Most human rights can be restricted to protect important public interests such as public safety or other people’s rights. However, there are some rights that can never be restricted under any circumstances or for any reason. These rights are called absolute rights. The absolute nature of these rights means that they cannot be restricted even in times of war or other emergencies. 

Absolute rights are generally considered to be: 

  • the prohibition of torture 
  • the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment
  • the prohibition of slavery
  • the prohibition of retroactive criminal laws (no punishment without law)

Sometimes, rights that cannot be restricted because of their nature are also considered absolute. For example, the internal aspect of freedom of thought, conscience and religion – what you think or believe internally – cannot be restricted or changed by the state. Therefore, by its internal nature, such a right cannot be restricted and is considered absolute. 

note Article 116 of the Latvian Constitution lists rights that can be restricted for a number of reasons. This would imply that other rights cannot be restricted. However, the Constitutional Court of Latvia has recognized that rights not mentioned in Article 116 can also be restricted if the legitimacy of such restrictions can be implied from the Satversme as a whole and restrictions on particular rights are internationally accepted. Therefore, the rights that are generally considered absolute in international law and human rights instruments which Latvia has joined are also considered absolute in Latvia.

Absolute rights and non-derogable rights

Some rights are also called non-derogable rights. These rights include all absolute rights, but they are broader because they also include rights that can be lawfully restricted. The non-derogable nature of rights mean that states cannot declare any exemptions from upholding them in times of emergency and they have to observe the same safeguards regardless of whether there is an emergency.

example The right to life is a non-derogable right in most human rights instruments. This does not mean that the State cannot legitimately use lethal force or kill someone under strictly regulated circumstances, for example, when protecting the life of another person or through a person being a legitimate casualty during war. The non-derogable nature of the right to life means that it always applies in the same way, even in times of emergency and the State always has to comply with the strict limits of law that regulate situations in which the taking of life is legal.

Read more about derogation in times of emergency.

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education