from The Worldview Literacy Book   copyright 2009            back to worldview theme #32


     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  Amendments.  These 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 (Figure #32c). 

     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 1945.       

In its charter, the UN asks all member nations to promote




"universal respect for, and observance of, human rights."  

     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 rights violations.

     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 International 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?"

Figure #32a: The ACLU

Three Things to Know About the ACLU

We protect American values. In many ways, the ACLU is the nation's most conservative organization. Our job is to conserve America's original civic values--the Constitution and the Bill of Rights--and defend the rights of every man, woman and child in this country We're not anti-anything. The only things we fight are attempts to take away or limit your civil liberties, like your right to practice any religion you want (or none at all);  or to decide in private whether or not to have a child; or to speak out--for or against--anything at all; or to be treated with equality and fairness, no matter who you are. We're there for you. Rich or poor, straight or gay, black or white or brown, urban or rural, pious or atheist, American-born or foreign-born, able-bodied or living with a disability. Every person in this country should have the same basic rights. And since our founding in 1920, we've been working hard to make sure no one takes them away.


Figure #32b: Amnesty International

Current Campaigns

Control Arms
The unregulated global arms trade inflicts misery worldwide. Every year thousands of people are killed, injured, raped and forced to flee their homes as a result.


Counter Terror with Justice
The so-called "war on terror" has led to an erosion of a whole host of human rights. States are resorting to practices which have long been prohibited by international law, and have sought to justify them in the name of national security.
The web is a great tool for sharing ideas and freedom of expression but efforts to try and control the Internet are growing.


Stop Violence Against Women
Violence against women is often ignored and rarely punished. Women and girls suffer disproportionately from violence--both in peace and in war, at the hands of the state, the community and the family. A life free from violence is a basic human right.



Figure #32c: Gay Marriage

At Issue






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