Economic and Social Rights in Transitional Contexts

Countries emerging from situations of conflict or authoritarian rule often pass through a period of unique transition, as new constitutions are drafted, state institutions are designed and past injustices are addressed. Decisions taken during such periods can have far reaching consequences in the lives of both current and future generations.

States undergoing political transitions also tend to have high rates of poverty and inequality, along with weak economies, all of which present urgent and immediate challenges for just and equitable development. For this reason, it is critically important that economic and social rights standards be properly considered, and implemented, in these contexts. In the past, transitional justice practitioners have generally prioritized civil and political rights over economic and social rights, and in so doing they have often failed to tackle the root causes of conflicts or crises, such as socio-economic inequality and corruption, or the primary concerns of people and communities. Not infrequently, the end result is a fragile peace that sets the stage for persistent socio-economic injustice and neglect of economic and social rights.

Recent years have seen a growing consensus that transitional justice must tackle structures of exclusion and discrimination if it is to produce the kind of transformation that is required. To this end, building on our past work in countries in transition, CESR is currently undertaking initial research for a thematic project  exploring how  economic and social policies are constrained or transformed by the transitional context, and how economic and social rights are prioritized or sidelined over the longer-term course of the transitional process.

This means identifying the institutional requirements, reforms and social mechanisms necessary to tackle past economic and social rights violations and set the stage for structural reforms. Building on our pioneering work on fiscal policy and human rights, we also seek to shine a light on how and from whom resources are mobilized and spent during political transitions, and the implications this may have from a human rights perspective. Our work in transitional contexts further tackles the crucial matter of accountability, asking whether there has been adequate investigation, reparation and remedy for past violations of these rights, and if proper systems are being put in place for the future.

Local actors need the skills and expertise to determine how state institutions – especially those dealing with development, economic and fiscal policy – should be rebuilt in order to provide for economic and social rights. They must also be empowered to monitor – and where necessary challenge – commitments to donors and international financial institutions that might undermine the human rights of ordinary people.

The largely unfulfilled promise of the Arab Spring, together with continuing instability in both the Middle East and many other parts of the world, has thrown the spotlight on the importance of inclusive and holistic transitional processes. Most importantly, delivering the kind of equitable and just institutions that are the necessary building blocks of a fairer society requires that economic and social rights standards be properly incorporated from the outset. As such, more effective economic and social rights protection and fulfilment are crucial not only to building a better society, but also for delivering the stability and sustainability so desperately needed.