||Background Information on Human Rights >
The evolution of human rights
The evolution of human rights
rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated."
Our leaders have made a huge number of commitments
on our behalf! If every guarantee that they had signed up to were
to be met, our lives would be peaceful, secure, healthy and comfortable;
our legal systems would be fair and would offer everyone the same
protection; and our political processes would be transparent and
democratic and would serve the interests of the people.
So what is going wrong? One of the small things that is going
wrong is that politicians are like the rest of us and will often
take short cuts if they can get away with it! So we need to know
exactly what promises have been made on our behalf and to start
making sure that they are kept.
Do you always do what you have said you will do? Even if no-one
Which rights do we possess?
We know that we are entitled to have all human rights respected.
The UDHR, the ECHR and other international treaties cover a wide
range of different rights, so we shall look at them in the order
in which they were developed and were recognised by the international
community. The 'normal' way of classifying these rights is into
'first, second and third generation' rights, so we shall follow
this for the time being but, as we shall see, such a classification
has limited use and can even be misleading at times.
First generation rights (civil and political rights)
These rights began to emerge as a theory during the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries and were based mostly on political concerns.
It had begun to be recognised that there were certain things that
the all-powerful state should not be able to do and that people
should have some influence over the policies that affected them.
The two central ideas were those of personal liberty,
and of protecting the individual against violations by the
imprisoned is not the problem. The problem is to avoid surrender."
- Civil rights provide minimal guarantees of physical
and moral integrity and allow individuals their own sphere of
conscience and belief: for example, the rights to equality and
liberty, freedom to practise religion or to express one's opinion,
and the rights not be tortured or killed.
- Legal rights are normally also classified as 'civil'
rights. They provide procedural protection for people in dealing
with the legal and political system: for example protection
against arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to be presumed
innocent until found guilty in a court of law and the right
- Political rights are necessary in order to participate
in the life of the community and society: for example, the right
to vote, to join political parties, to assemble freely and attend
meetings, to express one's opinion and to have access to information.
"The shocking reality... is that states
and the international community as a whole continue to tolerate
all too often breaches of economic, social and cultural rights
which, if they occurred in relation to civil and political rights,
would provoke expressions of horror and outrage and would lead
to concerted calls for immediate remedial action."
Statement to the Vienna
Conference by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural
The categories are not clear-cut, but are
simply one way - among many - of classifying the different rights.
Most rights fall under more than one category. The right to express
one's opinion, for example, is both a civil and a political right.
It is essential to participation in political life as well as
being fundamental to our personal liberty.
Are all political rights also civil rights?
The civil and political rights today are set out in detail in
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
and in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights
and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). These rights have traditionally
been regarded by many - at least in the 'West' - as the most important,
if not the only real human rights. We shall see in the next section
that this is a false view.
During the Cold War, the countries of the Soviet block were
severely criticised for their disregard of civil and political
rights. These countries responded by criticising the western democracies,
in turn, for ignoring key social and economic rights, which we
shall look at next. There was at least an element of truth in
Second generation rights (social, economic
and cultural rights)
These rights concern how people live and work together and the
basic necessities of life. They are based on the ideas of equality
and guaranteed access to essential social and economic goods,
services, and opportunities. They became increasingly a subject
of international recognition with the effects of early industrialisation
and the rise of a working class. These led to new demands and
new ideas about the meaning of a life of dignity. People realised
that human dignity required more than the minimal lack of interference
proposed by the civil and political rights.
"The right to development is an inalienable
human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples
are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic,
social, cultural and political development, in which all human
rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised."
Article 1, UN Declaration
on the Right to Development
- Social rights are those that are necessary for full participation
in the life of society. They include, at least, the right to
education and the right to found and maintain a family but also
many of the rights often regarded as 'civil' rights: for example,
the rights to recreation, health care and privacy and freedom
- Economic rights are normally thought to include the right
to work, to an adequate standard of living, to housing and the
right to a pension if you are old or disabled. The economic
rights reflect the fact that a certain minimal level of material
security is necessary for human dignity, and also the fact that,
for example, a lack of meaningful employment or housing can
be psychologically demeaning.
- Cultural Rights refer to a community's cultural "way
of life" and are often given less attention than many of
the other types of rights. They include the right freely to
participate in the cultural life of the community and, possibly,
also the right to education. However, many other rights, not
officially classed as 'cultural' will be essential for minority
communities within a society to preserve their distinctive culture:
for example, the right to non-discrimination and equal protection
of the laws.
Are different cultural groups in your society restricted in their
rights? Which religious holidays are given national significance?
The social, economic and cultural rights are outlined in the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(ICESCR) and also in the European Social Charter.
Are some rights more important than others?
rights start with breakfast."
Social and economic rights have had a difficult
time being accepted on an equal level with civil and political
rights, for reasons which are both ideological and political.
Although it seems evident to the ordinary citizen that such things
as a minimum standard of living, housing, and reasonable conditions
of employment are all essential to human dignity, politicians
have not been so ready to acknowledge this. One reason is undoubtedly
that ensuring basic social and economic rights for everyone worldwide
would require a massive redistribution of resources. Politicians
are well aware that that is not the type of policy that wins votes.
Accordingly, they offer a number of justifications for why the
second generation rights are of a different order. The first claim
often made is that social and economic rights are neither realistic
or realisable, at least in the short term, and that we should
move towards them only gradually. This is the approach that has
been taken in the ICESCR: governments only need to show that they
are taking measures towards meeting these aims at some point in
the future. The claim, however, is certainly open to dispute and
appears to be based more on political considerations than anything
else. Many independent studies show that there are sufficient
resources in the world, and sufficient expertise, to ensure that
everyone's basic needs could be met if a concerted effort was
A second claim is that there is a fundamental theoretical difference
between first and second generation rights: that the first type
of rights require governments only to refrain from certain activities
(these are so-called "negative" rights); while the second
require positive intervention from governments (these are "positive"
rights). The argument goes that it is not realistic to expect
governments to take positive steps, at least in the short term,
and that they are therefore not obliged to do so. Without any
obligation on anyone's part, there can be no right in any meaningful
sense of the word.
However, there are two basic misunderstandings in this line
Firstly, civil and political rights are by no means purely negative.
In order, for example, for a government to guarantee freedom from
torture, it is not enough just for government officials to refrain
from torturing people! Genuine freedom in this area would require
a complicated system of checks and controls to be put in place:
policing systems, legal mechanisms, freedom of information and
access to places of detention - and more besides. The same goes
for securing the right to vote and for all other civil and political
rights. In other words, these rights require positive action by
the government in addition to refraining from negative action.
What positive action does a government need to authorise in order
to ensure genuinely free and fair elections?
comes the grub then the morals."
Secondly, social and economic rights, just
like civil and political rights, also require that governments
refrain from certain activities: for example, from giving large
tax breaks to companies, or encouraging development in regions
that already possess a relative advantage, or imposing trade tariffs
which penalise developing countries - and so on.
In actual fact, the different types of rights are far more closely
connected with each other than their labels suggest. Economic
rights merge into political rights; civil rights are often undistinguishable
from social rights. The labels can be useful in giving a broad
picture but they can also be very misleading. Almost any right
can fall into almost any category under different conditions.
Third generation rights (collective rights)
"Culture is what lives on
in man when he has forgotten everything."
The list of internationally recognised human
rights has not remained constant. Although none of the rights
listed in the UDHR has been brought into question in the 50 or
so years of its existence, new treaties and documents have clarified
and further developed some of the basic concepts that were laid
down in that original document.
These additions have been a result of a number of factors: they
have partly come about as a response to changing ideas about human
dignity, partly as a result of technological changes and often
as a result of new threats emerging. In the case of the specific
new category of rights that have been proposed as a third generation,
these have been the consequence of a deeper understanding of the
different types of obstacles that may stand in the way of realising
the first and second generation rights. Increasing globalisation
has also revealed the possibility for resources to be diverted
towards the removal of these obstacles.
What are the main obstacles to people's rights being fully respected
in developing countries? Which rights are under most threat?
The idea at the basis of the third generation of rights is that
of solidarity; and the rights embrace collective rights
of society or peoples - such as the right to sustainable development,
to peace or to a healthy environment. In much of the world, conditions
such as extreme poverty, war, ecological and natural disasters
have meant that there has been only very limited progress in respect
for human rights. For that reason, many people have felt that
the recognition of a new category of human rights is necessary:
these rights would ensure the appropriate conditions for societies,
particularly in the developing world, to be able to provide the
first and second generation rights that have already been recognised.
The specific rights that are most commonly included within the
category of third generation rights are the rights to development,
to peace, to a healthy environment, to share in the exploitation
of the common heritage of mankind, to communication and to humanitarian
There is, however, a debate concerning this new category of
rights. Some experts object to the idea that collective rights
can be termed 'human' rights. Human rights are, by definition,
held by individuals, and define the area of individual interest
that is to be given priority over any interests of society or
social groups. In contrast, collective rights are held by communities
or even whole states.
The debate is not so much over whether these rights exist but
whether or not they are to be classed as human rights. The argument
is more than merely verbal, because some people fear such a change
in terminology could provide a 'justification' for certain repressive
regimes to deny (individual) human rights in the name of these
collective human rights; for example, severely curtailing civil
rights in order to secure 'economic development'. There is another
concern which is sometimes expressed: since it is not the state
but the international community that is meant to safeguard third
generation rights, accountability is impossible to guarantee.
Who, or what, is supposed to be responsible for making sure that
there is peace in the Caucasus or Palestine?
"Everyone has the right [...] to share
in scientific advancement and its benefits".
Article 27, UDHR
Nevertheless, whatever we decide to call
them, there is general agreement that these areas require further
exploration and further attention from the international community.
Some collective rights have already been recognised, in particular
under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. The UDHR
itself includes the right to self-determination and a human right
to development was codified in a 1986 UN General Assembly Declaration.
The advance of science
intervention seeking to create a human being genetically identical
to another human being, whether living or dead, is prohibited."
Additional Protocol to the Convention
for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being,
Another area where new rights are being
acknowledged is in medical science. New scientific discoveries
have opened up a number of questions relating to human rights,
in particular, in the fields of genetic engineering and concerning
the transplant of organs and tissues. Questions on the very nature
of life have had to be addressed as a result of technical advances
in each of these fields. The Council of Europe has responded to
these challenges with a new international treaty: The Convention
for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being
with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine (from now
on, referred to as the Oviedo Convention). This treaty entered
into force in December 1999.
This convention has been signed by 30 member states of the Council
of Europe and ratified by ten. It sets out guidelines for some
of the problematic issues raised in the previous section.
Summary of most relevant articles:
Unesco has also attached special attention
to the human genome and, on 10 November 1997, the Unesco General
Conference adopted a Universal Declaration on the Human Genome
and Human Rights. This Declaration establishes similar limits
on medical intervention in the genetic heritage of humanity and
- Any form of discrimination against a person on grounds of
their genetic heritage is prohibited.
- Predictive genetic tests can be carried out only for health
purposes and not, for example, in order to determine the physical
characteristics that a child will develop in later life.
- Intervention which aims to modify the human genome may only
be undertaken for preventative, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes.
- Medically assisted procreation is not permitted where this
is designed to determine a future child's sex.
- Removal of organs or tissue from a living person for transplantation
purposes can be carried out solely for the therapeutic benefit
of the recipient. (Article 21 - Prohibition of financial gain.)
Genetic engineering is the method of changing the inherited
characteristics of an organism in a predetermined way by altering
its genetic material. Progress in this area has led to an intense
debate on a number of different ethical and human rights questions;
for example, whether the alteration of germ cells should be allowed
when this results in a permanent genetic change for the whole
organism and for subsequent generations; or whether the reproduction
of a clone organism from an individual gene should be allowed
in the case of human beings if it is permitted in the case of
mice and sheep.
Symonides, Janusz ed., Human Rights:
New Dimensions and Challenges, Manual on Human Rights, Unesco/Dartmouth
Publishing, Paris, 1998.
Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights
in theory and practice, Cornell University Press, 1989.
Robertson A. and Merrills J, Human
rights in the world, Manchester University Press, 1996.
Council of Europe website on bioethics:
The progress of biomedical
technology has also led to the possibility of transplanting adult
and foetal organs or tissues from one body to another. Like genetic
engineering, this offers huge potential for improving the quality
of some people's lives and even for saving lives - but consider
some of the problematic issues that are raised by these advances:
- If a life can be saved or improved by using an organ from
a dead body, should this always be attempted? Or do dead bodies
also deserve respect?
- How can we ensure that everyone in need has an equal chance
of receiving a transplant if there is a limited supply of organs?
- Should there be laws concerning the conservation of organs
- If medical intervention affects an individual's genome and
this results in a threat to the individual's life or quality
of life, is compensation appropriate? Would a murder charge
be appropriate if the individual dies?