What is discrimination?

Discrimination may occur in a number of different ways and in many areas of life. Therefore, it is important to learn to recognize situations involving discrimination and to know whether you have the right to complain about this and where you can complain.

Discrimination occurs when a person is treated unfairly, without an objective reason, simply because of who they are. Discrimination occurs when the skills, capabilities and circumstances of a person are not individually assessed, but negative attitudes and stereotypical assumptions are made instead, based on an individual’s personal traits, such as race, ethnicity, religion or belief, sex (gender), language, sexual orientation, disability, age or other status. Discrimination can take different forms, occur in different realms of life and can take place with or without any intention. Discrimination results in the exclusion and rejection of people, and in a denial of their rights.

Discrimination & Human Rights

You have the right to enjoy your human rights on an equal basis with other individuals, free from discrimination. The prohibition of discrimination serves as a foundation for all human rights. 

Different laws have differing degrees of protection against discrimination. 

In human rights law, the right to equality and non-discrimination is protected in two ways. In some laws, the prohibition against discrimination is not an independent right, but relates only to the other rights and freedoms protected by those laws. For instance, the government has to respect your right to private and family life, the right to a fair trial, etc. without discrimination. 

example This approach can be seen in the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 14 of the Convention provides that the rights protected by the Convention shall be protected without discrimination on any grounds. Therefore, the complaint about discrimination can be submitted only if it is related to another Convention right. 

In some laws, however, the prohibition of discrimination is an autonomous, free standing right, not related to any of the other rights in the law.  This right does not depend on whether another legal right actually exists and has been violated.

Obligations of the State

The prohibition of discrimination includes both negative and positive obligations by the State. A negative obligation means that the State, namely, public authorities themselves, must not discriminate. Such an obligation is sometimes called as prohibition of “vertical discrimination.” This means that the State has to avoid adopting laws, policies and programmes that are discriminatory, and public authorities should not apply or enforce laws and policies in a discriminatory manner. For example, the Parliament cannot adopt a law stipulating that only men are allowed to work in the police, but not women. A state agency cannot deny unemployment benefits to Romani or Muslims.

example The Constitution of the Slovak Republic stipulates that: “People are free and equal in dignity and rights”, as well as „Fundamental rights shall be guaranteed in the Slovak Republic to every person regardless of sex, race, colour, language, faith, religion, political affiliation or conviction, national or social origin, nationality or ethnic origin, property, birth or any other status, and no person shall be denied their legal rights, discriminated against or favoured on any of these grounds.“

Here, the right to be treated equally is an accessory right – as with the Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights - and can only be claimed in connection with the protection of particular fundamental rights and freedoms listed in the Constitution.

The Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic in one of its findings stated: “The basic aim of Article 12 Section 1 and 2 of the Constitution is protection of persons (both legal and natural) against discrimination from the part of public authorities. This article of the Constitution does not have direct horizontal effect, which means that it will not apply in relations between persons of private law.”

However, equality cannot be achieved if only public authorities have an obligation not to discriminate. Therefore, the State also has a positive obligation to ensure that discrimination does not occur through the actions of individuals. In these cases, you should look for specific laws regulating certain areas of life and the protected characteristics mentioned. 

example With the accession to the European Union, Slovakia introduced a special legislation on equal treatment, the so-called Anti-discrimination Act, adopted in order to transpose the two fundamental EU Directives on equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin and equal treatment in employment and occupation. This law stipulates that: “Adherence to the principle of equal treatment shall lay in the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sex, religion or belief, race, nationality or ethnic origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital or family status, colour, language, political affiliation or other conviction, national or social origin, property, lineage or any other status or on grounds of reporting of crime or any other wrongdoing. “

In Slovakia the law on equal treatment prohibits discrimination on a number of grounds in the fields of employment, social security, and healthcare, the provision of goods and services and education. The personal scope of the Anti-discrimination Act extends to “everyone”, i.e., it regulates relations not only between the State and individuals, but between private entities or private individuals, as well.

For example, denying a Roma person to enter into a night club or to attend school classes or refusing her medical treatment is not permitted.

In certain cases, public authorities may also take measures to promote equality and remove barriers that prevent certain groups of individuals (e.g., persons with disabilities) from exercising their rights in the same way as others. For example, in Slovakia an employer has an obligation to adjust a workplace to allow a person with a disability to perform the tasks required, but there are no specific obligations on adjusting a workplace for persons without a disability.

About this section

In this section, you will find information about the grounds, on which discrimination is prohibited. It will also help you to identify different types of discrimination.

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education