Skip main navigation

What is discrimination

Discrimination is treating someone differently simply because of who they are or what they believe. Let's take a closer look.

It is much easier to deny a person’s human rights if you consider them as “less than” you. But how does this happen?

How discrimination happens

Some governments reinforce their power and the status quo by openly justifying discrimination in the name of “morality”, religion or ideology. It can be cemented in national law – such as by restricting women’s freedom of movement – despite breaking international human rights law.

Certain groups can even be viewed by the authorities as more likely to commit crimes simply because of who they are or the circumstances they are in, such as being poor, indigenous or black and leading to illegitimate restrictions of their rights.

Prejudice based on concepts of identity

At the heart of all forms of discrimination is prejudice based on concepts of their identity or characteristics. This can lead to a person being unable to enjoy his or her human rights on an equal basis with others because of an unjustified distinction.

Sometimes governments try to justify discrimination in the name of morals, religion or political opinion. Some governments deny rights to specific groups of people, because of their race, sex or nationality. But there is one basic principle that underlies all the rights outlined in the UDHR: that every human being has the same inalienable rights.

What does discrimination look like?

Sometimes people are discriminated against directly when a law is passed making an explicit distinction for who and what they are – such as being denied the right to marry for being gay or lesbian.

Sometimes it happens indirectly when a law or policy is presented in neutral terms but disproportionately disadvantages a specific group – for example employers asking for a high level of proficiency in a native language when the tasks involved do not actually require it.

Direct discrimination

There are three types of direct discrimination. These include:

1. Discrimination based on a protected characteristic

Protected characteristics are specific aspects of a person’s identity such as race, ethnicity, nationality, class, caste, religion, belief, sex, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, political opinion, health or another status.

2. Discrimination by perception

Someone thinks you have that protected characteristic.

3. Discrimination by association

You are connected to someone with that protected characteristic.

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination happens when there is a law, policy or treatment that applies in the same way for everybody but disadvantages a group of people who share a protected characteristic, and you are disadvantaged as part of this group.

Intersecting or multiple discrimination

Intersecting or multiple discrimination is discrimination on a combination of grounds to produce disadvantages distinct from anyone ground of discrimination standing alone, such as, for example, discrimination against lesbians seeking in-vitro fertilization treatment, or discrimination against Roma girls in public schools.

Both direct and indirect discrimination is prohibited under international human rights law. States have an obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination, and in some cases, this requires special measures to accelerate the improvement of the position of specific groups, for example, determined quotas for women in Parliament.


This article is from the free online

Defending Dignity: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now