291Manual on Human Rights Education with Young

291Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People – Council of Europe
Background Information on Human Rights
The evolution of
human rights
Promises, promises
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 reminds you?
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 state.
§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 to appeal.
§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.
“Being imprisoned is not the
problem. The problem is to
avoid surrender.”
Nazim Hikmet “All rights are universal,
indivisible and interdependent
and interrelated.”
Vienna Declaration

Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People – Council of Europe
Background Information on Human Rights
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 both criticisms.
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.
§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 from discrimination.
§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.
“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 “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 Rights.

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293Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People – Council of Europe
Background Information on Human Rights
Are some rights more important than others?
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 made.
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 of reasoning.
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?
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
“Human rights start with
Léopold Senghor
“First comes the grub then the
Bertold Brecht

Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People – Council of Europe
Background Information on Human Rights
Third generation rights (collective rights)
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 assistance.
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?
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.
“Everyone has the right … to
share in scientific advancement
and its benefits”.
Article 27, UDHR “Culture is what lives on
in man when he has forgotten
Emile Henriot

295Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People – Council of Europe
Background Information on Human Rights
The advance of science
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:
§Any form of discrimination against a person on grounds of their genetic heritage is
§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.
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 and tissues?
§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?
“Any 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, Paris 1998
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 in individuals.
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,
Council of Europe website on


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