Civil liberties are guarantees of freedom from government interference that prevent the government from placing restrictions on many individual actions and choices. However, individuals live in communities, or groups of people with shared interests and values, and their actions within their communities affect other people. Community responsibilities are an individual’s duties or obligations to the community—those things that are expected of individuals if they wish to remain members of that community.
Most countries have a formal constitution—a framework, blueprint, or foundation for the operation of a government. A constitution may be expressed in terms of negative rights, when it is written in a way that emphasizes limitations on the government, or positive rights, when it is written to emphasize the government’s obligation to guarantee the people’s rights. The amount of freedom of action that a constitution guarantees the individual varies by political system.
Individualist systems emphasize the importance of individuals over the importance of the community, while communitarian systems emphasize community cohesiveness while also recognizing the importance of individual freedoms. Countries vary in terms of the nature and degree to which they stress individualism or communitarianism.
Constitutionalism has three main elements: adherence to the rule of law, limited government, and guarantees of individual rights. The rule of law requires that government and private actors be held accountable under the law; that laws be clear, publicized, stable, and applied evenly; that the processes by which laws are enacted, administered, and enforced be accessible, fair, and efficient; and that justice be delivered in a timely manner by competent, ethical, and independent representatives who are accessible, have adequate resources, and reflect the communities they serve.
Due process is a legal requirement that the government respect the rights of the people. Procedural due process concerns the written guidelines for how the government interacts with a person, while substantive due process concerns the individual’s right to be treated fairly when interacting with the government.
The most fundamental aspect of civil liberty is the right to privacy—that is, the right to be free from interference in thought, speech, and actions. Each society interprets what is acceptable and when there is a compelling reason for the government to place restrictions on personal decisions. Interpretations of the right to privacy change over time and vary widely around the world.
The right to free expression of ideas includes the right to free speech and the right to the free exercise of religion. Freedom of expression and religion are not absolute. Even in countries with extensive speech protections, certain types of speech, including libel, slander, obscenity, fighting words or threats, inciting lawless conduct, breach of national security or classified information, disclosures that impact the right of privacy, and perjury, are not protected.
While liberal democracies tolerate the free expression of ideas, many such countries place restrictions on the expression of ideas that are considered intolerant and in conflict with the public good. This intolerant stance on views that a government deems intolerant is referred to as the paradox of tolerance.
Freedom of movement can be divided into two categories: the freedom to move about within one’s home country and the freedom to move internationally. Around the world, international travel is more strictly regulated than domestic travel. Migration differs from international travel because the individual does not intend to return to their starting point. Immigration laws, refugee status, and open borders are all areas of intense debate surrounding the freedom of movement.
The rights of the accused are intended to protect individuals if their freedom is at stake. In rule-of-law countries, police must advise individuals at the time of their arrest that they have the right to remain silent, anything they say can be used against them in court, they have a right to legal counsel, and they have a right to defend themselves in court. In all rule-of-law countries, a person held in jail has a right to demand to be brought into court and told why they are being jailed.
Many human rights organizations assert that environmental damage, including climate change, is a violation of human rights because it impacts the ability of people to live safe and healthy lives. As climate change becomes an increasingly urgent issue, the implications for human rights will be a growing area of political and legal debate.