Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 10 (Fall 1997): Efforts, East and West, to Improve Human Rights Assessments: Articles: Human Rights for the Next Century

Sep 5, 1997

The traditional West-based human rights movement, which has emphasized civil and political rights, faces a critical challenge in the form of economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights. Just four years ago, then executive director of Human Rights Watch Aryeh Neier confidently asserted:

Human rights activists in a number of Third World countries, especially Asia, have long held the view that both kinds of concerns are rights. Their argument has not proved persuasive in the West, however, and none of the leading international nongovernmental groups concerned with human rights has become an advocate of economic and social rights.

Today some groups may not actively promote economic and social rights, but none would deny their existence or importance.

The human rights movement’s narrow focus on civil and political rights has been challenged by several factors: the end of the larger ideological conflict that extended into the field of human rights; the shrinking of traditional advocacy targets (fewer dictatorships and fewer prisoners of conscience); the rapid spread of civil liberties, particularly in Eastern Europe and Latin America; and the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor in most countries of the world, including the affluent West. Human rights groups are faced with the troubling compatibility of narrowly defined freedoms with brutal and rising poverty and human suffering.

Yet, the leading international NGOs are reluctant to embrace ESC rights. One important barrier is the cultural and ideological moorings of most international human rights NGOs, whose staff and boards are drawn from a group of liberal professional elites (lawyers, academics, journalists) sharing certain biases about individual liberties, property rights, and the rule of law. These biases are reinforced by personal interest and experience: while likely to empathize with the threat of censorship or repression, Western human rights activists are worlds removed from the dangers of homelessness, illiteracy, or malnutrition.

The NGOs also point to methodological and practical obstacles to working on ESC rights. On the one hand, they view economic and social rights standards as textually vague, scientifically imprecise, and judicially unenforceable; on the other, they see these rights as too political, partisan, and divisive and as likely to threaten the access to mainstream public constituencies, media, and policymakers that they have cultivated over the years. Finally, some NGOs argue that their expertise, contacts, and methods are geared solely toward civil and political rights advocacy and cannot be changed without significant investment.

The problem with these justifications is not so much that the largest groups, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI), exclusively focus on political and civil rights, but that they do so in the name of all human rights rather than of civil liberties alone. In capturing the lion’s share of available resources and dominating the popular discourse, these groups have imposed a vision of human rights that is at best neglectful and at worst hostile toward economic and social rights. While paving the way for traditional human rights advocacy, they have made it that much harder for those struggling to promote a broader understanding of rights and dignity that challenges ruling orthodoxy.

Yet despite this reluctance, there is an unmistakable trend among established human rights NGOs to address economic and social rights in some form. All groups now accept the theoretical validity of economic and social rights, and many are increasing attention to these rights in their educational programs. (AI, at least on paper, advocates the full range of human rights.) The People’s Decade of Human Rights Education, based in New York, helps grassroots groups to integrate economic and social rights considerations into their work on poverty and gender discrimination. Under the banner of “Human Rights USA,” an ambitious public education initiative covering all human rights has been launched by advocacy and social justice groups in the United States to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights in 1998. The prestigious Inter-American Institute of Human Rights included economic and social rights for the first time in its 1997 human rights summer program.

Among the larger groups, HRW has begun considering more direct advocacy of economic and social rights. Following a two-year internal review, HRW recently launched a one-year “experimental policy” that allows researchers to raise (but not explore) violations of economic and social rights when they are closely tied to a violation of civil and political rights, either as a significant factor in or an “immediate product of” the violation, and when there is a “clear, reasonable and practical” remedy. Other groups have addressed economic and social issues without straying from their traditional civil and political rights mandates. Physicians for Human Rights promotes health through a focus on freedom of information and protection for health workers, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights through its focus on the rule of law addresses economic actors like the World Bank and transnational corporations. However, neither organization actively campaigns around a right to health or food per se.

In contrast to these tentative steps, a growing number of human rights and social justice groups are beginning to engage in economic and social rights advocacy. Many of them have long been active in socioeconomic issues, but are just beginning to employ the formal rhetoric and instruments of the international human rights regime. Some of the most promising work in the field is centered around the principle of nondiscrimination, in part because of the overlap with civil and political rights. Women’s rights groups are investigating, monitoring, and promoting the full range of economic and social rights as they relate to both de jure and de facto gender inequalities. (See page 12.) Advocates for environmental justice and indigenous rights are focusing on the rights to health and a clean environment. The children’s rights movement, which enjoys strong international support and encompasses not only discrimination but also core levels of economic and social well-being, is also an arena with tremendous potential for economic and social rights advocacy.

Some of the most sophisticated advocates of ESC rights are international NGOs focused on single issues such as the rights to food, housing, health, and labor. These organizations—for example, Food Information Advocacy Network, Housing International Coalition, Center on Housing Rights and Evictions—have made significant advances toward developing international standards around these specific rights and in engaging the relevant UN bodies and mechanisms. Fewer international NGOs do systematic work around a broader range of rights. The Center for Economic and Social Rights has since 1993 undertaken projects in the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East that combine grassroots activism with social science within a framework of ESC rights. The center works with local groups and coalitions to strengthen popular demands for social justice and to advocate for policy changes.

The long-term hope for effective promotion of ESC rights lies with a growing number of national and local groups, particularly within developing countries, who have begun actively campaigning around poverty and development issues. The International Human Rights Internship Program, based in Washington, D.C., recently convened a workshop for local- and national-level activists working with ESC rights, and subsequently issued a report describing their various efforts. In Africa and Asia especially, local responses to persecution have not been subject to the dichotomies of individual versus community rights or political versus economic rights, so activists tend to adopt a holistic approach to human rights. In Asia a range of grassroots groups have incorporated ESC rights into their campaigns for social justice, as have government like the APEC forum. Latin American groups, most of which are cut from the Western model of advocacy, are increasingly incorporating economic and social rights into their regular practices.

These varied experiences provide signs of the issues that are likely to characterize future efforts to promote ESC rights, including:

  • greater emphasis on education to address the pervasive biases and ignorance about ESC rights;
  • less focus on courts and judicial remedies to accommodate the lack of judicial support and the more programmatic nature of the rights;
  • more leadership from grassroots organizations, representing the natural advocates of these rights;
  • less concern with the appearance of neutrality, or nonpartisanship;
  • less focus on state actors and more on transnational corporations, international financial institutions, and intergovernmental organizations; and
  • more South-North and coalition-based advocacy, which takes into account the international roots of violations and the need for multidisciplinary monitoring.

The human rights movement is clearly struggling to keep up with the pace of global change. Alex de Waal of the London-based Africa Rights recently wrote:

  • It is embarrassing to be a professional human rights activist in Africa. For ordinary people across the continent, talk of “human rights” is hollow. This is not only because gross abuses continue virtually unchecked, but because most of the work of human rights organisations is considered irrelevant or worse.

Fortunately, a new wave of human rights advocacy is already forming: a movement strengthened and broadened by its concern with the full range of human suffering.

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