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What’s the Difference Between Civil Rights and Human Rights?

Human rights protest with women holding posters and megaphones

As human beings, we have a series of rights in life that we are entitled to and enshrined in law. But what entitles us to these rights and is there a difference between human rights and civil rights? Read on to find out!

What are Human Rights and Why do We Have Them?

Human rights are thought of as the most fundamental rights every person on earth can have. These rights are said to cover the basic necessities of human existence. Human rights were officially created post World War II to prevent the horrors of the Nazi regime reoccurring. 

Some examples of rights afforded to everyone equally include the right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the right to be protected from torture (Article 3 ECHR). These rights are absolute in nature and for that reason cannot be varied by any state. However, there are 16 so-called human rights in total and some of these rights are known as qualified rights. Qualified rights can be varied in certain circumstances.

What are Civil Rights and Why do We Have Them?

Conversely, we are entitled to certain civil rights by virtue of being a citizen of a certain country, nation or state. Civil rights are in place to protect citizens from discrimination and to grant them certain freedoms in that nation, for example, due process and free speech could both be described as civil rights. Civil rights, therefore, are decided between the governing bodies in certain states and the citizens. Other examples include the right to vote, freedom of religion and freedom from arbitrary arrest. In this way, civil rights tend to protect a citizen’s freedom to do things.

Are There Similarities?

Yes. For example, as highlighted above the vast majority of human rights are qualified rights, meaning your protection under the right can depend on certain factors. For example, Article 12 ECHR (the right to marry) can be conditional on national laws on marriage. This makes the qualified human rights, other examples include Article 10 ECHR (freedom of expression) and Article 9 ECHR (freedom of thought), set up much like civil rights. 

The best example of any practical difference between civil rights and human rights is prisoners. Prisoners are entitled, like all human beings, to fundamental human rights like freedom from torture (Article 3 ECHR). However, they are stripped of some civil (or qualified) rights like freedom to move, and their right to vote.

Are Civil Rights and Human Rights Protected and Enforced Differently?

Human Rights are universally protected in all countries, but they are internationally protected via international law. In 1948, the United National General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cementing rights in international policy. In Europe we can also look to the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights to protect these interests.

However, domestic law does exist in the UK to facilitate these international agreements i.e. The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). If your human right is breached, the domestic courts must try and give effect to the law in a way which does not breach your right.

If this is impossible, however, the court may make a declaration of incompatibility against this law. This does not automatically change the law but gives a sort of signal to the lawmakers in Parliament that this may require amendment in the future to prevent breaches. 

The protection of civil rights depends on the state you are located in. In the UK, civil rights are protected in common law and statute as well as broadly under the same act as above, (HRA). Therefore, they are enforced by court challenges and can even reach the European Court if the domestic court is not sure how best to proceed.  However, in other countries, for example, the USA and where a written constitution exists, civil rights are dealt with under the constitution.

Words: Alicia Gibson

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