First Generation Rights

The first generation of civil and political rights derives primarily from the 17th and 18th-century reformist theories noted above, i.e., those associated with the English, American, and French revolutions. Infused with the political philosophy of liberal individualism and the related economic and social doctrine of laissez-faire, it conceives of human rights more in negative ("freedoms from") than positive ("rights to") terms; it favours the abstention over the intervention of government in the quest for human dignity, as epitomized by the statement attributed to H. L. Mencken that "all government is, of course, against liberty." Belonging to this first generation, thus, are such claimed rights as are set forth in articles 2-21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including freedom from gender, racial, and equivalent forms of discrimination; the right to life, liberty, and the security of the person; freedom from slavery or involuntary servitude; freedom from torture and from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to a fair and public trial; freedom from interference in privacy and correspondence; freedom of movement and residence; the right to asylum from persecution; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and the right to participate in government, directly or through free elections. Also included is the right to own property and the right not to be deprived of it arbitrarily, each fundamental to the interests fought for in the American and French revolutions and to the rise of capitalism.

Yet it would be error to assert that these and other first generation rights correspond completely to the idea of "negative" as opposed to "positive" rights. The right to security of the person, to a fair and public trial, to asylum from persecution, and to free elections, for example, manifestly cannot be assured without some affirmative government action. What is constant in this first generation conception, however, is the notion of liberty, a shield that safeguards the individual, alone and in association with others, against the abuse and misuse of political authority. This is the core value. Featured in almost every constitution of today's approximately 185 states, and dominating the majority of the international declarations and covenants adopted since World War II, this essentially Western liberal conception of human rights is sometimes romanticized as a triumph of Hobbesian-Lockean individualism over Hegelian statism.