Four Generations of Human Rights

In 1979 a Czech jurist Karel Vasak introduced the three generations of human rights. A close observation of these rights reveals that they correspond to the three tenets of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

There are two key reasons why they are termed as three ‘generations’ as opposed to ‘types’. One of the reasons is chronology, the first generation of rights emerged first, followed by the second and third generation of human rights. Another reason is that the generation of rights evolves and flows from the previous generation of rights.

Over time, the fourth generation of human rights has emerged. The following is an overview of the four generations of human rights.

Four Generations of Human Rights

Enlightenment (17th-18th Century)

The first tier or “generation” consists of civil and political rights and derives primarily from the seventeenth and eighteenth-century political theories noted earlier which are associated with the English, American, and French revolutions. Think “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This approach favors limiting government by placing restrictions on state action, imposing a negative duty on the government. The rights set forth in Articles 2-21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights include freedom from discrimination; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture and from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to a fair and public trial; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; and the right to participate in government through free elections. These rights are the starting point of all rights. They are termed as ‘selective rights’ as it pertains to freedom and liberty.

Socialist tradition (nineteenth century)

The second generation of human rights emerged when people realized that vulnerable people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder hardly have the leverage to exercise or have a full appreciation of their civic-political rights if they operate from a very weak social base. They can be easily manipulated by the well-resourced economic, social, and political classes or elite. The state should exercise positive discrimination that sometimes limits or encroach on first-generation human rights in order to affirmatively intervene on behalf of the vulnerable and historically marginalized.

Four Generations of Human Rights

It broadens the primarily political focus of earlier views to include economic, social, and cultural rights. This view originates primarily in the socialist traditions of Marx and Lenin. Rights are conceived more in positive rather than negative terms, and thus encourage the intervention of the state. Illustrative of these rights are Articles 22-27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They include the right to social security; the right to work; the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of self and family; and the right to education. Over time they have begun to receive widespread acceptance. They are termed as ‘welfare rights’ as it pertains to the development of the people.

The third generation of “solidarity rights” (twentieth century)

The third generation of human rights emerged with changing dimensions across the globe. The twentieth century suffered two World Wars and the effects of climate change became apparent. In such a situation, the states and citizens felt the need to not only be responsible towards their entire country but, the entire world. These views are a product of the rise and decline of the nation-state in the last half of the twentieth century. These rights remain somewhat controversial and debated. The specific rights include the right to political, economic, social, and cultural self-determination; and the right to participate in and benefit from “the common heritage of mankind.”

The third generation rights do not talk about the rights of a country’s citizens, but put emphasis on the universal citizen. They are termed as ‘solidarity rights’

Four Generations of Human Rights

Fourth Generation of human rights (twenty-first century)

The fourth generation of human rights was not included in Vasak’s original article.  The fourth generation of human rights emerged with rapid technological developments, there are growing concerns that technology may encroach human rights. Furthermore, since the current scenario requires the companies to either innovate or perish, it puts the workers in a vulnerable situation. They are forced to work extra hard and can lose their jobs in any movement. These situations gave rise to a new wave of human rights.

Four generation of rights in India

Out of the four generations, The Constitution of India has embraced the first three generations.  Many first and second-generation rights were included in the original Constitution while many came to be adopted later on through court judgments. In India, in 1975 the Supreme Court of India delivered the landmark judgment on citizen’s right to know in the State of U.P. v. Raj Narain, this gave birth to the Right to Information Act, 2005 which gave citizens the right to know about activities of the government.

The Supreme Court recognized the rights of future generations in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Taj Trapezium case) and in State of Himachal Pradesh v. Ganesh Wood Products. The Court invalidated the forest-based industry, recognizing the principle of inter-generational equity as being central to the conservation of forest resources and sustainable development. Among the Fourth generation of rights, India has proposed a Right to privacy bill which is yet to be passed.

Four Generations of Human Rights


Over the years, this theory has gained a lot of criticism. To start with the theory had no historical and analytical base. The theory relied heavily on French and American revolutions and disregarded the human rights struggles of other countries. As per the theory, civil and political rights are the most supreme of rights. Many believe that there is no supremacy among rights and all human rights are on the same level. Another criticism is that it is hard to determine in which generation a human right belongs to. For example, when the concept of ‘rights of future generations’ emerged in light of climate change, there was considerable debate on which generation did this category of human rights fell into.

One article claims ‘Vasak presented no arguments or explicit timeframe to contextualize the generational concept. He originally used a 30-year span dating back to the 1948 Universal Declaration, followed by the two Covenants from 1966. This version of the three generations theory was based on a post-1945 framing. Two years later, Vasak modified the theory by linking the three generations to the French Revolution’s three concepts of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité, thus backdating it another 150 years.’[i] Further claiming that the theory was a product of its time and not an actual theory of history.