Human rights are defined by the American Heritage Dictionary
as "the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled,
often held to include the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought
and expression, and equality before the law." These rights are said to be "inalienable" and
beyond the authority of government or society to trample. While civil liberties are sometimes thought of in the same
way as human rights, the former refer to individual
rights sometimes guaranteed by governments in constitutions or similar
legally binding documents. They
exist to limit the potential for government abuse of power or
interference in people's lives.
Governments which guarantee civil liberties are known as liberal
democracies. The term
connects with the classical meaning of liberalism: a rational, tolerant,
generous, hopeful orientation that emphasizes individual freedom from
restraint. One can imagine that liberals have always been big supporters
of democracy—but this isn't so! Traditionally
liberals have worried about majority rule—fearing that majorities
would re-strict the rights of minorities.
The efforts of concerned liberals long ago produced such things
as The First Amendment, Bill of Rights and other statutes protecting
civil liberties—a topic best discussed in the context of national law.
Thus the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—whose stated
purpose is "to
defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to
every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United
States"— is primarily concerned with litigating
and lobbying on behalf of legislation, and secondarily with education
(see Figure #32a).
While civil rights and civil liberties refer to basically the
same thing, they have quite different connotations.
In late 19th and 20th century America, the former term often
referred to the rights granted African Americans by the 13th and 14th
were somewhat negated by Jim Crow laws in the South. A highlight of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and
1960s was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Other minorities have faced similar battles with mixed results.
By 1980, women (hardly a minority in numbers!) saw efforts to
enact the Equal Rights Amendment fail, while activity on behalf of the
handicapped bore fruit in 1990 with passage of the Americans With
Disabilities Act. Efforts
on behalf of gays for recognition of homosexual marriages continue
Whereas civil liberties & civil rights issues are best framed
in the context of a particular nation's laws, human rights issues are
typically matters of international concern.
The outrageous human rights violations of the World
War II era—most horribly genocide perpetrated by Nazis on Jews (Figure
#39)—are often cited as inspiring the founding of the United Nations
In its charter, the UN asks all member nations to
"universal respect for, and observance of,
Just as the ACLU is a prominent organization on the American
stage with respect to civil liberties issues, Amnesty International
(Figure #32b) is well known internationally
for its involvement in human rights issues.
Most notably it advocates on behalf of political prisoners. These are people who are detained or imprisoned
by a national government because their political views are in opposition
to the government's. Sometimes
there will be no legal basis for the imprisonment other than the
government sees the individual as a threat and fabricates incriminating
evidence to justify its actions.
Among other things, Amnesty International maintains
lists of such prisoners in various countries and, for a small number, works
for their release. Besides
this private group, the UN Human Rights Council also focuses on human
More than any other human activity, war produces human rights
violations. In this regard,
the Geneva Conventions form the basis for humanitarian treatment of
prisoners and non-combatants during war.
They outlaw intentional killing and torture, and help define war
crimes. War criminals and those who have committed genocide and other crimes
against humanity are prosecuted by The
Criminal Court. The United
States' so called war vs. terrorism has raised many human rights related
questions including, "Should governments be allowed to invade the
privacy of citizens (and their library records!) in searching for
terrorists?" and "Is this person we've captured a terrorist or
a freedom fighter?"
#32a: The ACLU
#32b: Amnesty International
Figure #32c: Gay Marriage