Facultad de Derecho

Human dignity: What is it´s role into the Mexican legal system?

Read more about the topic of the post in the Revista Derecho del Estado:

Review of Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq How to Save a Constitutional Democracy

The Frontiers of Memory: Human Rights as Potential Limits to the Construction of Memory in Colombia’s Law on Victims

Deliberative Democracy, Social Rights and the Modulation of Judiciary Review

By: Oscar Guillermo Barreto Nova[1]


Human dignity is a concept that has been interpreted in different ways over the years. From Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and his Oratio de hominis dignitate (Discourse on the Dignity of Man), passing through Emmanuelle Kant and his categorical imperative, to – in recent times – Manuel Atienza’s Sobre la dignidad humana (On Human Dignity). But the most complete work for the analysis of our subject might be Human Dignity by Aharon Barak. Of course, this isn’t to say these all the only authors, but these are among the most representative, and they show how human dignity –or dignity–, can be studied from the perspective of different fields: philosophy, religion, and – in this case– law. For the purposes of studying the Constitution, the legal perspective will be the most relevant.

Human dignity is a difficult concept to define, for example in long running television show The Simpsons there is an episode where they allude to it and show an unknowable picture, being a different idea for each person.

In the Constitutional and Human Rights fields, the Supreme Courts have sometimes used Human Dignity as a bullet silver to solve the so-called “difficult cases”. For example, in Mexico, they have used the argument as part of the resolutions on the right not to be tortured –see the Mexican jurisprudence P. XXII/2015 (10a.)—, on not being subject to cruel and unusual punishment –see the Mexican jurisprudences P./J. 34/2013 (10a.) and 1a. XLIX/2020 (10a.)–, and to not being held in slavery or forced servitude. As G. Webber says, these rights have a label of absolute, however other rights have been empowered from the concept of  human dignity, like the right to free development of personality –See the Mexican jurisprudence 1a./J. 72/2022 (11a.);(P. LXVI/2009)–, and the right to not be discriminated against –see 1a. CXVIII/2019 (10a.)

Now when Aharon Barak –ex Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court– says that human dignity is a central feature of modern constitutions and international documents in matter of human rights, he´s right. However, what happens when human dignity isn’t an explicit concept in the Constitution? Should we understand that it’s present if human rights are included on the constitutional text? In this sense, if we accept that human dignity is core to human rights –like liberty and equality–, we must accept that human dignity is implicit, provided the constitutional text includes a charter of human rights, of course. 

On the other hand, in some constitutional texts around the world, human dignity is explicitly invoked, like in article 1 of Germany´s Constitution, article 9.3 in Bhutan’s Constitution, article 1 of Brazil’s Constitution, and articles 21.2, 22, and 73.1 of the Bolivian Constitution´s.

In the Mexican case, human dignity is mentioned article 1, paragraph 5 –where it is related to the right not to be discriminated against–; in article 2. A. II – about the indigenous right to self-governance; and in article 3. II. C –in connection with the right to education–. The constitutional text also includes the word dignity in article 25 – about national development and free market–.

However, to know which is the interpretation that the Mexican Supreme Court has of human dignity and its role in the legal system, it’s necessary to review its resolutions about it. For this end, my purpose in the next lines is to show how the judicial system –specially the Supreme Court– has defined it and interpreted it in its resolutions about human dignity. I want to be emphatic, that this contribution won’t be a study, and neither will it be a treatise about dignity, but rather a way to gain general insight and to show the role of human dignity from the perspective of the Supreme Court, judicial branch’s head in Mexico.

For the above purpose, we will do a short review of facts on June’s 2011 Constitutional Reform on Human Rights, and later of some resolutions from the Mexican Supreme Court, that we call the jurisprudence.

June’s 2011 Constitutional Reform

In June 2011, the Mexican Constitution suffered a revolutionary change in the way it approaches Human Rights. The reform to article 1 of the Constitution was a structural change, because it consolidated Human Rights and the way they are interpreted by the Mexican legal system.

That change originated a new paradigm for the authorities, in particular for the Judicial Branch. The debate about Human Rights and their interpretation spread at all levels: the academy, the judges, as well as the law practitioners. Before June 2011, the State granted individual guarantees to people (See 2a. CXVI/2007), after 2011 the State recognized the Human Rights of all the people, not just the ones spelled out in the Constitution, but also the ones recognized by international treaties. This made it easier for more and more Human Rights to be invoked in lawsuits.

In addition the above, the Mexican State received a negative sentence by the Inter–American Court of Human Rights in the case of “Rosendo Radilla” that gave origin to Expediente Varios 912/2010 inside the Supreme Court. The above established a model of diffuse control of the Constitution and one model of conventionality control.

One last important fact is the resolution Contradicción de Tesis 293/2011, in that decision the Mexican Court, decided about the existence of a constitutional regularity parameter, under that concept there isn’t a hierarchy between the Human Rights in the Constitution and those in international treaties. Although the main controversy in that decision was about restrictions to Human Rights which exceeds the scope of the current work.

The combined effect of the reform and resolutions gave origin to a Constitutional Law State where Human Rights are the heart and guide over the which the authorities should rule and interpret the law. Human Rights which included –of course– Human Dignity.

In the following lines, we’ll go over three jurisprudences about the meaning of Human Dignity in the Mexican legal system, but first, what is a jurisprudence in Mexico? In the Mexican legal system, the jurisprudence is the core of a resolution by the Supreme Court. A jurisprudence creates a precedent in the system, with which the sentences become mandatory for all lower courts.

Human dignity, value or right in Mexican State?

In the first jurisprudential precedent, we´ll delve into the resolution Amparo directo 6/2008, where the Mexican Supreme Court interpreted the first article of the Constitution to include Human Dignity. The eleven justices ruled that Human dignity is an absolute right recognized in the Constitution and international treaties in matter of human rights, therefore, it’s a basic right and necessary condition for all others. This criteria was made before June´s 2011 reform.

The double dimension´s human dignity

A second, jurisprudential precedent we´ve reviewed is Amparo directo en revisión 1200/2014 in this resolution, the Supreme Court (first chamber) decided that  Human dignity is a juridical principle present in all the legal system, and also a fundamental right, therefore, it´s a legal norm and not just an ethical declaration, therefore it must be treated as such in a ruling that is reminiscent of Kant’s categorical imperative.

It only corresponds to the human person

In the tesis 2a./J. 73/2017 (10a.) The supreme Court resolved that the first article of the Mexican Constitution establishes judicial equality between all persons and that they enjoy all rights, but this does not happen with the legal persons in relation to human dignity, because that only belongs to the human persons. In other words, factories, companies and legal persons don’t have the right to human dignity.

The above cases aren’t exhaustive, in fact, the human dignity concept has been used in multiple occasions by the Supreme Court, applying it to concrete cases, but the purpose of these cases is to show the general approach that the Supreme Court has taken to understand and interpret what is a very abstract concept otherwise.

As a way of a conclusion

If there is a concept for excellence for the defense of the human person, it is the Human Dignity as established at the Constitutional rank. In the Mexican State Dignity is inherent to all human persons, because it´s recognized in the Constitution and international treaties in matters of human rights. For this reason, legal persons, don´t enjoy this right. Likewise, it’s a necessary condition for the enjoyment of all constitutional rights. The state has recognized it as a right since June’s 2011 Constitutional Reform and the subsequent resolutions mentioned above.

For that reason, the Supreme Court has utilized this concept to protect the Human Rights of all people in the Mexican State. However, there’s still a long road before Human Dignity becomes a material fact in everyday real life and not just as part of court sentences that help us to continue fighting for our rights.

[1] Licenciado en Derecho con estudios de Especialidad en Derechos Humanos y Maestría en Derecho por la Facultad de Estudios Superiores Acatlán de la UNAM. Especialidad en Justicia Constitucional por la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha. Actualmente labora en la Escuela Federal de Formación Judicial (México).

To cite: Oscar Guillermo Barreto Nova, “Human dignity: What is it´s role into the Mexican legal system?” in Blog Revista Derecho del Estado, July 14, 2023. Available in: https://blogrevistaderechoestado.uexternado.edu.co/2023/07/14/human-dignity-what-is-its-role-into-the-mexican-legal-system/