Fundamental freedoms

A brief introduction to civil and political rights

Civil and political rights traditionally aim to protect individuals against the state and impose a duty on governments not to interfere with these freedoms. Generally speaking, the rights in question apply directly, i.e. they need no implementation measures to take effect. However, today it is recognised that these rights also require positive action by the state and apply to relations between individuals as well.

Historically, these were the first human rights to be acknowledged in the Constitutions of countries here in the West, and it was not until after World War II that they were recognised by international instruments. For this reason, you will sometimes hear them described as ‘first-generation human rights’.

Some rights, like the right to vote, are purely political, because they guarantee individuals’ participation in the running of public affairs in their country. Other rights are purely civil, such as the rights to marriage or nationality, being linked to a person’s civil status. But several such rights belong in both categories.

The list of civil and political rights includes:

  • Freedom of expression, freedom of information and press freedom;
  • freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion;
  • freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom to gather peacefully;
  • the right to vote, the right of eligibility and the right of equal access to public office;
  • the prohibition of slavery;
  • the right to freedom of movement and security;
  • the right to a private life;
  • the right to ownership;
  • the right to nationality;
  • the right to marriage.

International and regional instruments

At UN level, civil and political rights were set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. They have also been protected since 1966 by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Belgium ratified in 1983. That instrument not only covers conventional civil and political rights, but also a general right to equality and people’s right to self-determination and a provision on the protection of minorities.

At regional level, the Council of Europe has produced the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (aka the European Convention on Human Rights), an instrument that defines civil and political rights and freedoms that the Member States pledge to guarantee to anyone falling under their jurisdiction.

The standards set by the ICCPR are higher than those stipulated in the European Convention on Human Rights. On the other hand, compliance with the ICCPR is monitored primarily by a Committee of Experts whose decisions are not binding, whereas compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), among others, and the court’s decisions are binding.

Action by Belgium and the European Union

Belgium attributes great importance to respecting civil and political rights in all countries. These freedoms help to guarantee any nation’s democratic nature. Furthermore, respect for these rights is intimately linked to showing respect for other interdependent, indivisible human rights. Our country, like the European Union, tackles the issue of respecting these freedoms in its relations with third countries and supports their promotion and protection at international level. Belgium also fosters the development of these rights in the framework of various mechanisms for UN human rights.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR)