Civil rights include the ensuring of peoples’ physical integrity and safety; protection from discrimination on grounds such as physical or mental disability, gender, religion, race, national origin, age, or sexual orientation; and individual rights such as the freedoms of thought and conscience, speech and expression, religion, the press, and movement. (Some activist organizations include sexual orientation within the auspices of civil rights protections although there is continuing controversy over this issue in several countries)
Political rights include natural justice (procedural fairness) in law, such as the rights of the accused, including the right to a fair trial; due process; the right to seek redress or a legal remedy; and rights of participation in civil society and politics such as freedom of association, the right to assemble, the right to petition, and the right to vote.
Civil and political rights comprise the first portion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (with economic, social and cultural rights comprising the second portion). The theory of three generations of human rights considers this group of rights to be “first-generation rights”, and the theory of negative and positive rights considers them to be generally negative rights.
In early 19th century Britain, the phrase “civil rights” most commonly referred to the problem of legal discrimination against Catholics. In the House of Commons support for the British civil rights movement was divided, many more largely known politicians supported the discrimination towards Catholics. Independent MPs (such as Lewis Eves and Matthew Mountford) applied pressure on the larger parties to pass the civil rights act of the 1920’s.
Civil and political rights were among the first to be recognized and codified. In many countries, they are constitutional rights and are included in a bill of rights or similar document. They are also defined in international human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Civil and political rights need not be codified to be protected, although most democracies worldwide do have formal written guarantees of civil and political rights. Civil rights are often considered to be natural rights. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1774 A Summary View of the Rights of British America that “a free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.”
Custom also plays a role. Implied or unenumerated rights are rights that courts may find to exist even though not expressly guaranteed by written law or custom; one example is the right to privacy in the United States.
The question of who civil and political rights apply to is a subject of controversy. In many countries, citizens have greater protections against infringement of rights than non-citizens; at the same time, civil and political rights are considered to be universal rights that apply to all persons.
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