The constitution of a democracy guarantees the rights of the people. A right is a person’s justifiable claim, protected by law, to act or be treated in a certain way. For example, the constitutions of democracies throughout the world guarantee the political rights of individuals, such as the rights of free speech, press, assembly, association, and petition. These rights must be guaranteed in order for there to be free, fair, competitive, and periodic elections by the people of their representatives in government, which is a minimal condition for the existence of a democracy. If a democracy is to be maintained from one election to the next, then the political rights of parties and persons outside the government must be constitutionally protected in order for there to be authentic criticism and opposition of those in charge of the government. Thus, the losers in one election can use their political rights to gain public support and win the next election.
In addition to political rights, the constitutions of democracies throughout the world protect the rights of people accused of crimes from arbitrary or abusive treatment by the government. Individuals are guaranteed due process of law in their dealings with the government. Today, constitutional democracies protect the personal and private rights of all individuals under their authority. These rights include
- freedom of conscience or belief
- free exercise of religion
- privacy in one’s home or place of work from unwarranted or unreasonable intrusions by the government
- ownership and use of private property for personal benefit
- general freedom of expression by individuals, so long as they do not interfere with or impede unjustly the freedom or well-being of others in the community
A turning point in the history of constitutionally protected rights was the founding of the United States of America in the late 18th century. The United States was born with a Declaration of Independence that proclaimed as a self-evident truth that every member of the human species was equal in possession of “certain unalienable rights” among which are the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
The founders declared that the primary reason for establishing a government is “to secure these rights.” And, if governments would act legitimately to protect the rights of individuals, then they must derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Further, if the government established by the people fails to protect their rights and acts abusively against them, then “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” that will succeed in fulfilling its reason for existence— the protection of individual rights.
Ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence about rights and government were derived from the writings of political philosophers of the European Enlightenment, especially those of the Englishman John Locke. Enlightenment philosophers stressed that rights belonged equally and naturally to each person because of their equal membership in the human species. According to Locke, for example, persons should not believe that the government granted their rights, or that they should be grateful to the government for them. Instead, they should expect a government to protect these equally possessed rights, which existed prior to the establishment of civil society and government. Thus, the rights of individuals, based on the natural equality of human nature, were called natural rights.
This Declaration of Independence, based on this natural rights philosophy, explained to the world that Americans severed their legal relationship with the United Kingdom because the mother country had violated the rights of the people in her North American colonies. As a result, the Americans declared they would independently form their own free government to protect their natural rights. In 1787, the Americans framed a constitution to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” and fulfill the primary purpose of any good government as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the protection of natural rights, and they ratified this Constitution in 1788.
In 1789, the U.S. Congress proposed constitutional amendments to express explicitly the rights of individuals that the government was bound to secure; in 1791, the requisite number of states ratified 10 of these amendments, which became part of the U.S. Constitution. Thus, the American Bill of Rights was born. Since then, the American Bill of Rights has been an example and inspiration to people throughout the world who wish to enjoy liberty and equality in a constitutional democracy.
Following the tragedies of World War II, which involved gross abuses by some governments and their armies—Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, for example—against millions of individuals and peoples of the world, there was a worldwide movement in favor of the idea of human rights. The United Nations, an organization of the world’s nation-states established after World War II in order to promote international peace and justice, became a leader in the promotion of human rights throughout the world. In 1948, this international body issued the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a statement of the rights every human being should have in order to achieve a minimally acceptable quality of life.
Its first article says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 2 continues, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” The remainder of the document details the human rights that ideally should be enjoyed by each person in the world.
Since 1948, the United Nations has issued several other documents on human rights, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN documents are statements of ideals about human rights intended to guide the actions of the world’s nation-states, but the United Nations cannot enforce them in the way that a sovereign nation-state can compel obedience to laws within its territory. Thus, practical protection for human rights is possible today only through the governmental institutions of the world’s independent nation-states. The quality of the protection of human rights varies significantly from country to country. It depends upon what the nation’s constitution says about rights and the capacity of the government to enforce the rights guaranteed in its constitution.
There is general international agreement that there are two basic categories of human rights. First, there are rights pertaining to what should not be done to any human being. Second, there are rights pertaining to what should be done for every human being. The first category of human rights involves constitutional guarantees that prohibit the government from depriving people of some political or personal rights. For example, the government cannot constitutionally take away someone’s right to participate freely and independently in an election or to freely practice a particular religion. The second category of human rights requires positive action by the government to provide someone with a social or economic right that otherwise would not be available to her or him. Thus, the government may be expected to provide opportunities for individuals to go to school or to receive healthcare benefits.
The constitutions of many democracies specify certain social and economic rights that the government is expected to provide. In other democracies, for example, the United States, programs that provide social and economic rights or entitlements, such as social security benefits for elderly persons and medical care for indigent persons, are established through legislation that is permitted but not required by the constitution.