Civil rights are government guarantees of equal protection under the law, regardless of membership in a group based on a shared characteristic such as race, national origin, ethnicity, sex, gender, age, or ability. Whenever a basic right is denied to a group based on a shared characteristic, a civil rights issue exists.
In the United States, voting is an example of a civil rights issue because certain groups, like women and Black people, have historically been denied the right to vote. In response to changing views, the US Constitution has been amended to expand the right to vote (suffrage) over time. Constitutionalism is a way of measuring how well a country follows or meets the expectations of its constitution.
The countries of the world define and protect civil rights in different ways, but the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become an influential standard. Rights may be expressed as positive rights or negative rights. Positive rights are opportunities and abilities that rely on the support or acceptance by others (i.e., you can support my rights by complying with them). Negative rights, on the other hand, refer to those freedoms no government or persons may restrict.
Political culture refers to the ways in which a country’s traditions and cultural values create that country’s specific political system. A country’s political culture, the implementation of its constitution, and power dynamics between majority and minority groups all affect civil rights. Changes in a country’s political culture can impact civil rights. Majorities have the power to either protect or discriminate against the minorities in a society. The majority can have a major influence on whether the government fulfills its obligation to affirm and protect civil rights.
Majorities have historically abused the civil rights of numerous minority groups, including LGBTQ+ persons, persons with disabilities, people of color, women, and religious and ethnic minorities, among others. Civil rights abuses have taken many forms including denial of equal protection to specific groups and the creation of laws or constitutional provisions to protect certain groups in the majority while simultaneously denying rights to political minorities. Most countries do not allow LGBTQ+ persons to adopt. The United States has limited voting access for millions of Black people despite the presence of legal and constitutional provisions that allegedly do not restrict suffrage. Native Americans have been denied due process and equal protection for over 200 years. They have suffered the loss of much of their tribal land and the forced removal of children into government-run indoctrination schools. During World War II, the US government forcibly relocated over 100,000 Japanese Americans along the West Coast into detention camps between 1942 and 1945.
Just as numerical majorities have power, large groups of people, including groups made up of minority individuals who have little power on their own, have achieved success when they came together to work for civil rights change. These groups have engaged in mass political participation in the form of civil disobedience, protest, marches, elections, and boycotts. Notable civil rights movements around the world include the American civil rights movement, the Velvet Revolution, the Arab Spring, Me Too, and Black Lives Matter.
Major government institutions, including legislatures, judiciaries, and executives, are responsible for creating, adjudicating, and implementing civil rights protections. How effectively they can fulfill those responsibilities depends upon the powers each branch is given under a country’s constitution and the political culture of a country. Further, a country’s institutions, built on existing power structures that favor the majority, may have inherently racist practices, and majorities in power may also lack an understanding of the way in which multiple minority traits may intersect—for example, for a person of color with a disability—compounding experiences of discrimination. Legislatures may pass legislation and judiciaries may rule on cases in ways that remedy civil rights issues. They may also seek to make systemic changes, as when India introduced public interest litigation to give citizens the ability to appeal directly to the federal judiciary and to ask judges to intervene in political issues. Presidents and executives have the power to influence civil rights in both formal ways, as when they sign executive orders, and in more symbolic, informal ways. In the United States, the three branches of government may serve as checks on the other branches, as when the Supreme Court strikes down an executive order, or they may work together—either for the benefit of minorities or to enforce discriminatory and abusive practices.