Civil liberties

Civil liberties
Broken Liberty: Istanbul Archaeology Museum

Civil liberties are rights and freedoms that provide an individual specific rights such as the freedom from slavery and forced labour, freedom from torture and death, the right to liberty and security, right to a fair trial, the right to defend one's self, the right to own and bear arms, the right to privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to marry and have a family. Within the distinctions between civil liberties and other types of liberty, it is important to note the distinctions between positive rights and negative rights.

Common civil liberties include the rights of people, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, and additionally, the right to due process, to a trial, to own property, and to privacy.

The formal concept of civil liberties dates back to the English legal charter the Magna Carta 1215, which in turn was based on pre-existing documents namely the English Charter of Liberties, a landmark document in English legal history.

Many contemporary states have a constitution, a bill of rights, or similar constitutional documents that enumerate and seek to guarantee civil liberties. Other states have enacted similar laws through a variety of legal means, including signing and ratifying or otherwise giving effect to key conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It might be said that the protection of civil liberties is a key responsibility of all citizens of free states, as distinct from authoritarian states.

The existence of some claimed civil liberties is a matter of dispute, as are the extent of most civil rights. Controversial examples include property rights, reproductive rights, civil marriage, and the right to keep and bear arms. Whether the existence of victimless crimes infringes upon civil liberties is a matter of dispute. Another matter of debate is the suspension or alteration of certain civil liberties in times of war or state of emergency, including whether and to what extent this should occur.

An individual who "actively supports or works for the protection or expansion of civil liberties" is called a civil libertarian.[1]

Article 6 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union affirms the right to liberty


North America

United States

The United States Constitution, especially its Bill of Rights, protects civil liberties. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment further protected civil liberties by introducing the Privileges or Immunities Clause, Due Process Clause, and Equal Protection Clause. Human rights within the United States are often called civil rights, which are those rights, privileges and immunities held by all Americans, in distinction to political rights, which are the rights that inhere to those who are entitled to participate in elections, as candidates or voters.[2] Before universal suffrage, this distinction was important, since many people were ineligible to vote but still were considered to have the fundamental freedoms derived from the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This distinction is less important now that Americans enjoy near universal suffrage, and civil liberties are now taken to include the political rights to vote and participate in elections.


The Constitution of Canada includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees many of the same rights as the U.S. constitution, with the notable exceptions of protection against establishment of religion. However, the Charter does protect freedom of religion. The Charter also omits any mention of, or protection for, property.


European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights, to which most European countries, including all of the European Union, belong, enumerates a number of civil liberties and is of varying constitutional force in different European states.

United Kingdom

While the United Kingdom has no codified constitution, relying on a number of legal conventions and pieces of legislation, it is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights which covers both human rights and civil liberties. The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the great majority of Convention rights directly into UK law. Britain has what is called an unwritten constitution: centuries of legislation and legal precedent dating back to before the Magna Carta guarantee the rights of its subjects. In June 2008 the then Shadow Home Secretary David Davis resigned his parliamentary seat over what he described as the "erosion of civil liberties" by the then Labour government, and successfully won re-election on a civil liberties platform (although he was not opposed by candidates of other major parties). This was in reference to anti-terrorism laws and in particular the extension to pre-trial detention, that is perceived by many to be an infringement of Habeas Corpus established in the Magna Carta in 1215.


France's 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen listed many civil liberties and is of constitutional force.



The Constitution of People's Republic of China (which applies only to mainland China, not to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan), especially its Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens, claims to protect many civil liberties, although in practice dissidents may find themselves without the protection of the rule of law. See Civil liberties in the People's Republic of China.


The Fundamental Rights — embodied in Part III of the constitution — guarantee civil liberties such that all Indians can lead their lives in peace as citizens of India. The six fundamental rights are right to equality, right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to freedom of religion, cultural and educational rights and right to constitutional remedies.[3]

These include individual rights common to most liberal democracies, incorporated in the fundamental law of the land and are enforceable in a court of law. Violations of these rights result in punishments as prescribed in the Indian Penal Code, subject to discretion of the judiciary. These rights are neither absolute nor immune from constitutional amendments. They have been aimed at overturning the inequalities of pre-independence social practises. Specifically, they resulted in abolishment of untouchability and prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. They forbid human trafficking and unfree labour. They protect cultural and educational rights of ethnic and religious minorities by allowing them to preserve their languages and administer their own educational institutions.

All people, irrespective of race, religion, caste or sex, have the right to approach the High Courts or the Supreme Court for the enforcement of their fundamental rights. It is not necessary that the aggrieved party has to be the one to do so. In public interest, anyone can initiate litigation in the court on their behalf. This is known as "Public interest litigation".[4] High Court and Supreme Court judges can also act on their own on the basis of media reports.

The Fundamental Rights emphasise equality by guaranteeing to all citizens the access and use of public institutions and protections, irrespective of their background. The rights to life and personal liberty apply for persons of any nationality, while others, such as the freedom of speech and expression are applicable only to the citizens of India (including non-resident Indian citizens).[5] The right to equality in matters of public employment cannot be conferred to overseas citizens of India.[6]

Fundamental Rights primarily protect individuals from any arbitrary State actions, but some rights are enforceable against private individuals too.[7] For instance, the constitution abolishes untouchability and prohibits begar. These provisions act as a check both on State action and actions of private individuals. Fundamental Rights are not absolute and are subject to reasonable restrictions as necessary for the protection of national interest. In the Kesavananda Bharati vs. state of Kerala case, the Supreme Court ruled that all provisions of the constitution, including Fundamental Rights can be amended.[8] However, the Parliament cannot alter the basic structure of the constitution like secularism, democracy, federalism, separation of powers. Often called the "Basic structure doctrine", this decision is widely regarded as an important part of Indian history. In the 1978 Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India case, the Supreme Court extended the doctrine's importance as superior to any parliamentary legislation.According to the verdict, no act of parliament can be considered a law if it violated the basic structure of the constitution. This landmark guarantee of Fundamental Rights was regarded as a unique example of judicial independence in preserving the sanctity of Fundamental Rights. The Fundamental Rights can only be altered by a constitutional amendment, hence their inclusion is a check not only on the executive branch, but also on the Parliament and state legislatures.[9] The imposition of a state of emergency may lead to a temporary suspension of the rights conferred by Article 19 (including freedoms of speech, assembly and movement, etc.) to preserve national security and public order. The President can, by order, suspend the right to constitutional remedies as well.

Huge rallies like this one in Kolkata are commonplace in India.



The Constitution of Russian Federation guarantees in theory many of the same rights and civil liberties as the U.S. except to bear arms, i.e.: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and assembly, freedom to choose language, to due process, to a fair trial, privacy, freedom to vote, right for education, etc. However, human rights groups like Amnesty International have warned that Putin has seriously curtailed freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association amidst growing authoritarianism.[10]

See also


  1. ^ definition of civil libertarian
  2. ^ America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar
  3. ^ Constitution of India-Part III Fundamental Rights.
  4. ^ "Bodhisattwa Gautam vs. Subhra Chakraborty; 1995 ICHRL 69". World Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2006-05-25.  This was the case where Public interest litigation was introduced (date of ruling 15 December 1995).
  5. ^ Tayal, B.B. & Jacob, A. (2005), Indian History, World Developments and Civics, pg. A-25
  6. ^ "Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2003" (PDF). Rajya Sabha. pp. 5. Archived from the original on 2006-04-25. Retrieved 2006-05-25. 
  7. ^ "Bodhisattwa Gautam vs. Subhra Chakraborty; 1995 ICHRL 69". World Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2006-05-25.  This was the case where Fundamental Rights were enforced against private individuals (date of ruling 15 December 1995).
  8. ^ Kesavananda Bharati vs. state of Kerala; AIR 1973 S.C. 1461, (1973) 4 SCC 225 — In what became famously known as the "Fundamental Rights case", the Supreme Court decided that the basic structure of the constitution was unamendable.
  9. ^ Tayal, B.B. & Jacob, A. (2005), Indian History, World Developments and Civics, pg. A-24
  10. ^ Putin rolling back civil rights, warns Amnesty | World news | The Guardian

Further reading

  • Dershowitz, Alan. "Preserving Civil Liberties." Reflections on the Fractured Landscape, spec. sec. of Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Review, September 28, 2001. Accessed August 11, 2006.
  • Smith, Jean Edward, and Herbert M. Levine. Civil Liberties and Civil Rights Debated. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988.

External links

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