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Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals' freedom from unwarranted infringement by governments and private organizations, and ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state without discrimination or repression.

Civil rights include the ensuring of peoples' physical integrity and safety; protection from discrimination on grounds such as physical or mental disability, gender, religion, race, national origin, age, or sexual orientation; and individual rights such as the freedoms of thought and conscience, speech and expression, religion, the press, and movement. (Some activist organizations include sexual orientation within the auspices of civil rights protections although there is continuing controversy over this issue in several countries)

Political rights include natural justice (procedural fairness) in law, such as the rights of the accused, including the right to a fair trial; due process; the right to seek redress or a legal remedy; and rights of participation in civil society and politics such as freedom of association, the right to assemble, the right to petition, and the right to vote.

Civil and political rights comprise the first portion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (with economic, social and cultural rights comprising the second portion). The theory of three generations of human rights considers this group of rights to be "first-generation rights", and the theory of negative and positive rights considers them to be generally negative rights.


The phrase "civil rights" is a translation of Latin ius civis (rights of citizens). Roman citizens could be either free (libertas) or servile (servitus), but they all had rights in law.[1] After the Edict of the Milan in 313, these rights included the freedom of religion.[2] Roman legal doctrine was lost during the Middle Ages, but claims of universal rights could still be made based on religious doctrine. According to the leaders of Kett's Rebellion (1549), "all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood-shedding."[3] In the 17th century, English common law judge Sir Edward Coke revived the idea of rights based on citizenship by arguing that Englishman had historically enjoyed such rights based on Magna Carta and other sources. Parliament approved Coke's Petition of Right in 1628. This document specified that Englishmen had "rights and liberties." The Massachusetts Body of Liberties, an early Bill of Rights, was adopted in 1641. The phrase "Civil liberties" was used by John Milton in Areopagatica (1644). "Civil rights" was used by Oliver Cromwell in a speech to parliament given in 1657.[4]

The English Bill of Rights was adopted in 1689. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, by George Mason and James Madison, was adopted in 1776. The Virginia declaration is the direct ancestor and model for the U.S. Bill of Rights (1789).

In early 19th century Britain, the phrase "civil rights" most commonly referred to the problem of legal discrimination against Catholics. In the House of Commons support for the British civil rights movement was divided, many more largely known politicians supported the discrimination towards Catholics. Independent MPs (such as Lewis Eves and Matthew Mountford) applied pressure on the larger parties to pass the civil rights act of the 1920's.

In the 1860s, Americans adapted this usage to newly freed blacks. Congress enacted civil rights acts in 1866, 1871, 1875, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1991.

Guarantees of rights

Civil and political rights were among the first to be recognized and codified. In many countries, they are constitutional rights and are included in a bill of rights or similar document. They are also defined in international human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Civil and political rights need not be codified to be protected, although most democracies worldwide do have formal written guarantees of civil and political rights. Civil rights are often considered to be natural rights. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1774 A Summary View of the Rights of British America that "a free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate."

Custom also plays a role. Implied or unenumerated rights are rights that courts may find to exist even though not expressly guaranteed by written law or custom; one example is the right to privacy in the United States.

The question of who civil and political rights apply to is a subject of controversy. In many countries, citizens have greater protections against infringement of rights than non-citizens; at the same time, civil and political rights are considered to be universal rights that apply to all persons.

Civil rights movement

When civil and political rights are not guaranteed to all as part of equal protection of laws, social unrest may ensue.

The civil rights movement was a worldwide political movement for equality before the law occurring between approximately 1950 and 1980. It was accompanied by much civil unrest and popular rebellion. While civil rights movements over the last 60 years have resulted in an extension of civil and political rights, the process was long and tenuous in many countries, and most of these movements did not achieve or fully achieve their objectives. In its later years, the civil rights movement took a sharp turn to the radical left in many cases.

Problems and analysis

Questions about civil and political rights have frequently emerged. For example, to what extent should the government intervene to protect individuals from infringement on their rights by other individuals, or from corporations — e.g., in what way should employment discrimination in the private sector be dealt with?

Political theory deals with civil and political rights. Robert Nozick and John Rawls expressed competing visions in Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Rawls' A Theory of Justice. Other influential authors in the area include Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld and Jean Edward Smith.

See also


  1. Mears, T. Lambert, Analysis of M. Ortolan's Institutes of Justinian, Including the History and, p. 75.
  2. Fahlbusch, Erwin and Geoffrey William Bromiley, The encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 4, p. 703.
  3. "Human Rights > 1500-1760 - Background"
  4. Cromwell, Oliver, Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, "Speech XIII", p. 344. (May 8, 1657).

External links

Template:Human rights Template:Particular human rights

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