All human rights for all

Posted: 13 December 2012 in Uncategorized

Droits Humains

After reading Miles Corak’s attempt to teach human rights advocates “the right way to think about social and economic rights”—based on what he considers to be “one of the first principles” of economics, “the idea that social and individual decisions involve trade-offs between competing ends”—I turned to Marianne Schulze, a prominent human rights consultant and advocate, for a response. I am pleased to publish her guest post here.

In a piece on the occasion of Human Rights Day 2012, Corak suggests that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the adoption of which is celebrated on that day, should be read through the lens of economists rather than lawyers. While it is true that the “rights” language has made human rights a domain of lawyers, advocacy for implementation has always been the forte of many disciplines, including, notably anthropologists, social workers, teachers, medical doctors, and many others. That the views of these and other professions need to be utilized far more in the implementation of rights should be a given—based on common sense.

Challenges around human rights’ implementation are thankfully increasingly informed by inter-disciplinary approaches. Basing public budgeting on human rights principles is as much an issue of contemporary debates as is the usage of indicators–importantly, qualitative as well as quantitative indicators. The appreciation for the importance of such non-legal approaches is evident in the way that the treaty bodies, charged with reviewing human rights implementation in the Member States of the now eight core human rights covenants, use indicators and show an increased interest in public spending. Surely also spurred by the current “crisis,” there is an avid interest in the impact of spending cuts on the upholding of human rights obligations. Several human rights experts have spoken out on the need to stay true to commitments made, not just in times of crises but specifically because of the challenges posed by such crises.

Corak refers to the principle of “progressive realization,” which the pertinent treaty body has explained as obliging Member States to realize rights “over time,” providing for “necessary flexibility”–given the nature of economic, social and cultural rights–but at its core creating an obligation to “respect the full realization of the rights in question.” “It imposes an obligation to move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards that goal. Moreover, any deliberately retrogressive measures in that regard would require the most careful consideration and would need to be fully justified by reference to the totality of the rights provided for in the Covenant and in the context of the full use of the maximum available resources.”

The “universality, indivisibility, interrelatedness and interdependent” nature of human rights was proclaimed almost two decades ago. Just four years after the end of the Cold War, which had held the development of rights hostage to “larger” political considerations, the World Conference on Human Rights was held. The subsequent Declaration reiterated the obvious fact: the fulfillment of individual human rights depends on all other rights; there are no hierarchies among rights.

In that vein, it is a more than a bit surprising to read that Corak believes that the distinction between economics, social, and cultural rights, on one hand, and political and civil rights, on the other hand, can be maintained. The fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights necessarily entails costs–but so does the implementation of civil and political rights. For example, the freedom of assembly, a “classic” civil and political right, is as dependent on the existence of an executive–a rule-of-law-based police force–and a functioning judiciary, as the right to food is on a whole set of institutions geared toward enabling the implementation of that basic need and right, respectively.

The important role of economic, social and cultural rights has in the past also been recognized in the United States. Think, for example, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights.”

The current crises exacerbate a range of challenges in human rights implementation. All the more important to seize instruments such as qualitative indicators and the application of human rights principles for public budgeting. A sustainable way of doing so is the participation of all–government, civil society organizations, other stake-holders, and yes even economists–in the framing and design of policy. The latest core human rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, sets the bar by making participation one of its general principles as well as an obligation on Member States.

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