Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Human Dignity Definition:

An individual or group's sense of self-respect and self-worth, physical and psychological integrity and empowerment.

Related Terms: Human Right, Right, Discrimination, Hate Crime

In the context of the law of South Africa, law professor Linda Hawthorne writes, in Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai Jurisprudentia (2011):

"The (recent) pre-eminence of human dignity can be viewed as a reaction against the politics of the past, but is in essence a reflection of the fact that human dignity is the most important human right from which all other fundamental rights derive....

"Human dignity is inherent to every human being, inalienable and independent of the state.

"In contrast, other human rights can be suspended in a state of emergency or limited in terms of law of general application."

human dignityThe United Nation's Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, §10, refers to, but does not define human dignity:

"No research or research applications concerning the human genome, in particular in the fields of biology, genetics and medicine, should prevail over respect for the human rights, fundamental freedoms and human dignity of individuals or, where applicable, of groups of people."

The 1997 European Union Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine (aka Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine), relies extensively in the preamble to the concept of human dignity, but does not define it.

From the preamble:

"Conscious that the misuse of biology and medicine may lead to acts endangering human dignity;

"Resolving to take such measures as are necessary to safeguard human dignity and the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual with regard to the application of biology and medicine...."

In 2006, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, (the Constitutional Court of Germany) had to weigh the constitutional protection of human dignity against a statute which proposed the shooting-down of any unidentified aircraft that, though carrying hostages, might pose an imminent threat to ground structures and civilians. The Court struck down the law saying that what may compromise human dignity is a fact-driven analysis. At ¶121:

"(T)he duty to respect and protect human dignity generally forbids making any human being a mere object of the actions of a state. Any treatment of a human being by the state that - because it lacks the respect for the value that is inherent in every human being - would call into question his or her quality as a subject, his or her status as a subject of law, is strictly forbidden."1

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes, at §15(1), a right to equal treatment under the law "without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability". In Law v Canada, Justice Iacobucci wrote, on behalf of a unanimous majority of Canada's Supreme Court, at ¶53:

"The purpose of §15(1) is to prevent the violation of essential human dignity and freedom through the imposition of disadvantage, stereotyping, or political or social prejudice, and to promote a society in which all persons enjoy equal recognition at law as human beings or as members of Canadian society, equally capable and equally deserving of concern, respect and consideration.....

Human dignity means that an individual or group feels self-respect and self-worth. It is concerned with physical and psychological integrity and empowerment.

"Human dignity is harmed by unfair treatment premised upon personal traits or circumstances which do not relate to individual needs, capacities, or merits. It is enhanced by laws which are sensitive to the needs, capacities, and merits of different individuals, taking into account the context underlying their differences.

"Human dignity is harmed when individuals and groups are marginalized, ignored, or devalued, and is enhanced when laws recognize the full place of all individuals and groups within Canadian society.

"Human dignity within the meaning of the equality guarantee does not relate to the status or position of an individual in society per se, but rather concerns the manner in which a person legitimately feels when confronted with a particular law. Does the law treat him or her unfairly, taking into account all of the circumstances regarding the individuals affected and excluded by the law?"


  • Hawthorne, Linda, Constitution and Contract: Human Dignity, the Theory of Capabilities and Existenzgrundlage in South Africa, 2011 SUBB Jurisprudentia 27
  • Law v. Canada (Minister of Employment and Immigration), [1999] 1 SCR 497
  • Naske, Nina and Nolte, Georg, Legislative Authorization to Shoot Down Aircraft Abducted by Terrorists If Innocent Passengers Are on Board, 101 Am. J. Int'l L. 466 (2007 - NOTE 1)

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