Categories of Human Rights

Here is a power point someone created that puts human rights into 5 categories. It’s useful to introducing the UDHR and HRE to people who aren’t familiar with it.  These include civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.


Here is more information on HR from

If you click on the links at the end  it will take you to new pages with more info.


Human rights can be classified in a number of different ways. Some rights may fall into more than one of the available categories. One of the most widely used classifications distinguishes two general categories: classic or civil and political rights, and social rights that also include economic and cultural rights. Classic rights generally restrict the powers of the government in respect of actions affecting the individual and his or her autonomy (civil rights) and confer an opportunity upon people to contribute to the determination of laws and participate in government (political rights). Social rights require the governments to act in a positive, interventionist manner so as to create the necessary conditions for human life and development. The governments are expected to take active steps toward promoting the well-being of all its members out of social solidarity. It is believed that everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization of the economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) indispensable for his or her dignity and the free development of his or her personality.

All human rights carry corresponding obligations that must be translated into concrete duties to guarantee these rights. For many years, traditional human rights discourse was dominated by the misperception that civil and political rights require only negative duties while economic, social and cultural rights require positive duties. In this view, the right to free speech is guaranteed when the state leaves people alone, whereas the state must take positive action to guarantee the right to health by building health clinics and providing immunization.

This positive versus negative dichotomy has been discredited recently in favor of the understanding that all human rights have both positive and negative components. It is a matter of common sense that civil and political rights, including free speech, require the positive outlay of state resources in terms of providing a functioning judicial system and educating people about their rights. Conversely, all ESCR have negative aspects; some states prevent people from freely exercising ESCR, for example by blocking food or medical supplies to disfavored groups or regions.

Most scholars and activists now agree that duties for all human rights — civil and political as well as ESCR — can be divided into several discrete categories based on the type of duties. Although there is some variation in these typologies, they converge along the following basic categories: the duties to respect, protect, and fulfill.

The duty to respect is the negative obligation. It requires responsible parties to refrain from acting in a way that deprives people of the guaranteed right. Regarding the right to health, for example, a government may not deprive certain communities of access to health care facilities. The duty to protect is the obligation concerning third parties. It requires responsible parties to ensure that third parties do not deprive people of the guaranteed right. For example, a government must pass and enforce laws prohibiting private companies from releasing hazardous chemicals that impair public health. The duty to fulfill is the positive obligation. It requires responsible parties to establish political, economic, and social systems that provide access to the guaranteed right for all members of society. For example, a government must provide essential health services such as accessible primary care and clean water.

Learn more about classification of human rights by visiting the following Web sites:

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Virtual Library of Civil and Political Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Center for Economic and Social Rights

Women’s Economic and Social Rights

Economic and Social Rights After Fifty Years

Reinvigorating the Struggle for Economic and Social Rights in Africa

Human Rights Library: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


And here is an article about types of human rights from

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.