Introduction to Human Rights and Civil Liberties


Introduction to Human Rights and Civil Liberties

The two hottest issues that is topmost on the agenda of states whether on the domestic or on the international scene as of the present are human rights and the question of environment.

Human rights, because without human rights, man is nothing but a slave to the society.

Issues relating to human rights have since the end of the cold war regained ascendancy in international fora and discourse.

The subject is even more pertinent to Nigeria and indeed Africa as a whole where misrule and repression accompanied by gross human right violations have become an intractable problem over the decades.

In this post, you should be able to define and explain the term Human Right, identify the various philosophies that led to the concept of Human Right and distinguish between the various generations of human rights.


Definition of Human Rights

Various definitions of human rights abounds, some rather, too narrow and inadequate, others open-ended and imprecise for easy comprehension.

According to Professor Osita Eze, “Human right represents demands or claims which individuals or group make on society, some of which are protected by Law, while others remain aspirations to be attained in future.

Simply put, Human Rights are inherent in man; they arise from the very nature of man as social animal. They are those rights which all human beings enjoy by virtue, of their humanity, whether black, white, yellow, malay or red, the deprivation of which would constitute a grave affront to one’s natural sense of justice.

Human rights themselves are not a new phenomenon or a new morality. They have a history dated back to antiquity. The rights of man as expression of political philosophy may be traceable to the writings of early naturalists.

Thomas Paine, Hobbes, John Tocke, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Williams Kant to mention a few. There were the times when the writings of publicist had great impact on law and the society within which the law operated.

According to these philosophers, every individual within society possesses certain rights which are inherent and which cannot be wantonly taken away and for which man is beholden to no human authority.

That the major reason for individuals coming together to form a government is to enable these rights to be protected and fostered. Social contract, to which is traceable the origin of society itself is based on the concept of natural law to the effect that certain principles of justice are natural, that is, rational and unalterable and that the rights conferred by natural law are something to which every human being is entitled by virtual of the fact of being human and rational.

Based on this philosophy, man has over the centuries struggled and got human Rights or their understanding of them, enshrined in the constitutions and political traditions of their various societies.

As Frederick Douglas aptly put it, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will."

Many examples of the outcome of these struggles have undoubtedly influenced later Constitutional and legal development all over the world - the great Magna Carta of England (1215), the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of man and the citizen (1789), and the American Bills of Rights of 1791 etc.

Apart from individual struggles, the world community as a whole has in recent times drawn attention, in important declarations, to the universality of human rights and adopted a number of durable conventions in which these declarations have been enshrined.

The first in the series was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This is a declaratory statement of those basic inalienable and inviolable rights, though mainly of civil and political nature, to which men are entitled. International Covenant and Civil and Political Right (1966) including its optional protocols; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, The European Convention for the Protection of Human rights and Fundamental Freedom (1950); the inter-America Convention on Human Rights (1970) and the African charter on Human Rights (1981).


Classification of Rights

The Concept of Generation

Since 1997, when Karel Vasak introduced the concept of generations into the corpus of human rights discourse, the debate has taken many forms and shapes.

Vasak traced the developments of human rights and concluded that, basically, rights are three generations.

The first he called iberte (Liberty) i.e Civil and Political Rights, the second he termed egalite (equality), which relates to Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the third he termed fratenite (solidarity), refereeing to those rights that are held by the collectives in other words, “ group or people’s right. These classifications, sometimes described by a colour scheme of “blue” “red” and “green,” are based on three different philosophies.

Each generation has its destructive characteristic but it suffices to note that the first generation rights are negative rights or immunity claims in citizen towards the state, in the sense that they limit the power of a government and protect people’s rights against its power. They relate to the sanctity of the individual and his rights within the socio-political milieu in which he is located.

They imply that no government or society should act against individuals in certain ways that would deprive them of inherent political or personal rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and security of person, freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion.


Second Generation Rights

The second generation rights are claims to social equality consisting of economic, social and cultural rights. They are positive rights in that they enhance the power of government to do something to the person to enable her or him in some ways. They are generally interpreted as programmatic clauses, obligating governments and legislature to pursue social policies, but do not create individual claims. They require the affirmative action of government for the implementation.


Also read: 13 Functions of Law in Society

Third Generation Rights

Unlike the first two generation rights which focus largely on individuals, the third generation rights include the rights of people and groups. It has received increasing rhetorical affirmation at the international level though “only the people’s rights to self-determination and to disposal of natural wealth, included in the international covenants have received authoritative acceptance in international law.

Other group rights include “the right to development, the right to peace, the right to environment, the right to ownership of the common heritage of mankind, and the right to communication.


Read on: Definition, History, Types, Characteristics and Facts of Democracy

Conclusion on introduction to Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Human Rights is a universal concept. It is an inherent right which no law can invalidate. This unit highlighted the definition and the different struggles by individual communities, group and the United Nations to make it a universal phenomenon.

In this post, you have learnt about

• The history of the evolution of Human Rights

• The definition of human rights

• The periodialisation of Human Rights

• The universality of Human Rights

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