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Human Dignity: Article 1 of the German Constitution

By Barbara Meincke Article 1 of the German Constitution begins as follows: ”Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.“ Not only is human dignity the starting point of the German Constitution; Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) by the United Nations reads similarly: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.“ In Germany most people would agree that human dignity is an important if not essential value of our society. But when ask what this dignity entails opinions differ. Some believe that dignity is something you have to earn, that having dignity depends on achievements, status, or behaviour. However, this is not what the German Constitution means when it says: “Human dignity shall be inviolable“. This dignity is the dignity that each and every human being has just because he is a human being. It does not depend on behaviour, or merits. it cannot be achieved, and consequently “lost“, but it can be violated, especially by acts that deny a human being its humanness, like racism, slavery and torture. Article 1 of the German Constitution forbids all acts that violate human dignity. It is not a coincidence that human dignity is protected by the first of many articles of the Constitution – its position underlines the importance of this fundamental right. It is at the core of everything the German Society is based upon. Each and every human being has dignity, and no state authority must ever undertake to violate it. Some years ago there was a heated debate in Germany regarding the justification of torture under specific circumstances. There were, for example, voices arguing that torture should be justified if it saves others’ lives. It would go far beyond the ...

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