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Time to address the economic and social rights deficit

An International Human Rights Day reflection

We live, it has been said, in an age of rights. Undoubtedly, the world is in many ways a more rights-respecting place now than when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 63 years ago to the day. Thanks to the tireless efforts of local human rights defenders and global movements such as Amnesty International, today’s governments are much less likely to imprison people for their beliefs or opinions, subject them to the death penalty or allow perpetrators of political killings and atrocities of war to escape justice. Human rights have become a marker of legitimate governance, and are a central point of reference in the foreign policy and justice system of practically every country across the globe.

But we also live in an age of austerity, in which many governments are rolling back social welfare gains, weakening labour protections and curtailing economic and social rights in the wake of the greatest global recession since the 1930s. How to balance the fiscal deficit, regulate the volatile financial sector and promote sustainable economic recovery are among the key policy challenges of our time, with profound human rights implications. Yet human rights are largely absent from the debate on these issues, whether at national level or in recent international forums such as the G20, the Busan conference on aid effectiveness or the EU Summit discussions on the European debt crisis.  

When it comes to economic and social policy, our leaders seem more concerned to heed the will of the markets than to protect the economic and social rights of their people. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “political leaders seem to have forgotten that health care, education, housing, and the fair administration of justice are not commodities for sale to the few, but rather rights to which all are entitled without discrimination. Anything we do in the name of economic policy or development should be designed to advance these rights and, at the very least, should do nothing to undermine their realization.”

Economic and social rights are neither new nor optional. The 1948 Universal Declaration proclaimed the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including food, housing, health and social security, as well as the right to education and to decent work in just conditions, placing these rights on an equal footing with civil and political freedoms. Its drafters sought to consign to history the abysmal levels of poverty, preventable disease and chronic hunger of the post-war world, as lethally tyrannous and crushing of human dignity as conflict, dictatorship and political repression. They would surely be shocked to see the scale of deprivation and inequality that persists amid the unprecedented affluence of the 21st century.

All states have ratified at least one of the core international treaties addressing economic, social and cultural rights, thereby committing to honour the binding legal obligations these set out. Many have enshrined these rights in their national constitutions. Over the last 20 years there has been steady progress in claiming and enforcing the rights to health, education and housing (among others) through domestic courts and international bodies. The impact of legal enforcement has been literally life saving. A new UN complaints mechanism on economic, social and cultural rights, adopted three years ago today, is likely to enter into force next year - a major sign that states are committed to closing the gap in legal protection afforded to these rights.

But economic and social rights must be realized through policy as well as law. Ministers of finance and other key economic and social policymakers seem oblivious to the economic and social rights commitments their countries have signed up to. Yet these must serve as guiding principles of any economic recovery strategy. At the very least, human rights mark a set of red lines which should not be crossed even in times of economic recession: policy efforts should not have discriminatory effects or represent deliberate backsliding on rights; available resources should be maximized through progressive tax reform as well as more equitable spending; and certain minimums, such as guaranteeing a universal social protection floor, must be safeguarded and prioritized in all circumstances.

Matters of economic policy are not the sole preserve of technocrats. They cannot be shielded from citizen scrutiny and participation. There is an increasing clamour for a fairer alternative to the prevailing policy orthodoxy which dictates austerity measures for the majority while protecting the privileges of economic elites. Policymakers must heed these calls for a rights-centred approach to economic and social policy. If they do not, the age of rights may not survive these times of austerity.