Civil rights are the rights of each person to exist in a society without facing unfair treatment or discrimination; they ensure equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or other characteristic. Civil rights exist to protect individuals from actions by the government, organizations, or other persons.
Political rights allow individuals to participate freely in the political system. This includes voting and holding public office. Political rights are supposed to ensure that an individual can join a political party, attend a protest, or other political activities without fear of repression.
Both civil and political rights are at the core of international human rights law.
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Primary Source Documents
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, 1941
The principles outlined in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, otherwise known as the Four Freedoms, eventually evolved into the United Nations Declaration of 1942 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Learn more >
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination defines racial discrimination as different (negative) treatment towards a person or group as a result of their national or ethnic origin. This discrimination restricts the human rights of the person/group. Learn more >
INTERNATIONAL COVENANT ON CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS, 1966
The UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966. The covenant protects many important rights which limit the encroachments of government, including the right to life, freedom of speech, and the right to due process. Learn more >
Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, 1994
The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is a Council of Europe treaty aimed at protecting minority groups within Europe. It is the world’s first legally-binding multilateral treaty to protect national minorities. Learn more >
The following organizations are a sample of groups working to protect civil rights in American society; it is not an exhaustive list.
American Civil Liberties Union
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in 1920. It works to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties enshrined in the laws and the U.S. Constitution. The organization primarily works through litigation and lobbying, but also creates large-scale public advocacy campaigns for a number of issues.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is the world’s leading organization fighting antisemitism. In addition to education programs, the organization also pursues anti-discrimination policies for many groups through legislatures and the courts.
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
Founded in 1974, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) works to protect the civil rights of Asian Americans. Through litigation, advocacy, and education, the organization focuses on issues such as: immigrant right, voting rights, and equity in education.
Council on American-Islamic Relations
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a nonprofit organization working to protect the civil rights of Muslims in the United States. It also works to enhance understanding of Islam and advocates dialogue between faith communities.
Disability Rights Advocates
Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) is one of the leading disability rights legal centers in the United States. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunities for people with all types of disabilities – including mobility, sensory, cognitive, and psychiatric disabilities.
Lambda Legal is a nonprofit organization working to protect the civil rights of LGBT individuals, as well as all people diagnosed with HIV. The organization works primarily through litigation, education campaigns, and public policy.
Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) is the oldest Latinx legal civil rights organization in the United States. Founded in 1968, it strives to protect and defend the rights of all Latinx individuals living in the U.S.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) exists to secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination. To these ends, it works on a number of issues, including climate justice, educational equity, and economic opportunity.
National Organization for Women
The National Organization for Women is the largest organization of feminist activists in the U.S. It works to promote feminist ideals and protect the equal rights of women. Its issue areas include reproductive rights, ending domestic violence, and constitutional equality.
Native American Rights Fund
The Native American Rights Fund (NARF), founded in 1971, provides legal representation to Native Americans and Indian tribes. It also works to ensure that the civil and religious rights of all Native Americans are respected and protected.