Civil and Political Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), the foundation document of the entire human rights framework, guarantees every one both civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights.

 Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals’ freedom from infringement by governments and private organizations and ensure one’s ability to participate in the civil and political life of the country without discrimination or repression. Familiar to most American from the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, they include –

  • the right to life
  • the right to be free from torture
  • the right to liberty and security of person
  • the right to freedom of movement
  • the right to a fair hearing
  • the right to privacy
  • the right to freedom of religion, expression, and peaceful assembly
  • the right to family life
  • the rights of children to special protection
  • the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs
    • the over-arching right to equal treatment
    • the special rights of members of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities

Social, economic and cultural rights differ from civil and political rights because rather than restraining governments, they obligate governments to take “progressive action” to respect, protect and fulfill these rights. They are sometimes referred to as “security-oriented” or “Second Generation Rights.” They include rights not included in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights such as –

  • the right to education
  • the right to housing
  • the right to adequate standard of living
  • the right to health
  • the right to participate in culture, to benefit from scientific progress, and to have a stake in their own contributions to science and culture.


Civil and Political Rights vs. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Following the adoption of the UDHR by the UN General Assembly in 1948, the UN Commission on Human Rights immediately set about to draft a subsequent convention that, unlike a declaration, would be legally binding on states that ratify it. This proved to be an impossible task, however, because ideological differences divided opinion between the western, capitalistic states and the eastern, communist-socialist states. After eighteen years of negotiation, what emerged was not a unified document but two separate human rights treaties:

  • The UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) and
  • The UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966).

Predictably, countries of the so-called “Western Bloc” immediately ratified the ICCPR but not the ICESCR, while countries of the ”Eastern Bloc” ratified the ICESCR but not the ICCPR. This ideological “schizophrenia” only ended in in 1995 with the Vienna Declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights, which declared that human rights were indivisible, Interdependent, and interconnected. This means that every individual is entitled to the full range of human rights, not those that his or her government selects to recognize. Since 1995 most governments have ratified both Covenants. The United States, however, has ratified only the ICCPR, and even that only with many reservations, formal exceptions to full compliance

As part of the continuing evolution of human rights, a “Third Generation of Rights” has developed. These include environmental, developmental, and collective rights that recognize that not only individuals abut also groups as rights holders.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1981) protect many of the civil and political rights recognized in the ICESCR in relation to children and women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD,1963) prohibits discrimination on the basis of racial or ethnic origin in relation to a number of civil and political rights. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, 2006) also prohibits all discrimination on the basis of the disability including refusal of the reasonable accommodation relating to full enjoyment of civil and political rights.

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