Three Generations of Human Rights
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Three Generations of Human Rights

There are three overarching types of human rights norms: civil-political, socio-economic, and collective-developmental (Vasek, 1977). The first two, which represent potential claims of individual persons against the state, are firmly accepted norms identified in international treaties and conventions. The final type, which represents potential claims of peoples and groups against the state, is the most debated and lacks both legal and political recognition. Each of these types includes two further subtypes. Scholar Sumner B. Twiss delineates a typology:

Civil-political human rights include two subtypes: norms pertaining to physical and civil security (for example, no torture, slavery, inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrest; equality before the law) and norms pertaining to civil-political liberties or empowerments (for example, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of assembly and voluntary association; political participation in one’s society).

Socio-economic human rights similarly include two subtypes: norms pertaining to the provision of goods meeting social needs (for example, nutrition, shelter, health care, education) and norms pertaining to the provision of goods meeting economic needs (for example, work and fair wages, an adequate living standard, a social security net).

Finally, collective-developmental human rights also include two subtypes: the self-determination of peoples (for example, to their political status and their economic, social, and cultural development) and certain special rights of ethnic and religious minorities (for example, to the enjoyment of their own cultures, languages, and religions). (1998: 272)

This division of human rights into three generations was introduced in 1979 by Czech jurist Karel Vasak. The three categories align with the three tenets of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

First-generation, “civil-political” rights deal with liberty and participation in political life. They are strongly individualistic and negatively constructed to protect the individual from the state. These rights draw from those articulates in the United States Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in the 18th century. Civil-political rights have been legitimated and given status in international law by Articles 3 to 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Second-generation, “socio-economic” human rights guarantee equal conditions and treatment. They are not rights directly possessed by individuals but constitute positive duties upon the government to respect and fulfill them. Socio-economic rights began to be recognized by government after World War II and, like first-generation rights, are embodied in Articles 22 to 27 of the Universal Declaration. They are also enumerated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

Third-generation, “collective-developmental” rights of peoples and groups held against their respective states aligns with the final tenet of “fraternity.” They constitute a broad class of rights that have gained acknowledgment in international agreements and treaties but are more contested than the preceding types (Twiss, 2004). They have been expressed largely in documents advancing aspirational “soft law,” such as the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the 1994 Draft Declaration of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights.

Though traditional political theory presents liberty and fraternity as inherently antagonistic (and therefore would assert the incompatibility of “collective-developmental” rights with the preceding generations), progressive scholars argue that the three generations are in fact deeply interdependent. For example, Twiss argues that no single generation can be emphasized to the exclusion of others without jeopardizing personas and communities over time, including jeopardizing the very interests represented in the type or generation of rights being privileged. (1998: 276). He offers examples of self-defeating imbalances that would result from the excessive prioritization of any one generation over another:

… to emphasize civil-political rights to the exclusion of socioeconomic and collective-developmental rights runs the risk of creating socially disadvantaged groups within a society to the degree of triggering disruption, which, in turn, invites the counterresponse of repression. To emphasize socioeconomic rights to the exclusion of civil-political rights runs the risk of ironically creating a situation where, without the feedback of political participation, the advancement of socioeconomic welfare comes to be hampered or inequitable. To emphasize collective-developmental rights to the exclusion of other types runs the risk of not only fomenting a backlash against civil-political repression but also of under-cutting the equitable distribution of the socioeconomic goods needed for the continuing solidarity of the society. (1998: 276)

Twiss rejects alleged incompatibilities between the three generations of rights. He asserts that, at worst, there may by tension between such rights in specific societies and at periods of socio-historic transition, but this does not mean tensions cannot be solved in a way that respects all three generations of rights. Human rights are so thoroughly interconnected that it is difficult to conceive of them as operating properly except in an interdependent and mutually supportive manner (1998: 276).2

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 are 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.

2 For expositions of the opposing argument, see e.g., Park 1987; Arat 1991.


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