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US Must Change Position on Economic and Social Rights


United States

It's ironic that the United States, a country which played such a historic role in affirming economic and social rights internationally, should now be one of the most resistant to applying these rights at home.
The inclusion of economic and social rights in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) owes much to the commitment of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the indivisibility of all human rights. Yet more than 60 years on, the United States has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR) and other key human rights treaties that translate these guarantees into binding international law. The United States' traditional resistance to economic and social rights arises from the fact that health, education, housing and other social goods have tended to be seen by successive governments as market commodities rather than as rights which the state has the duty to respect, protect and fulfill.
The United States ranks bottom of 24 OECD countries in the Economic and Social Rights Fulfillment Index, developed by academics at the University of Connecticut and the New School, N.Y., which compares states' achievements in light of their resources.

The consequences of this approach are revealed in CESR's new fact sheet on the United States (highlighted below). The country with the world's wealthiest economy has one of the worst records on economic and social rights among high-income countries.

Inequalities in the enjoyment of the rights to health and education are in some cases more striking than in notoriously unequal societies in the global south. Ethnic disparities in U.S. maternal death rates are wider than those in Guatemala, for example.

The passage of a health care reform package by the Obama administration raised hopes in some quarters of a more rights-based approach to social policy. The extension of health insurance coverage is based on an implicit recognition that all individuals, regardless of income, need affordable access to essential health care. But the reforms fall far short of recognizing those needs as rights. The role of government policy is still limited to minor tinkering with the market rather than guaranteeing all have access to health care without discrimination, and putting in place the redistributive measures necessary to reduce disparities and progressively realize the right to health of everyone.

A symbolic but significant step towards aligning U.S. policy with its human rights commitments would be the ratification of the ICESCR and other core treaties relating to economic and social rights. Not only would it enable those in the United States denied these rights to claim them domestically; it would do much to repair the protective framework of international law, damaged by the United States' continued isolationism. Ratification is one of a range of key demands being made by human rights groups in the United States and worldwide in the run up to the country's appearance before the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council later this year. This is a rare opportunity to press the Obama administration to bring U.S. economic and social policy into line with the vision and values of the UDHR.