving potential criminality and some not. Irrespective of the context, it is necessary for law enforcers to consider the most appropriate support and intervention. It is therefore necessary for law enforcement officers to have the training and skills to identify when a person is vulnerable.

1. Protection of children

Children are to benefit from all the human rights guarantees available to adults. In addition, the following rules shall apply to children:

  • Treatment in a manner which promotes their sense of dignity and worth.
  • Treatment in a manner which facilitates their reintegration into society.
  • Treatment in a manner which reflects the best interests of the child.
  • Treatment in a manner which takes into account the needs of a person of that age.
  • Not be subjected to torture.
  • Not be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Not be subjected to corporal punishment.
  • Not be subjected to life imprisonment without chance of release.
  • Detention or imprisonment of children shall be an extreme measure of last resort, and detention shall be for the shortest possible time.
  • Separate children from adult detainees.
  • Detained children shall receive visits and correspondence from family members.
  • Establish a minimum age for criminal responsibility.
  • Non-judicial proceedings and alternatives to institutional care shall be provided.
  • Respect the child’s privacy and maintain complete and secure confidential records.
  • The use of physical restraints and force on children shall be exceptional, employed only when all other control measures have been exhausted and failed, and shall be employed for the shortest possible time.
  • Weapons shall not be carried in juvenile institutions.
  • Discipline shall respect the child’s dignity, and shall instil a sense of justice, self-respect and respect for human rights in the child.
  • Officials dealing with juveniles shall be specially trained and personally suited for that purpose.
  • Parents are to be notified of any arrest, detention, transfer, sickness, injury or death.
2. Protection of women

Law enforcers shall take rigorous official action to prevent the victimization of women and shall ensure that revictimization does not occur as a result of the omissions of law enforcers or gender-insensitive enforcement practices. Arrested or detained women shall not suffer discrimination and shall be protected from all forms of violence or exploitation. Women detainees shall be supervised and searched by female officers and staff.

Women shall be detained separately from male detainees. Pregnant women and nursing mothers shall be provided with special facilities in detention. Law enforcement agencies shall recruit sufficient numbers of women to ensure fair community representation and the protection of the rights of female suspects, arrestees and detainees.

Author: DidiWamukoya

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *