Generations of Human Rights: Explained

By | October 6, 2020
Generations of Human Rights

This article deals with various generations of Human Rights. Human Rights is a general term and it specifically denotes Civil rights, Civil liberties, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These rights cannot be taken by any legislature or act of government. These rights are important for the physical, spiritual and moral development of an individual.

Generations of Human Rights

Louis B. Sohn classified human rights into four generations which covers civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, collective rights and subjective rights.[1]

  1. The Human Rights of First Generation (Civil and political rights)
  2. The Human Rights of Second Generation (Economic, social and cultural rights)
  3. The Human Rights of Third Generation (Collective rights)
  4. The Human Rights of Fourth Generation (Subjective rights)

I. The Human Rights of First Generation

The human rights of the first generation are civil and political rights of the people. Civil rights are related to the right to life and personal liberty which includes, right to life, personal liberty, security, freedom of speech and expression, worship etc. Political rights are the rights which allow the people to participate in government actions such as the right to an election.

Political rights are arising out when there is a clash between people and the government. These rights are essential to every individual to reduce government arbitrary actions.

Civil and political rights together are known as “Liberty Oriented Human Rights” and they are also called negative rights because they protect people from excesses of the state. The first generation of human rights speaks about various rights and its importance, it has been incorporated in different Constitutions of various states.

The first-generation human rights were also incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 from Article 3 to 21. Also in the International covenant on civil and political rights 1966, American and African instruments of 1969 and 1981, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom 1950.

II. The Human Rights of Second Generation

The second generation of human rights are socio-economic and cultural rights includes right to work, right to education, freedom of association, right to insurance for sickness and old age etc. This generation of human rights guarantees the right to equality and fulfilment of minimum necessities to live as a human being. These rights are based on the availability of resources and these rights impose duties on the government to fulfil them for the betterment of individuals, hence it would be called “red rights”.

These rights impose positive obligations on the state, hence they are called positive rights. The Social, economic, cultural and rights of minorities together are known as “Security Oriented Human Rights” because they provide basic security in the life of the people. Also, if there is an absence of these rights the existing human beings will be in danger. These rights are incorporated from Article 22 to 28 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, also in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1966.

The Russian revolution in 1917 recognised the economic rights of the individuals and the Paris conference in 1919 established the International Labour Organisation. These are considered to be the main source for the origin of these rights. For the first time, the American president Roosevelt expressed his opinion on social and economic rights for the individuals and referred the same to the congress mentioning four rights including freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship God, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Freedom from want paved the way for economic and social security. Freedom from want signifies that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Many people are suffering from hunger and without employment. Hence, there must be social and economic rights to recover society from these issues.

III. The Human Rights of Third Generation

The third generation of human rights is collective rights. These rights originated in the 20th century known as development-oriented human rights. These rights include environmental rights such as the right to air, water, food, natural resources, pollution-free environment and other gifts of nature. These rights empower individuals to participate in the all-round development of the country.

According to Louis B. Sohn, every individual belongs to a community like family, religious communities, social or political communities etc. The international law recognises the collective rights of the individuals who are grouped into a larger group, those rights can be exercised jointly by the people and nations.

The right to self-determination, right to development, right to peace and solidarity, right to economic and social development, right to a healthy environment, right to natural resources, right to communicate, right to participate in cultural heritage, right to intergenerational equity and sustainability etc.. are the third generation human rights. These are also called Green Rights. The implementation of these rights are based on international cooperation, therefore these rights are called solidarity rights.

According to Karen Vesak, “The third generation of human rights refers to the fraternity or brotherhood. This category of rights is based on the sense of solidarity, which is essential for the realisation of the major concern of the international community such as peace, development and environment”.[2]

The third generation of human rights expressed in various international documents such as the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nation Conference on Human Environment 1972, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development 1992 and other laws.

IV. The Human Rights of Fourth Generation

The fourth-generation human rights linked to the intergenerational justice or the rights of future generations. This category includes rights related to genetic engineering.

The human genome, genetic manipulation, vital fertilization, human embryos, euthanasia and eugenics are the activities which can generate complicated legal issues with ethical, moral and religious values. Therefore, the European Council opinion to member states to adopt principles which cover the relationship between genetic engineering and human rights so that the right to life and dignity can be understood as a rift over genetic characteristics of the individuals.


In the Indian Constitution, Part III deals with the fundamental rights and freedoms which resembles Human Rights. Based on international covenants of human rights and Indian constitution the government enacted the protection of human rights act 1993 for the establishment of National Human Rights Commission, state human rights commission and district level human rights commission for the effective implementation and to protect every individual right.

Judiciary plays an important role to safeguard Human rights. Apart from the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 many other legislation, directly and indirectly, protects human rights.


  1. Mohammad Reza Sarani, Seyed Hossein Sadeghi, Hossein Ravandeh “The Concept or Right and it’s three generations” ISSN: 2321-595X
  2. Adrian Vasile Cornescu, The generations of human rights, ISBN: 978-80-210-4990-1

[1] Louis B. Sohn, International Law and Basic Human Rights, Naval War College Review, Available Here

[2] Karl Vesak, “Tenth study session of the international institute of human rights” (July 1979)

  1. Human Rights in India: History & Development
  2. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
Author: M. Preetha

Student: Saveetha School of Law

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