What is the Difference Between a Human Right and a Civil Right?


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Have you ever wondered what the difference was between a human right and a civil right? After all, if some Americans had to fight to obtain civil rights as recently as the late 20th Century, what are all of these human rights we and other nations are enforcing in other countries through military action? Is there a difference between the two terms?

In simplest terms, the difference between a human and civil right is why you have them. Human rights arise simply by being a human being. Civil rights, on the other hand, arise only by virtue of a legal grant of that right, such as the rights imparted on American citizens by the U.S. Constitution.

Human Rights

Human rights are generally thought of as the most fundamental rights. They include the right to life, education, protection from torture, free expression, and fair trial. Many of these rights bleed into civil rights, but they are considered to be necessities of the human existence. As a concept, human rights were conceived shortly after World War II, particularly in regard to the treatment of Jews and other groups by the Nazis. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cementing their foundation in international law and policy.

Civil Rights

Civil rights, on the other hand, are those rights that one enjoys by virtue of citizenship in a particular nation or state. In America, civil rights have the protection of the U.S. Constitution and many state constitutions. Civil rights protect citizens from discrimination and grant certain freedoms, like free speech, due process, equal protection, the right against self-incrimination, and so forth. Civil rights can be thought of as the agreement between the nation, the state, and the individual citizens that they govern.

International Distinctions

In an international framework, civil rights derive from the constitutions or laws of each country, while human rights are considered universal to all human beings. As a result, international players are less likely to take action to enforce a nation's violation of its own civil rights, but more likely to respond to human rights violations. While human rights are universal in all countries, civil rights vary greatly from one nation to the next. No nation may rightfully deprive a person of a human right, but different nations can grant or deny different civil rights and liberties.

If you believe you or someone you know has been the victim of a violation of either civil or human rights, you should contact an attorney to discuss your case. Your attorney can help distinguish between the two bodies of law, direct your inquiries to the appropriate governing bodies, and help you obtain the best possible results under these often dangerous and trying circumstances.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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