All societies are characterized by socio-economic stratification and inequality. In the name of sustainable development of society there has been a trend established in an effort to achieve greater equality and reduction of such social, economic, status-based inequalities that prevent members of society from exercising all of their rights and freedoms.

Respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all “without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion” is a goal of all international human rights treaties. This principle, which has been developed since the end of the Second World War, has become a fundamental rule of human rights in all international treaties and national constitutions. In customary international law, the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex, race and ethnic origin is the norm, adherence to which has been agreed on by the international community as a whole, and separate agreements for further recognising this rule are not necessary (Makkonen 2007). Most other grounds for non-discrimination also relate to innate characteristics or other factors (attributed characteristics) that are beyond the person’s own judgment.

The anti-discrimination legislation of the European Union arises from the requirements for the creation of the common market in the Community, the need to avoid unfair competition that could harm the international market. For example, at France’s request, the norm was established in Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome, which was concluded in 1957, for women and men to be paid equal pay for the same work, in order to exclude other Member States from receiving unfair advantages because they did not have a prohibition on such discrimination under national law. The special provision, which was initially limited to pay discrimination, has become a general requirement in the course of the general recognition of the principle of equal treatment at national and EU level as a result of secondary EU law and the case law of the European Court of Justice.

By now, measures on gender discrimination, reducing gender inequalities and promoting equality in the older EU Member States have a multi-decade history. There is also a growing conviction that the right to equal treatment and non-discrimination is not only a fundamental human right and a common value, but also an essential condition for economic growth and social cohesion. Ensuring equal protection of all fundamental rights and freedoms and fair competition for employers in the Member States by establishing uniform non-discrimination rules in an essential part of this.

In Estonia, Riigikogu adopted the Equal Treatment Act in autumn of 2008. Its purpose is to ensure that persons are protected from discrimination on the grounds of nationality (ethnicity), race, colour, religion or belief, age, disability or sexual orientation.

The materials of the proceedings of the draft act in Riigikogu show that the adoption of the act was deemed necessary primarily for the transposition of the respective European Union equal treatment directives and that the act is based on the minimum requirements set out in Directives 2000/43/EC (The Race Equality Directive) and the 2000/78/EC (Equal Treatment in Employment Directive) adopted on the basis of Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam. The opinion at the time was that there was no massive violation of human rights in Estonia and that legal protection was guaranteed by the norms of the Constitution.

This shows that the recent history of Estonia and Eastern European countries has left a deep imprint on people’s minds and perceptions about human rights. Our values and attitudes are still influenced by the Soviet period that did not actually value democracy and people. The word ‘equality’, which was often used in that period, here has not yet been given the meaning it has in Western countries with a longer democratic tradition. The effects of this era are still evident in the language usage, the way of thinking, the concepts used in debates, and in fears and prejudices.

Adopting the mindset   according to which humanity should be seen in every human being, recognising the individual freedoms and human dignity of every person still takes time.  However, the rules on the protection and promotion of equal treatment of minority groups should contribute to the development of this way of thinking. They also influence the development of cohesion and tolerance in society.