Social justice through economic and social rights

The SI Committee on Human Rights, SICOHR, has decided to focus on economic and social rights. Thomas Hammarberg, a Swedish member of the Committee and former Secretary General of Amnesty International, explains why

Issue 3, Volume 47, 1998

Social justice is a key principle for democratic socialist parties. Promoting international commitments on economic and social rights is therefore natural for the Socialist International. A rights-based approach to development and poverty eradication is not about need but about denial of a person's basic rights.

Economic and social rights are defined - together with civil and political rights - in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. `Freedom from want' inspired the drafting of the Declaration as much as the quest for freedom from fear and for freedom to speech and religion. The economic and social rights are listed, in more detail, in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. They include the right to social security, the right to adequate living standards, the right to be protected from hunger, the right to adequate housing, the right to health, protection for the family, the right to freely enter into marriage, the right to work and the right to rest and leisure.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has now been ratified by 137 states. With this Convention as a basis, there are articles on economic, social and cultural rights incorporated into subsequent conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of Women and on the Rights of the Child.

The conventions of the International Labour Organisation (see below), ILO, cover a number of rights in the field of employment and working conditions. The European Social Charter (see below) contains - as rights - provisions on labour market policy, working conditions, worker safety, the right of association and the right to negotiate, social insurance and other social security arrangements and also family policy. It also has provisions on the right to protection for migrating workers and their families.

All human rights are important. An emphasis on economic and social rights does not imply any downgrading of other rights. In fact, the various rights are interdependent and parts of the same whole, as the United Nations has stated in a number of resolutions. It has been emphasised that a human being is an entity, and a human life in dignity presupposes that all rights are respected. Indeed, these statements have come about as a reaction to the fact that the economic and social rights have been afforded, in practice, lower priority than other rights and sometimes even been described as ambitions rather than as real rights.

The division of the different rights that occurred when the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was followed up with two covenants instead of one ~ namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This has probably contributed to the low priority, so far, of economic and social rights in the international human rights discussion.

Another reason might be that economic and social rights could be politically sensitive, particularly in periods of structural adjustment and economic reform. Issues such as employment and working conditions, health care, education and provisions for adequate living standards tend to be controversial in the national political discussion in many countries. However, this is no rational basis for treating economic, social and cultural rights as less important or as radically different from other rights. Especially not for democratic socialists.

Another argument against seeing economic and social rights as rights has been that the obligations are difficult to define and translate into law. This is only partly true. Equality between the sexes, equal pay for equal work, trade union rights to enable workers to assert their claims, the right to schooling together with the protection of children against exploitation are examples of manifest claims for rights that can be reflected in legal norms. In fact, it is important that they are. However, other rights cannot as easily be given legal form, at least not in a detailed form. This is no reason to downgrade their importance. Law is only one aspect of implementation, other means are available to encourage and monitor compliance.

One aspect which always can and should be monitored is whether the rights are enjoyed by everyone. Prohibition of discrimination is central to all human rights conventions. The principle of non-discrimination is repeated in individual articles. One example is standards relating to working conditions which provide for equal pay for work of equal value. The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights rules that women, in particular, should be guaranteed conditions of work `not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work'.

The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights emphasises efforts to move in the direction of full implementation of these standards. The key formulation included in Article 2 of the Covenant states the obligation of States parties:

`Each State party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps individually and through international assistance and cooperation ... to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures...'

This means that all available resources, irrespective of whether they are internal or derived from assistance, must be utilised to the maximum in order that the rights should gradually be realised. States must thus strive to attain the goal as soon as and as efficiently as possible; it cannot postpone the realisation of the norms in the Covenant indefinitely. Also, it should be able to demonstrate that it is taking steps towards full implementation. For this, the definition of socio-economic indicators is particularly important; such benchmarks are available today not least in the field of health and education.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (see below) - which monitors the realisation of the Covenant - has developed a two-pronged approach. All states, irrespective of their economic circumstances, must guarantee a minimum acceptable standard (minimum core entitlement) which corresponds with a particular obligation for the state (minimum obligation). At the same time the rights shall be realised by utilising to the maximum the available resources of the country, which means that the level of, for example, education and health care should be higher in richer countries.

Not only are social and socio-economic issues important in national debates. They are also of decisive importance to the international community, as was demonstrated at the UN summit meeting on social development in Copenhagen in 1995. The principles and obligations that state and government leaders agreed upon mean, in practice, a renewed rallying behind several economic and social rights.

The summit meeting, the main theme of which was the battle against poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, resulted in the Copenhagen Declaration and a number of obligations that closely correspond with the right to adequate living standards, the right to work and the right to social security. Furthermore, the Declaration states generally that human rights are an important foundation for social advance.

Other major World Conferences during the 1990s have discussed economic and social rights: the Vienna conference on human rights, the Istanbul summit on habitat, the Cairo conference on population issues and the Beijing conference on women and gender equality. This has contributed to the fact that several major international organisations already focus on economic and social issues in their programmes. These include specialist bodies, the funds and the special programmes together with some of the departments within the Secretariat. There is a trend towards applying a rights perspective.

The operations within the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, FAO, are linked to the right to food; the World Health Organisation, WHO, emphasises the right to health more than previously; the ILO develops the right to employment and acceptable working conditions; and the UN Education Social and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, works within the field of the right to education and culture.

The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, last year adopted a mission statement that laid down the rights of the child as the aim of the organisation and nowadays uses the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its reporting processes as a basis for its programme dialogue with governments. The UN Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, uses the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms Discrimination against Women in a similar manner.

In fact, the significance of the social and economic rights has been manifest as regards children. As mentioned above, the rights of the child to education has influenced UNESCO's programmes heavily and also impacted on the 1970 World Conference on Education for Everyone. The right to health is another important dimension in the Convention on the Rights of the Child which had an impact within both UNICEF's and WHO's programmes. The rights perspective has thus provided particular weight to demands for reforms.

A further example is the right of children not to be exploited in dangerous work. The Convention on the Rights of the Child lays down that the child must be protected against work that interrupts schooling or injures the development and health of the child. In particular, the ILO pursues these demands through concrete work on the creation of norms and development assistance programmes. It has also been of use that these also relate to rights. In the same manner the UN work for gender equality received a boost by emphasising the rights of individual women. This became clear at the world conference in Beijing 1995.

In his plan for the renewal and the organisation and programmes of the UN, the Secretary-General decided that human rights should permeate the activities of the whole UN system. This is obviously of significance also for the UN Development Programme, UNDP, particularly in its role as a coordinating factor within the system, not least at country level. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and bilateral donors have emphasised the relationship between economic growth, democracy, a functioning legal system, effective administration and respect for human rights. Loans or contributions are sometimes given subject to conditions for the implementation of improvements as regards human rights. This integrated approach has resulted in countries asking the UN for technical assistance aimed at reinforcing protection for human rights. This is an interesting development.

The conclusion of these developments is that the world conferences and the Secretary-General's reform plan have encouraged the integration of economic and social rights into the core of the UN and its programmes. This in turn gives them a higher priority.

Democratic socialist parties do campaign on social justice in country after country. They all struggle, for instance, against unemployment and for a decent standard of living. They do that with a credibility - earned through years of hard and competent work - which no other political movement can match.

A determined rights approach to the economic and social issues is consistent with these campaigns for social justice. Also, it might be effective to connect, in the domestic discussion, to the international human rights standards.


Box 1 UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights monitors the implementation in States of the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The review of the national State party reports is the primary task of the Committee.

The Committee has a difficult task in finding suitable methods and criteria when reviewing the compliance of various States with the Covenant. It is important that the Committee strives both to determine the extent to which the Covenant has been implemented and, when appropriate, to point out violations. Yet in a constructive spirit it endeavours to establish a dialogue with the governing party about possible means of realising the articles of the Covenant. This might be meaningful also in a development cooperation perspective.

It is possible for the Committee to take the matter further with UN bodies that have development cooperation programmes. One such link between normative review and operative support operations can result from the Secretary-General's reform programme for improved integration and collaboration of programmes within the UN system. However, it would be misdirected to make development cooperation a standard response to inadequate compliance, even for the poor countries. Assistance does not work if there is no political will for change.

The Committee needs support in its efforts to develop a dialogue with states concerning the implementation of the Covenant. The Committee should be allocated resources to implement its review task, and ensuing proposals concerning special studies should be considered in a positive spirit.

Continued discussion is necessary about methods to monitor compliance with economic, social and cultural rights, inter alia, by the definition of social indicators. The work of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in that connection deserves support.



Box 2 The rights work of the International Labour Organisation

Based in Geneva, the ILO plays a central role in the work for economic and social rights. For almost 80 years, tripartite cooperation between governments, employers and labour organisations has been conducted within the framework of the ILO, which has resulted in approximately 180 conventions and even more recommendations concerning labour and social issues. As one of the UN's specialist bodies, the ILO actively participated in the preparation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and has in recent years closely monitored the activities of the Covenant Committee.

The ILO's operations are based on conventions with an advanced monitoring system - based apolitically on expertise - in the form of reporting and complaints procedures and the organisation has a central function to take part in debates on human rights in a global economy. As regards norms, the ILO conventions with their detailed form provide guidance on interpreting the more generally framed articles of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

A campaign is organised for the ratification of the organisation's seven key ILO conventions relating to human rights; Conventions 87 and 98 on Freedom of Association and Negotiating Rights: Conventions 29 and 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labour; Conventions 100 and 111 on Non-discrimination in Working Life and also Convention 138 on Minimum Working Ages. This campaign deserves support, as does the proposal for a declaration to promote these minimum core standards; they are so fundamental that they should be regarded as binding on all ILO member countries.

The ILO project to prepare special rules to inhibit the worst forms of child labour is urgent. It should cover situations hazardous to the health and development of children as well as work which prevents them from any schooling.

The ILO norms are important for operations conducted by other relevant international organisations, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the regional development banks. For instance, the decision within the World Trade Organisation, WTO, on dialogue with the ILO on labour law issues should be pursued.



Box 3 The European Social Charter

Alongside the European Convention on Human Rights there has existed since 1961 a European Social Charter prepared by the Council of Europe. This states in the form of rights, rules concerning labour market policy, working conditions, employee protection, rights of association and negotiation, social insurance, family policy etc. Following a review of the Charter, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe decided in 1996 to adopt a revised social charter, which has not yet come into force. The revised European Social Charter contains further rights regarding, inter alia, equality for workers with family responsibilities, protection against sexual and other harassment in the workplace and also the right of elderly people to social security, to housing and to protection against poverty and social exclusion.

The Social Charter has two additional protocols, one of which concerns collective complaints procedures and was adopted in 1995.

There is significant similarity between the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the first part of the European Social Charter as regards the catalogue of rights. These are followed, in the second part of the Charter, by regulations about what parties should be considered bound to do in order to realise the rights articles formulated more as principles.

The mechanism that is now used to monitor compliance with the Charter is the reviewing of Convention states' reports on the application of the Charter. In addition to this there will be collective complaints procedures when they have come into force, which is expected to happen during 1998.

The additional protocol on collective complaints procedures provides an opportunity for international and national labour and employer organisations as well as international non-governmental organisations with consultative status in the Council of Europe to submit complaints about alleged unsatisfactory application of the Charter. The State parties can also grant other national non-governmental organisations the right to complain.

Complaints can relate to laws and practices that are considered to contravene the rules of the Charter. The right to complain, however, does not cover individual cases.

The work within the Council of Europe on the revised Social Charter and the additional protocol on collective complaints has been important. The development of this European mechanism for social rights should also be of importance for future discussions on social issues within the EU. Indeed, there was a reference to the European Social Charter in the EU Treaty adopted in 1997 in Amsterdam.



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