Democracy & Justice

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

Civil rights guarantee equal treatment under the law, regardless of a persons characteristics. Although the scope of these rights have become more inclusive over time, the majority of countries actively deny civil rights to some minority group.

by Cassandra Devaney

Updated on 21.05.2024 by Una Glatz

What are civil rights?

A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which allows for a remedy if a violation of the right occurs. These rights are commonly understood as a guarantee of equal societal opportunities and protection under the law regardless of race, religion, gender, or other characteristics. Examples include: the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, a right to education, and a right to access government services. These rights are important for a democracy and ideally are respected and enforced by democratic governments.

Civil rights have evolved significantly over time. Their scope has increased exponentially and the term “civil rights'' now encompasses a wide variety of rights based on personal characteristics of individuals. Many groups, such as the LGBTQ2+ community, were not considered in early civil rights movements but grassroots campaigns are now commonly seen across the globe.

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Though civil rights movements span across the globe and often address similar issues, it's difficult to establish an international standard for civil rights because civil rights are enforced by each individual country. This is why civil rights differ from human rights. Every individual in the world has human rights, but an individual’s civil rights depend on what country they live in. The United Nations (UN) has included some language concerning civil rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the resolutions are not binding on member-countries of the UN.

Which were the most significant civil rights movements? How did these movements shape civil rights?

Civil rights movements, though often focusing on different characteristics of marginalized groups, all have a similar end goal: to achieve equal opportunity and protection under the law. Early movements focused simply on the right to vote or the right to a public education but over several decades, the meaning of civil rights grew to include the equal rights of racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ2+ communities, among others. From the early suffrage movements for women’s rights in 1920s America to the current movements for LGBTQ2+ rights, each movement inspired the next and encouraged marginalized groups to fight for their rights.

India Resistance Movement

The civil rights movement in India aimed to achieve national liberation from British rule. The movement for independence, which began as far back as the 1850s, gained increased support and mobilization under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. The civil disobedience, non-cooperation efforts, and mass public demonstrations resulted in violent pushback, hundreds of arrests, and the imprisonment of Gandhi. The struggle lasted several decades but India was ultimately granted full independence in 1947.

American Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement in the United States of America, spurred by the oppression of African Americans, aimed to end discrimination against Black people. Though slavery had been abolished in the country, African Americans were systematically marginalized and often faced extreme violence. The movement, which began in the 1950s, mainly consisted of local efforts in the form of marches, boycotts, and civil disobedience but the impact was nationwide. The local movements forced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which granted equal voting rights and pledged to end discrimination. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked a major victory for this movement and was the unofficial “end”, the Black community is still fighting for civil rights in present day America. Martin Luther King, Jr. is widely known as the most important figure of the movement.

South African Apartheid

The civil rights movement in South Africa ended the system of racial segregation in the country, commonly known as apartheid. The movement, led by Nelson Mandela, which began in the 1940s, faced significant pushback from the government that resulted in many of its leaders being imprisoned. After several decades of struggle, internal pressure and pressure from the international community, imprisoned leaders were released and new measures were passed to end apartheid in 1993.

Roman Catholic Civil Rights Movement of Northern Ireland

The civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, began in the 1960s, the movement initially focused on fighting discriminatory gerrymandering that had disadvantaged Roman Catholics and secured elections for Protestants. After the internment of Catholic activists, the movement saw both a civil disobedience campaign and more violent strategies led by the Irish Republican Army. The violent conflict that ensued is commonly known as the Troubles, a time during which the Protestants and Roman Catholics engaged in frequent fighting, bombings, firearm attacks, roadblocks, and internment. The conflict resulted in over 3,000 deaths and over 30,000 injuries before ending in a peace agreement in 1998.

What is the present situation?

The overwhelming majority of countries actively deny civil rights to some minority group.

Despite facing obstacles over the past several decades, there is generally a positive global push towards recognizing more civil rights. Civil rights movements aimed at equality for women, children, and LBGTQ+ communities have seen the most progress and continue to pressure governments across the globe into recognizing the rights of these groups. Though the achievements of groups fighting for civil rights and freedom have been significant, there is a global trend of anti-democratic backsliding and attacks on the rule of law. During the past two decades, the liberal democratic order has been erodingwhile authoritarianism has gained traction around the world.

Europe/Central Asia

Europe and Central Asia have seen an increase in authoritarianism across the region with a number of states curbing judicial independence, cracking down on freedom, and silencing critics. A major issue throughout the region concerned migration and the increase in illegal pushback of asylum seekers. This problem has been highlighted in the wake of the war in Ukraine, with many countries willingly accepting Ukrainian refugees while turning away refugees from majority-Muslim and African nations. Racism against historically disenfranchised groups increased, with many countries seeing an increase in verbal and physical attacks, and some countries experienced pushback against the Black Lives Matter protests. While some countries made progress on women’s and LGBTQ2+ rights, with new legislation being passed to offer greater protections, others continued backsliding and set new restrictions on the rights of LGBTQ2+ individuals in particular. Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine aggravated existing issues, especially issues of media freedom, expression, and peaceful assembly.

The role civil rights movements play protecting democracy and striving for equality can be seen in Georgia. The new ‘foreign agents bill’ enabled by Georgia’s current government restricts the freedom of the country’s media, civil rights organisations and even opposing political candidates. However, the people of Georgia are not taking this shift lightly and have been protesting for months, with current escalations putting the EU on high alert and hindering Georgia’s pathway to full EU membership.

North America

In the United States, the Biden administration stated its intention to restore the country’s record on civil rights after many of these rights were attacked and eroded under the previous administration. Comparatively speaking, the United States has a stronger civil rights record than many other countries and the Biden administration has taken steps to repeal previous discriminatory policies towards LGBTQ2+ people and renewed legislation aimed at protecting women and minority groups. There is, however, room for improvement,and Supreme Court rulings have hampered past civil rights victories. The recent overturning of Roe v Wade threatens reproductive healthcare across the country and the ruling opens the door to attack other previous held rights, including same-sex and interracial marriage and the right to contraception. Additionally, the administration has failed to adopt and implement police oversight and accountability measures in the wake of protests against police violence and excessive use of force.

In Canada, new legislation passed to address discrimination against a range of marginalized groups including a bill to criminalize conversion therapy, a process that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or suppress a person’s gender identity or expression and a law implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, the government faced heavy criticism for its handling of issues regarding indigenous communities in the country, especially in the wake of a discovery of the remains of more than 1300 indigenous children buried at former residential schools. The authorities failed to fully implement and share a public timeline for dozens of calls to action and accountability measures and provincial governments continue to deny the existence of racism and discrimination against indigenous communities.

South/Latin America

South and Latin America are facing increasing civil rights problems and backsliding across the region. Leaders in the area, even democratically elected leaders, have attacked judicial independence, the media, and other civic spaces. These problems only persisted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Generally peaceful anti-government protests resulted in arbitrary detentions, while critics of the government face corrupt prosecutions and prolonged detainment. Unequal accessto the media, the suppression of select media, and threats against journalists have undermined freedom of expression. States have faced difficulties addressing many of these issues because of the judicial system's complicity in rights violations. Some countries have seen limited positive developments: Argentina passed a bill to legalize abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and four states in Mexico decriminalized abortion up to 12 weeks. The Mexican Senate also passed a reform to protect women from violence; Chile’s congress approved same-sex marriage, and Argentina became the first Latin American country to recognize non-binary gender identities in official identity documents.

Asia/The Pacific

The Asia-Pacific region saw already existing civil rights issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and government changes. A military coup in Myanmar resulted in hundreds of deaths and arbitrary detainments, while a government change in Afghanistan led to the suppression of women’s rights in the country. The Covid-19 pandemic served as a justification for governments to curtail rights and freedoms, including new laws that criminalized spreading “fake” information, efforts to silence critics and the media, and preventing and dispersing protests. Excessive force was used against peaceful protestors by the authorities, control of the media and internet by government officials increased, and critics were subjected to harsh punishments. The pandemic also worsened the situation of many women across the region, where they faced high levels of discrimination and gender-based violence. Additionally, the LGBTQ2+ and indigenous communities saw an increase in attacks against them.


The recognition of civil rights and democracy in Africa has been an ongoing struggle, with many countries facing frequent overthrows of the government. The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the status of civil rights among many countries in Africa. Government's efforts to curb the spread of the virus were used ass justification for suppressing many rights, including the right to dissent, expressions, and other freedoms. Governments banned protests, citing health and safety concerns, and used excessive force to break up protests when citizens defied the bans. Additionally, governments took a variety of measures to silence human rights defenders—such as arbitrary detention and prosecutions —, limit media freedom, and reduce civic space. Gender discrimination remains a problem, with limited access reproductive healthcare, early and forced marriages, and a spike in gender-based violence. The LGBTQ2+ community also faced continued harassment, arrest, and prosecution for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

On a more positive note, the organised civil rights movement in Senegal successfully hindered their previous president, Macky Sall, from harming their democracy when he announced that he would postpone the presidential election to December 2024. The quick negative reaction, especially from Senegal’s youth, reversed his decision and led to him declaring his intention to step down at the end of his term. This once again proves that Senegal remains one of the most stable democracies in Africa.

Further reading:

What is Freedom of Assembly: Definition, Importance, Limitations

Why We Should Value Our Civil Liberties

Lithuanian Parliament to Debate Law on Civil Unions

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