How Are Human Rights Classified?

The term “human rights” is broad, so how do nations and organizations break them down and classify them? At the most basic, there are two types of human rights: civil or political rights, and social rights. Various international agreements and theories attempt to classify these further. Here are three examples:

The thirty rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1948, following the end of WWII, the UN General Assembly came to the conclusion they needed to define human rights more clearly. The declaration consists of thirty rights, including freedom of thought, worker rights, the right to food and shelter, the right to marry, the right to life, the right to freedom from slavery, the right to a trial, and so on. When classified in a simpler way, experts say civil and political rights are found in articles 3-21, while economic, social, and cultural rights are in articles 22-28. The idea is that civil and political rights must be honored in order for people to also have economic, social, and cultural rights. There isn’t one type of human rights that’s more important than another. They are symbiotic. In the academic world, this is known as the “full belly” thesis.

The three-baskets from the Helsinki Final Act

In 1975, 35 member states from the West and Eastern Bloc signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. This represented the first time the two competing groups signed anything that showed they were willing to cooperate on various issues. The Final Act included 10 principles, including one (Principle VII) whose purpose was to “recognize the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms…” The Act was not a treaty, but rather a broad definition of international security that the signed parties agreed on. The signing did provoke the formation of committees in many countries.

Within the Act, the CSCE broke up its work into three “baskets,” which included “confidence-building” measures, cooperation in economics and science, and cooperation in humanitarian fields. The third basket is the one that focuses most on what we recognize as human rights. The wording is a bit vague, but it basically stated that all the signed parties agreed to human rights like freedom of speech. This basket was the trickiest part of the Final Act, since it was where the West and East disagreed the most. Looking back with 20/20 vision, the East didn’t uphold their end of the agreement especially well.

Vasek’s three generations

In 1977, Karel Vasak published an essay that outlined his theory on human rights in international law. He identified three generations. The first: civil and political rights, specifically the ones found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The second, found in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, includes rights like right to housing. The third, which Vasek said was just beginning, includes “solidarity rights” or “collective-developmental rights.” These could include minority rights.  Each of the three generations also has two subtypes. At the same time, Vasek distinguished the first and second generations as “negative rights,” which means a person has the right for something to not happen to him, like slavery. “Positive rights” refer to rights where a person is entitled to something, like healthcare or housing.

Vasak created these generations based on the three tenets of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. The usefulness of Vasek’s three generations is hotly contested, and the World Conference on Human Rights didn’t like the idea that civil and political rights were distinguished from economic, social, and cultural rights. The difference between negative and positive rights is also problematic, because it can allow the powers that be to start weighing rights instead of treating them all as inalienable.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.