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All persons should be treated equally in dignity, rights and respect. Equality is a very important principle in international human rights law. It deals with how we treat each other, especially individuals who are different from us. Equality can be expressed in different ways, for our purposes we will focus on formal equality and substantive equality. 

  • Formal Equality

This means treating others the same. We must treat others in such a way that everyone will be subject to the same rules or standards. 

  • Substantive Equality


This does not mean treating everyone the same. It means treating persons differently so as to achieve equal or equivalent results.  Sometimes, treating people exactly the same may result in injustice. As human beings have differences and are multifaceted, it is important to take into account different factors such as race, age, sex, etc., that may make a person's situation sufficiently different to require different treatment in order for them to be treated fairly and with equal respect. 


Closely connected to the principle of equality, is the principle of non-discrimination. No one has the right to unjustly discriminate against others and no one should be discriminated against for who they are.  Discrimination can occur in many ways. It can be direct or indirect. Discrimination can also be positive or achieved through affirmative action.

  • Direct Discrimination


Direct discrimination occurs when somebody is treated unfavourably because of a protected attribute such as their sex or race. This form of discrimination is obvious. 

  • Indirect Discrimination

Indirect discrimination occurs when a rule that appears to be neutral and the same for everyone, in fact, has the effect of disadvantaging someone because they have an attribute that is protected such as their sex or race. This form of discrimination is often less obvious than direct discrimination.


  • Positive Discrimination/Affirmative Action

This is a form of discrimination that favours someone by treating them differently in a positive way. It means taking positive steps to increase the representation of minorities in areas of employment, education, and culture from which they have been historically excluded.  This form of discrimination is justified.

Check out the Declaration of Principles on Equality and a Commentary on it to
learn more about equality and non-discrimination. 

Read the
Compendium on Equality and Non-discrimination: Inter-American Standards to learn more about the Inter-American Human Rights System's standards on equality and non-discrimination.

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