Civil and Political Rights

Civil and Political Rights

In previous pages and posts on the website, we have dedicated time to discussing human rights, the history of human rights, international human rights law, and human rights within international organization such as the United Nations. In this post, we want to go into more detail with regards to one set of rights: civil and political rights. Elsewhere, we shall also discuss social, cultural, and economic rights. But here, our goal is to introduce these rights, provide examples of civil and political rights, and also discuss concerns raised by some with regards to these particular types of rights, especially in relation to other rights. We will also analyze the relationship between civil and political rights and state sovereignty. 

What are Civil and Political Rights?

Civil and Political Rights are understood to be the first of the “three generations” of human rights, and emphasize the individual rights a person has pertaining to freedoms, and more specifically, rights of speech, freedoms of religion, political protest, the right to a fair trial, etc… [We shall provide more examples of civil and political rights below].

Civil and political rights came out of the “Age of Enlightenment” in which there were calls for individuals to be granted rights based on the fact that they were humans. While thinkers at this time called for a series of human rights, it was the individual rights  such as “the rights to life, liberty (freedom from arbitrary rule), and property; that, upon entering civil society, humankind surrendered to the state–pursuant to a “social contract”” (Claude & Weston, 2006: 18). However, it was when the state failed to live up to its end of the agreement to protect these rights that calls for the civil and political rights intensified. 

Following the control by the state–and its unwillingness to provide these necessary rights, political movements such as the Revolution of 1688, the US revolution, among other events placed civil and political rights within the center of their demands. For example, take the Declaration of Independence, which states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that hey are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (18).

So, while the ideas of such rights were clearly stressed by righters and philosophers alike (see the history of human rights), human rights such as civil and political rights were further stressed, and then codified in international human rights documents following World War II.

Civil and political rights themselves made up much of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But even after that document was established in 1948, later documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights further highlighted the importance of ensuring that these sorts of rights were to be cornerstones of the modern day international human rights movement. 

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The document that is meant to encapsulate civil and political rights is none other than the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Following the UDHR, leaders of states wanted to expand upon what was referenced in that non-binding document, looking to not only further discuss the types of rights that the new human rights system would cover, but also wanted to establish a legally binding document.

So, International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (along with the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) began to be drafted (separately)). Within this document one can find many of these sorts of civil and politically based rights. For example, there exist “rights such as those set forth in Articles 2-21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including freedom from gender, racial, and equivalent forms of discrimination; the right to life, liberty, and the security of the person; freedom from slavery or involuntary servitude; freedom from torture and from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to a fair and public trial; freedom from interference in privacy and correspondence; freedom of movement and residence; the right to asylum from persecution; freedom of thought, conscious, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and the right to participate in government” (Claude & Weston, 2006: 21).

Many in the west have continued to champion these sorts of rights, particularly when in comparison to social, economic, and cultural rights, because of an assumption that these types of rights are “negative”, whereas the others are “positive” rights. What do they mean by this?

The idea here has been that civil and political rights are rights that can be ensured as long as the government (or others) back away, namely, not do something. This is opposed to social and economic rights which are viewed as “positive” since the state (or the non-state actor) must do something (and usually by “doing something”, it is meant to spend), in order for the rights to be guaranteed.

But this is problematic. As scholars note, the government needs to be involved to ensure that fair trials are in place, or that liberal elections are held (Claude & Weston, 2006). In addition, police presence to guarantee free speech is also costly, but it is seen as a necessity to protect said civil and political rights.

Civil and Political Rights and State Sovereignty

As we have discussed in our page on international human rights, there exists a tension between human rights (in general, but regarding this post, civil and political rights), and state sovereignty. State sovereignty is the idea that a government has the right to govern within the confines of their borders, uninterrupted. 

However, many political leaders have usually taken this to mean that they are able to ignore, or violate, human rights because they are not bound by outside norms or laws. However, based on human rights documents such as the UDHR or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the state does have an obligation to protect and ensure human rights. 

Civil and political rights are often quite threatening to states, especially state leaders who do not enjoy being criticized by their citizens. Therefore, government leaders will often do what they can get away with in order to suppress civil and political rights. They attempt to do so by claiming that they need to restrict a person’s rights in the name of national security. So, “states facing ongoing civil conflicts often adopt limitations on freedom of movement as a way of minimizing civil violence. A specific example of this type of response has been evident in the aftermath of urban race riots in the United States when city governments have commonly imposed curfews and other restrictions on freedom of movement as a way to quell immediate violence” (DeLaet, 2006: 63). Related to this, Governments will also attempt to argue that civil and political rights can be capped (or withheld) if doing so will reduce or eliminate violence in a society (DeLaet, 2006).

Now, with the topic of domestic and international terrorism being one of the most discussed issues in international relations, leaders–in the name of anti-terrorism, will often go to great lengths to suppress the civil and political rights of civilians. This is sadly a common occurrence. No one is saying not to fight terrorism. However, saying that they are suppressing human rights because of concerns of terrorism is often a way for them to stop whatever it is that they don’t like, whether that is political speech, public protests, etc… In addition, government will also often use tactics that are clear violations of international human rights, such as using torture. To them, they attempt to justify this by saying that it is “necessary” in the name of security (DeLaet, 2006). As DeLaet (2006) notes

State policies directed at fighting terrorism involve a wide range of tactics that impinge upon basic civil and political rights. The negative consequences of state response to terrorism for civil and political rights occur at both the domestic and international level. Domestically, state policies designed to fight terrorism limits freedom of movement, contribute to discrimination, and violate based due process procedures. Internationally, state efforts to fight global terrorism may lead states to aid repressive governments that violate the basic civil and political rights of their citizens and residents. Even when states do not actively aid civil rights–abusing governments, they may be reluctant to exert political pressure on behalf of human rights against states whose cooperation they rely on to combat terrorism” (66).

Herein lies the problem with such an argument. If a state can say–whenever it wants–that they are not going to allow civil and political rights, in the name of security, then what powers exist that can hold that state accountable for deciding when national security it truly at risk or not? What tends to happen is that a government, initiating a first act against civil and political rights, can quickly turn into a regime that looks for almost any reason–citing security concerns–to limit these human rights. 



Claude, R. P. & Weston, B.H. (2006). Human Rights in the World Community: Issues and Action. Edited by Richard Pierre Claude and Burns H. Weston. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania Press.

DeLeat, D. (2006). The Global Struggle for Human Rights. Boston, Massachusetts. Wadsworth Cengage. 

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