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Civil rights are those rights and protections given to a person to enable them fully to participate in civic life, such as the right to vote and the right to be free from arbitrary detention. They are part of the pantheon of human rights that all people should enjoy, and are considered equal to political rights, cultural rights, economic rights and social rights.
The term has received its greatest usage and exposure in the United States where, to the wonderment and disgust of the rest of the civilized world (and a fair portion of the uncivilized world), in spite of the opening statement in their Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," the U.S. institutionalized, in law, discrimination of the most basic and puerile kind which took nearly 200 years to dismantle.
Attempts had been made during that time to criminalize racism but as history and examples such as the Civil Rights Cases demonstrate, these attempts were not successful. The dismantling really began in earnest with the 1964 passing of the Civil Rights Act which outlawed segregation in U.S. schools and public places. In spite of the change to the law, which gave blacks some of the same civil rights as whites, the changes foreshadowed by the Act often had to be won again in the court room or by massed action to have the Act enforced.
Once the worst of the racial discrimination was criminalized, the fight then moved to other arenas, particularly that of the rights of women, the minefield of abortion, and equal rights for homosexuals.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
This delightful treaty is generally considered the benchmark for the protection of civil rights internationally, and was adopted by the UN in 1966 and came into force in 1976, after enough states got their ass in gear. When signed and ratified by a state, it requires that state to provide periodic updates to the UN Human Rights Committee on how they are protecting the rights contained within and what they intend to do to improve in the future. The First Optional Protocol also empowers individuals in states that have signed up to it to petition the Human Rights Committee directly once all domestic remedies have been exhausted.
The vast majority of countries in the world are signed up to the ICCPR. The US waited till after Cambodia, Albania, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Rwanda and Lebanon before getting around to ratifying it, which proves two things:
- International treaties do fuck all to actually give rights to the people of the states that sign up; and
- Americans couldn't care less about rights not thought up by other Americans.
China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and a handful of others have still yet to become full members of the Covenant (which might be good, because that sounds creepy), preferring instead to display their collective brown starfish at the rest of the international community. Interestingly, North Korea ratified it, and they've been whining about the decision since the late 1990s.
The problem is that U.S. violates the shit out of this treaty. 
- The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription, Archives.gov
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, OHCHR
- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and North Korea, Brookings Institution
- https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/irrc_857_zayas.pdf[corrupted PDF]