Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 2 (Fall 1995): About the Human Rights Initiative: Articles: On Social and Economic Rights

Sep 4, 1995

  • "As prime minister of Singapore, my first task was to lift my country out of the degradation that poverty, ignorance, and disease had wrought. Since it was dire poverty that made for such a low priority given to human life, all other things became secondary." –Lee Kuan Yew

Asian rhetoric tends to embrace the ideals of social and economic rights, witnessed by China's espousal of marxist idealism or Lee Kuan Yew s emphasis on social welfare. A few Asian states that have achieved rapid economic growth, such as Taiwan and Singapore, have succeeded in minimizing the disparity between rich and poor. In general, however, the rise of capitalism as the leading ideology of the global economy has led states to pursue a market-oriented approach whose ultimate goal is the concentration of national wealth, and not its distribution. The degree to which wealth will trickle down from a capitalist-oriented economy remains to be seen. While economic development in countries as poor as those of Asia is vital, it cannot be equated with social and economic rights, and this distinction should be made clear. It is likely that the asian argument for economic and social rights first is a reaction to the hegemony of american liberalist ideology, which stresses civil and political rights. It highlights the fact that even the United States, the dominant voice for human rights on the international stage, fails to fully comply with the universal declaration of human rights in this area. The rise in homelessness, the growing numbers of people without health-care coverage, and the seeming indifference of the American elite to the widening gap between rich and poor are all testimony to the truth in these allegations. Indeed, America's poor performance on economic and social rights today damages its credibility as a spokesperson for human rights and its claim to the universal application of rights as enunciated in the UDHR.

Despite the fact that the UDHR established the right to adequate levels of food, nutrition, health, housing, and conditions of work, social and economic rights have failed to gain the same degree of moral force as civil and political rights. But this may be changing as a greater transnational effort is made to ensure a wide array of rights, such as the cultural rights of indigenous people and the social right to universal health care. Issues traditionally perceived as distinctly national are now being reconceptualized as matters of international concern. At the core of these concerns is the concept that an individual has certain inalienable rights to a secure life, and that this right must be upheld not only in theory but also, most significantly, in practice. It is incumbent upon the state to ensure this. Herein lies a conceptual challenge to the bridging of civil and political rights with economic and social rights. Political and civil rights are commonly perceived as negative rights or an injunction against the state not to take a certain action. On the other hand, social, economic, and cultural rights are seen as positive rights or demands upon the state for goods and services.

This may not be, however, entirely accurate. It is the state's role not only to ensure the provision of economic and social goods, but also to ensure the protection of such goods, and that they not be unjustly denied by tyrannical forces—exploitative capitalistic ventures or militant, reactionary groups. For example, the state must not only safeguard a community's ability to procure basic supplies such as food and water, but must ensure that those supplies are not damaged or threatened by oil contamination. The state as both provider and protector of material goods creates an inherent tension that makes the indivisibility of these two sets of rights problematic. It is worth remembering that human rights sprang in part from the desire in the west to secure free markets. The intention was to prevent the state from impinging on the individual's search for economic progress. Therefore, in theory it is difficult to conceive of the state intervening to safeguard social and economic rights. On the other hand, a corporatist state, which is given greater authority in matters of commerce, is positioned to ensure a higher degree of social welfare. The downside is the tendency for such states to overextend their power in the political sphere. Communist China is the obvious example. Thus, there is a crucial conceptual difficulty in realizing the full set of ideals embodied in the UDHR; ultimately it depends upon what balance of power a society decides to allot to the state. Jack Donnelly, a member of the Council s human rights project, makes a counterargument to the basic contradiction between capitalism and marxist-oriented ideology. Presenting a liberal interpretation of John Locke's philosophy, Donnelly argues that within liberalism there is space for social and economic rights. In universal human rights in theory and practice, donnelly states that "the related argument that liberalism does (or can consistently) recognize only civil and political rights is clearly without basis; the right to private property is manifestly an economic or social, not a civil or political, right." Donnelly, therefore, argues against "restricting liberalism to what locke wrote, and nothing more (or less)." By conceptualizing liberalism more broadly, this view avoids the inherent contradiction between market capitalism and social and economic rights. A nation's vision of human rights reflects its culture and ethical priorities. While until now primarily civil and political rights have made their way into the popular consciousness, in both east and west human rights should be just as much about social and economic livelihood. The challenge lies in defining the normative standards of a society that puts such ideals into practice. Linking social and economic rights to political rights is essential for human rights to genuinely fulfill the holistic vision of the UDHR, but it is a complex enterprise under any conditions, made especially more so in a society where liberalism dominates. So far, only western Europe has been able to approach the delicate balance among socialism, capitalism, and democracy.

These issues were discussed at a workshop on social and economic rights, cosponsored by the Carnegie Council and the Center for Economic and Social Rights (New York). The workshop was held at the Carnegie Council's Merrill House headquarters on July 21, 1995.

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