Individual and group rights

Individual and group rights

Group rights are rights held by a group rather than by its members separately, or rights held only by individuals within the specified group; in contrast, individual rights are rights held by individual people regardless of their group membership or lack thereof. Group rights have historically been used both to infringe upon and to facilitate individual rights, and the concept remains controversial.[1][page needed] Group rights are not straightforwardly human rights because they are group-differentiated rather than universal to all people just by virtue of being human.



In Western discourse, individual rights are often associated with political and economic freedom, whereas group rights are associated with social control. This is because in the West the establishment of individual rights is associated with equality before the law and protection from the state.[citation needed] Examples of this are the Magna Carta, in which the English King accepted that his will could be bound by the law and certain rights of the King's subjects were explicitly protected.

By contrast, much of the recent political discourse on individual rights in the People's Republic of China, particularly with respect to due process rights and rule of law, has focused on how protection of individual rights actually makes social control by the government more effective. For example, it has been argued that the people are less likely to violate the law if they believe that the legal system is likely to punish them if they actually violated the law and not punish them if they did not violate the law. By contrast, if the legal system is arbitrary then an individual has no incentive to actually follow the law.

Immutable characteristics


Group rights may have a negative connotation in the context of colonialism, legalised racism and white nationalism. In this context group rights award rights to a privileged group. For example, in South Africa under the former apartheid regime, which classified inhabitants and visitors into racial groups (black, white, coloured and Indian). Rights were awarded on a group basis, creating first and second class citizens.[citation needed]

In the United States individual rights for all by virtue of being human were only established after the Civil War, in 1868, with the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment was intended to secure rights for former slaves and amongst others includes the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.[citation needed]

Affirmative action

In the modern context, 'group rights' are argued for by some as an instrument to actively facilitate the realisation of equality. In a society where there is already equality before the law for all citizens, 'equality' is often an euphemistic reference to material equality (money & resources). This is where the group is regarded as being in a situation such that it needs special protective rights if its members are to enjoy living conditions on terms equal with the majority of the population.[1]

Examples of such groups may include indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, women, children and the disabled. This discourse may takes place in the context of negative and positive rights in that some commentators and policy makers conceptualise equality as not only a negative right, in the sense of ensuring freedom from discrimination, but also a positive right, in that the realisation of equality requires redistributive action by others or the state. In this respect group rights may aim to ensure equal opportunity and/or attempt to actively redress inequality.[citation needed]

An example this is the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program in post-Apartheid South Africa. The South African government seeks to redress the inequalities of Apartheid by giving previously disadvantaged groups (black Africans, Coloureds and Indians who are SA citizens) economic opportunities previously not available to them. It includes measures such as Employment Equity, skills development, reverse racism, ownership, management, socio-economic development and preferential procurement. The South African Bill of Rights, contained in the South African Constitution contains strong provisions on equality, or the right to equality, in Section 9. While stating that "discrimination... is unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair," section 9 also contains the provision that, "to promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken."

India has an extensive system of affirmative action quotas or reservations intended to redress historical inequalities of opportunity, especially the legacy of caste system.

Government programs of reverse discrimination or positive discrimination exist in a number of countries[citation needed]: Non-quota race preferences are in place in the United States for collegiate admission to government-run educational institutions.[citation needed]

Group rights in such a context may aim to achieve equality of opportunity and/or equality of outcome. Such affirmative action can be controversial as they are in conflict with the absolute application of the right to equality, or because some members of the group that is intended to benefit from such programs criticizes or opposes them.[citation needed]

Organizational group rights

Besides the rights of groups based upon the immutable characteristics of their individual members, other group rights cater toward organizational persons, including nation-states, trade unions, corporations, trade associations, chambers of commerce, political parties. Such organizations are accorded rights which are particular to their specifically-stated functions and their capacities to speak on behalf of their members, i.e., the capacity of the corporation to speak to the government on behalf of all individual customers or employees or the capacity of the trade union to negotiate for benefits with employers on behalf of all workers in a company.


In the United States, the Constitution outlines individual rights within the Bill of Rights. In Canada, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms serves the same function. One of the key differences between the two documents is that some rights in the Canadian Charter can be overridden by governments if they explicitly do so according to Section 33 of the Charter [2]. In practice, the Quebec government used the provision frequently in the early 1980s as a protest, and since then to maintain a ban on non-French public signs for five years. The government of Saskatchewan has used it for back-to-work legislation, and the government of Alberta sought to use it to define marriage as strictly heterosexual.[3] In contrast, in the United States, no such override exists even in theory; even a constitutional amendment could not remove these rights entirely, as they are considered inalienable under the natural rights principles the Constitution is founded upon.


In the minarchist political views of libertarians and classical liberals, the role of the government is solely to identify, protect, and enforce the natural rights of the individual while attempting to assure just remedies for transgressions. Liberal governments that respect individual rights often provide for systemic controls that protect individual rights such as a system of due process in criminal justice. Collectivist states are generally considered to be oppressive by such classical liberals and libertarians precisely because they do not respect individual rights. Interceding within that spectrum for the actual availing of collective governance to be allotted systematization and their undivided agency, but relegated for the regulation of such freedom toward constructed entities is the federative process. A faculty of federalism that lends to relative de-standardization of governance under its auspices, unlike libertarian or socialistic manners of state. Federated structures allow for diversity of power distribution between the alternating group and individual interest schemata where neither liberal nor collective type governing alone can codify in variation.

Ayn Rand, developer of the philosophy of Objectivism asserted that a group, as such, has no rights. A man can neither acquire new rights by joining a group nor lose the rights which he does possess. Man can be in a group without want or the group minority, without rights. The principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations. She maintained that since only an individual man can possess rights, the expression "individual rights" is a redundancy, but the expression "collective rights" is a contradiction in terms. Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).[4] This could be argued to contravene the idea of corporate personhood.

See also


  1. ^ a b Group Rights, Peter Jones 2005
  2. ^ Section 33 of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,[1]
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ Ayn Rand (1961), "Collectivized 'Rights,'" The Virtue of Selfishness.

External links

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