Democracy & Justice

What are Civil Liberties: Definition, Role, Connection to Civil Rights

Civil liberties are natural rights inherent to every citizen which protects them from tyranny by the state. The degree to which these liberties are enjoyed by people is an important indicator of the quality of a given country’s democracy.

by Alex Nulman


What are civil liberties?

Civil liberties are the rights that exist when the government does not interfere arbitrarily. In a truly free society, people are able to speak, write, own, marry, identify and vote as they please without government interference. To guarantee these freedoms, in theory at least, the government and its agencies need only avoid restricting these liberties. No additional effort is inherently required to support these freedoms as long as the government does not trespass into the private lives of its citizens. This group of liberties differs from civil rights, which are areas in which the government actively works to promote democratic values and equal treatment.

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What civil liberties are there?

Many of the freedoms that we enjoy daily fall under the category of civil liberties. In Europe, our civil liberties are enshrined in The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. Every time we post a controversial opinion on social media or speak out against the actions of our government, we exercise one of the most important liberties: freedom of speech. Another essential liberty often pledged by Western democracies to their citizens is the right to privacy, which ensures non-interference in personal matters such as messages, phone calls, and emails. This liberty extends to the home as well, as governments are often restricted from coordinating unreasonable searches without explicit reasoning. Freedom of assembly guarantees that one can express their view in the company of others, with the aim of demonstrating their support to fellow citizens or legislators.

Examples of civil liberties

Each jurisdiction acknowledges its own unique set of civil liberties, although there is often much overlap. Civil liberties may include freedoms such as the right to remain silent in a police investigation, the right to a fair trial, the right to marry, and the right to vote. It should be considered undemocratic and therefore unlawful for the government to stand in the way of these capabilities. One of these that may stand out most is the right to marry, which has been notoriously difficult for LGBT+ couples throughout the world. Although this is considered by many as an inalienable civil liberty, there are many countries in Europe where same-sex marriage is still outlawed. Eastern Europe in particular, even among EU member states, has abysmal support for same-sex marriage. Hungary and Poland, two countries where it is constitutionally banned, have support ratings hovering around 30%. These countries have passed other anti-LGBT+ laws like adoption prohibition that have been condemned by the European Union. Countries that do not allow same-sex marriage are constantly under fire from human rights organizations and international institutions.

What is the difference between civil liberties and civil rights?

Understanding a government’s obligations to its people, at least through the lens of Western liberal democracy, requires the separation of civil liberties from civil rights. As mentioned earlier, the former protects citizens to be free from state tyranny by guaranteeing specific rights. Civil rights, on the other hand, typically protect people from unequal treatment in particular settings such as schools, workplaces, public facilities etc. They assert that people have the right to be treated justly and similarly to their neighbors, or the right to not be discriminated against. For example, the right to equal opportunities is designed to protect people against discrimination in the workplace.

The factors that may be used as a basis for discrimination are varied, including income, employment status, education, criminal history, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Discrimination at the hands of the state can often occur in unclear or indirect ways, making the jobs of journalists and civil rights activists who expose these inequalities extremely important. Democratic legislation often exists to protect the people’s ability to enjoy social freedoms regardless of their differences, but unjust treatment is still commonplace.

It needs to be pointed out that civil liberties may also place positive obligations on governments. For example, even though the primary obligation of governments is to ‘stay out’ when people want to protest a state policy by exercising their freedom of assembly, states also have legislation in place to ensure the safety of protestors.

What is the role of civil liberties in modern society?

Modern societies are dependent on civil liberties to balance the restrictions that a state can place on its citizens. Personal liberties are necessary for freedom to exist within the confines of a world that is ruled by governments. Without civil liberties, democracy cannot exist to support equality and individual flourishing. They allow us to express controversial ideas safely, lead private lives, and make other important decisions for ourselves while living under state rule. Alongside society watchdogs such as journalists and legal experts, civil society organisations like Liberties are instrumental in promoting civil liberties and protecting them by documenting the status of civil liberties in different countries.

Why are civil liberties important? How can we promote them?

The work of activists is to bring civil liberties breaches to light so that policymakers can gain insight into whether governments are abiding by the non-interference of people’s freedoms and to understand what steps are needed to ensure civil liberties are intact. For example, the European Union works with such organizations in the hopes of raising the standards of civil liberties throughout the bloc. Eastern Europe, in particular, is often criticized by the Union for some of its policies that overstep the State’s involvement in people’s private lives e.g. suspending the right to strike or protest in Hungary or harassing pro-abortion activists as seen in Poland. Being politically active and supporting civil rights organizations can promote the improvement of civil liberties and expose overlooked policy areas, both of which are essential for the success of modern democracy.



Further reading:

What are Civil Rights: Definition, Origins, Movements, Present Situation

What is Freedom of Assembly: Definition, Importance, Limitations

Why We Should Value Our Civil Liberties

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