The debate about whether the rights of the individual should assume precedence over the rights of the society continues to attract interest from scholars, legal practitioners, politicians and other mainstream commentators.
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These rights, popularly known as civil liberties, are enshrined in the constitutions of many progressive countries around the world, and function to provide individuals with freedoms to do certain things without restraint from their respective governments. The present paper aims to employ the justice perspective to evaluate if the rights of the individual are more supreme than the rights of the society.
Civil liberties have been described as an assortment of rights and freedoms that act to provide an individual with specific inalienable rights safeguarded by the constitution.
Although the scope and usage of the term varies between countries, some well-known civil liberties point to the direction that individual rights should take precedence over the rights of the society. For example, countries such as Iran and North Korea have considerably constrained individual rights of their citizens, including the freedom of conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association.
As a result of this suppression, individuals in these countries remain totally disillusioned and helpless in the face of anarchy and despondency dressed as socialism or social democracy. Such scenarios send a strong message that the rights of the society cannot be seen to exist independently of the rights of the individual. From the Supreme Court jurisdiction, therefore, it is plausible to first guarantee the rights of the individuals because society is non-existent without the citizenry.
Some scholars and mainstream commentators have argued that the key to finding a successful, productive society is striking a balance between the inherent civil liberties of the individual and the rights of the society. But while this argument seems attractive in every sense, it should be remembered that in many cases the rights of the society encroaches on the rights of individuals, rendering them ineffective to enjoy basic inalienable rights such as the right to own property and the right to a fair trial in a court of law.
In developing countries in Africa and Asia, we have heard of cases where government machinery subjects the citizenry to untold suffering to silence them from exercising their constitutionally given freedoms of association and expression. Such blatant abuse of individual rights to protect the rights of a minority in the society serves to demonstrate that that the rights of individuals should always be upheld if they do not encroach on the rights and freedoms of other individuals.
Lastly, it is important to mention that the good of the society can only be achieved by upholding the rights of individuals and not vice-versa. Although individual rights must be intrinsically related to doing what is most beneficial to the society, they must be guaranteed and safeguarded on primal basis to ensure the birth and existence of the society.
Once the existence of the society is guaranteed, individuals residing in this society must participate in making formal rules and laws that guard against some people who would want to encroach on the rights and freedoms of others. It is for this reason that we have the society and its system of legal justice. Consequently, as Supreme Court justice, it would be plausible to first guarantee the rights of individuals as doing so would automatically guarantee the rights and freedoms of the society.