Introduction to Human Rights

In this lesson and the next two lessons we will talk about civil and political rights. These rights were the sole focus of activism by the human rights movement up until the late 1980s.

They remain an important focus until today. In the present lesson, we will cover five points: the denomination of “first generation” rights; the western pedigree or roots of civil and political rights; the concept of civil and political rights; the catalog of civil and political rights and; current challenges.

Civil and political rights are often called “first generation rights”. Some reserve that designation for civil rights and label political rights as “second generation rights”. But generally speaking, so-called “second generation rights” are those of an economic, social and cultural character, as will be seen in a future lesson of this course.

The truth is that civil and political rights stem historically from the philosophical and political liberal tradition. In fact, they are named, in some quarters, “western rights”. No doubt, the origins of the philosophical and legal recognition of civil and political rights is found both in the theories of european thinkers of the late 17th century and the 18th century and in the postulates of the american and french revolutions of the late 18th century.

However, they have by now reached universal recognition. This is partly due to the fact that they are easily identified with “human rights” which has become a household expression endowed with great legitimacy.

This moral force of human rights is usually taken notice of by authoritarian regimes which try to bolster their image vis-à-vis the international community. But what are civil and political rights? It is usually said that the main difference between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and social, economic and cultural rights, on the other, is that the former are individual rights, whereas the latter are collective rights in nature.

Another way to look at the difference between these two “generations” of rights is their relation to state action. Civil rights refer to the immunities every individual citizen should have in a political system based on the will of the governed and the legitimate monopoly of public force they bestow on the authorities they freely elect.

Such monopoly of force ought to be used to enforce the law, protect basic rights and promote the common good. Civil rights, then, imply the freedom to act in the economic and social spheres of society.

Political rights refer to the exercise of popular sovereignty by individuals, whenever they take part in the conduction of public affairs, whether by electing representatives or by running for public office. As it is set forth in the international covenant on civil and political rights, civil and political rights comprise, among others: the right to life; the prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; the prohibition of slavery; the right to liberty and security of the person; the right to equality before the law and the prohibition of discrimination; the right to have access to justice and to a due process of law; the right to privacy; the freedom of thought, of conscience, of religion and of expression; and the right to vote and to run for public office.

Although mentioned in the universal declaration of human rights, the right to property is not recognized in the covenant on civil and political rights. This was due to east-west rivalries during the time when it was agreed upon, in the midst of the cold war.

During the cold war and even in recent times, there have been many attempts at relativizing civil and political rights. These attempts take mainly two forms: (a) cultural relativity, which holds that there are no universal rights, but that different cultures have their own conception of rights. we will discuss this proposition in the following class of this course.

(B) an ideological approach which holds that civil and political rights may be subordinated to higher objectives. This approach is presented openly when it is argued that for the sake of fulfilling economic and social rights, civil and political rights may be postponed. it is also presented in a more veiled fashion when it is implicitly proposed that human rights, or specifically civil and political rights, must wait while the process of revolutionary political transformation is in effect.

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