Three Generations of Human Rights
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Three Generations of Human Rights

Three Generations of Rights

A final framework worth mentioning was developed by Karel Vasak, a French jurist, in his 1977 article, “Human Rights: A Thirty-Year Struggle: The Sustained Efforts to Give Force of Law to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”1

Vasak proposed that human rights should be viewed in three levels, corresponding to the values of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. As countries advance both economically and politically, they graduate from focusing on first generation civil and political rights (outlined in the ICCPR and equivalent to the ideal of liberty), to second generation economic, social and cultural rights (outlined in the ICESCR and equivalent to the ideal of equality), and then to third generation rights of solidarity.



As countries become more economically and politically advanced, they graduate from focusing on first generation civil and political rights (outlined in the ICCPR and equivalent to the ideal of liberty), to second generation economic, social and cultural rights (outlined in the ICESCR and equivalent to the ideal of equality), and then to third generation rights of (not a separate category in the International Bill of Rights but equivalent to the ideal of fraternity).2

Solidarity rights are the most advanced and hard to define. These rights engage directly with the problems faced by populations in the age of globalization and include the rights to culture (especially for indigenous peoples), development, and environmental protection. While first and second generation rights are addresse at a national level – even though they apply to all individuals – third generation rights are truly transnational. They address issues of global concern: preservation of the diversity of the world’s cultural heritage, environmental issues that affect multiple nations such as climate change, and global development in an era dominated by international trade.



The current initiatives embodied in the World Social Forum and its regional counterparts are good examples of this move towards global rights.  These forums bring together civil society groups fighting for a large variety of causes (such as those having to do with the environment, racism, feminism, religion, disarmament, economic development, etc.).  This represents a new perspective on globalization where the global community comes together to work out their problems outside of national borders and governments.

It will be useful to keep the idea of three generations of rights in mind as you read the rest of this Brief. The three generations framework is a little like the idea of the development ladder that economist Jeffrey Sachs has described: as countries develop (economically, socially and politically) and climb from rung to rung, they mature in terms of the types of rights they are working to guarantee.

The most basic societies begin with the most basic conception of rights, the negative civil and political rights that limit the legitimate scope of government and establish fundamental freedoms that enable individual expression. With these rights assured, citizens and governments together can work to implement a social system that ensures a decent standard of living for all of a nation’s people. Once this has been achieved, or at least substantial progress made, then more complex issues that affect long-term growth and development can be tackled.


A Critical Approach to the Three Generations Framework 



Although the three generations framework is a valuable conceptual tool for thinking about rights, it is worth questioning some of its assumptions. Does the notion of a progression of rights and the metaphor of age it is based on make sense? Do second generation rights create the background conditions necessary for the exercise of first generation rights, as certain sections of the International Bill of Rights suggest, or is it the other way around? Should second and third generation rights be viewed as simultaneous? Does one generation take precedence over another, or are all equally important? Should second and third generation rights even be considered rights, or are they something fundamentally different? 



The three generations framework contains within it room for many of the key debates about the nature of rights. It also encourages us to take a critical approach in challenging our own assumptions about rights as we begin to think about some of the real-world problems involved in the application of human rights in the sections ahead. 





1 Vasak

2 “Human Rights: Defining Human Rights”