What is meant by "private life"?

Private life is a broad concept, therefore incapable of exhaustive definition. It covers the physical and psychological integrity of a person and may "embrace multiple aspects of the person’s physical and social identity".

The notion of private life encompasses the right to personal development, whether in terms of personality or of personal autonomy. Thus, it is not only limited to an "inner circle" in which individuals may live their own personal lives as they choose, but includes the right for everyone to approach others in order to establish and develop relationships with them and with the outside world, that is, the right to a "private social life".

The concept of private life covers one’s right to determine sexual orientation, lifestyle, and the way of looking. It also includes the right to participate in essential economic, social, cultural, leisure activities and a number of other aspects of life. 

Are there any restrictions to this right?

There are situations when public authorities can interfere with the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence. This is only allowed where the authority can show that its action is lawful, necessary, and proportionate in order to:

  • protect national security
  • protect public safety
  • protect the economic well-being of the country
  • prevent disorder or crime
  • protect health or morals
  • protect the rights and freedoms of others

"Lawful" means that limitations must be "provided by law". It includes a formal requirement of legality—that is, that there must be a legal basis for restrictions.

Action is proportionate when it is appropriate and no more than necessary to address the problem concerned. Measures that restrict human rights should be the least restrictive possible.

Who protects this right?

The State is the main guarantor of human rights. Its obligations are twofold: negative (obligations “not to do” something) and positive (obligations “to do” something).  

The negative obligation is to refrain from arbitrary interference in the private matters of individuals. The positive obligation is to ensure respect for private life in the relations of individuals between themselves. 

International recognition of this right

This right was formulated after the end of the Second World War when the international community decided to set a common standard for protecting fundamental rights.

1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted for that purpose. Its Article 12 reads:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

This right was later incorporated in international and regional human rights conventions. Interestingly, the scope of this right is expanding over time. The world community could not have imagined that a large volume of personal information would eventually be stored virtually. The scope of the right widened with the development of modern technology and now also includes privacy on the Internet.

In context

  • Data & privacy
  • Prison
  • Court & fair trial


Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education