Saturday, February 26, 2011

Human vs. Civil Rights and Universality vs. Particularity… Who wins?

Our question in class about gay marriage revealed our tendency to blur the lines between civil and human rights. The distinction between human and civil rights embodies several characteristics. First of all, while civil rights are related to the constitution of each country, human rights are considered to be universal. Civil rights are hammered out by the founders and creators of new societies, while human rights are gifted to us by virtue of being born a human. Civil rights are individual rights which exist by virtue of legislative action and a state government. Human rights, on the other hand, are universal, and (supposedly) cannot be violated by anyone, not even a state government.

When I think about the significance of the differences between these two rights, I am reminded of the question of universality and particularity. As emphasized in our reading from Donnelly concerning intervention, "The moral universality of human rights, which has been codified in a strong set of authoritative international norms, must be realized through the particularities of national action" (181). In the case of civil rights, the particularity of the state takes precedence; rights are determined and enforced by one government with presumably one predominant set of cultural beliefs and practice. Universal human rights, however, are inherently within each person (the United Nations just wrote them all down for us), applied to each person regardless of culture or belief system, and are enforced by… well…

Let's look at a simple example where civil and human rights may clash: An imprisoned felon in the United States no longer possesses the civil right to vote, but he still has his UDHR Article 28 human right to participate in his government. So is the United States government violating his human right? Other instances of opposition between civil and human rights include rights of women in many states, and others (If you can think of another example or a better example of civil rights and universal human rights in conflict with one another, please post it!)

Clearly, as Donnelly points out on numerous occasions, the enforcement of rights—whether civil or human—is most often upheld by the state, not the international community. If this is true, have we not established a system in which civil rights will always trump human rights in practical application? Is this acceptable to you? Should the international community recognize this fact and allow states to uphold their civil right above "universal" human rights? Or should civil rights take a backseat, and would you advocate that the international community intervene in instances where human rights are being violated within the bounds of local civil rights? Or are human rights and civil rights not as distinct as I've made them out to be?


  1. Sarah, this is a great post with a lot going on. I really like the questions that you pose at the bottom which help summarize your overall point. I think so often we try to pose civil rights and human rights as distinctly different things, and I like how you were able to show many times our human rights are violated by upholding the civil duties. Another question that I found within you post concerns foreigners. If a foreigner was placed in a jail outside of his own country, it would be an international issue and the situation would be treated different than with the prisoner in his own country. Obviously, our countries vary in our rules and regulations, but is there some way to construct a more unified way of dealing with human rights issues and their incorporation into civil rights. I feel this is necessary for the civil rights of countries to correspond and not contradict the human rights put forth by the UN.

  2. Interesting post, Sarah! The complication lies in the fact that civil rights are more national and related to a singular country’s norms, whereas because human rights are universal that are applied to all and can be intervened against more reasonably. It is not a matter of holding one above the other in my opinion; it is simply a matter of respecting both civil and human rights according to their different applicability. States are the ones who have to uphold both types of rights, civil and human rights; civil rights are limited by the state and human rights by humanity. However, this does not take away from the applicable and respect of the two types of rights. That is to say, civil rights do not trump human rights in sense that both are applied to all human beings in different ways but the intervention would be easier done with human rights not civil rights because human rights are formulate by humanity and therein are universally applicable.

  3. Sarah, your example of the felon is possibly problematic because one could argue that in committing a crime, you abdicate your rights. Perhaps a better example is what happened in the 1960s. Martin Luther King, among others, protested the discrimination and prejudice against African Americans. While I don’t know whether King ever invoked article 2 of the UDHR, he very easily could have. Manali, your point about respecting both is interesting because King’s approach appears to do just that. He respects civil law because he didn’t refuse to go to jail and always advocated cooperating with authorities. However he continued to fight for equality and the universality of rights for all people.

  4. Gay marriage is most certainly not a human right. To deny anyone unequal tax benefits and medical visitation rights is a civil issue, that I agree must be changed. On the other hand, marriage itself is a religious institution and I think that to not respect a religion's right to deny a sacrament is completely acceptable. This is a messy battle and I sympathize with arguments from both sides.

  5. Cat, what about churches that allow homosexuals to be married? Wouldn't we be disrespecting that religion's right to marry whoever they want to? I agree that tax benefits and medical visitation rights are civil issues, but it seems to me that fundamental marriage rights are human rights


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.