Introduction: Efforts, East and West, to Improve Human Rights Assessments

Human Rights Dialogue 1.10 (Fall 1997) "Efforts, East and West, to Improve Human Rights Assessments"

September 5, 1997

Much of the debate over human rights and “Asian values,” which was the impetus for the Carnegie Council’s three-year Human Rights Initiative, has hinged on arguments over the relative importance countries assign to different categories of rights. Some nations, like Singapore, have sought to justify the suppression of individual civil and political rights on the grounds that rights should be limited in order to maintain a level of economic development that will advance the overall well-being of their citizens. Proponents of Asian values have been able to use the international community’s general neglect of economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights to their advantage. Without systematic and effective monitoring and assessment of internationally agreed-upon ESC rights, how can rights trade-off arguments be challenged? Targeted states can easily cite in their defense biased and arbitrary human rights assessments that do not account for economic, social, and cultural rights.

Assessing a state's compliance with any single human rights obligation raises numerous difficulties. Assessment assumes that there are fair, adequate, and appropriate criteria on which to base judgments, along with resources to collect reliable data. Judgments cannot easily escape subjectivity, and certainly judgments about human rights are affected by international politics and economics. Data, in turn, must be as free as possible of statistical and other biases. Even with these constraints, reports on and assessments of civil and political rights do take place, while mechanisms for reporting on and assessing ESC rights are still being developed. Assessing a country’s overall human rights performance is even more difficult because it involves weighing the realization of one right against that of another, or against other national interests.

One of the fundamental principles of international human rights norms is that the two general categories of human rights established in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible. This principle was restated at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and stressed by Asian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the regional meeting on human rights that preceded the Vienna conference.

In practice, however, the two categories of rights are not treated equally by governments, international organizations, or NGOs. The United States, for example, has yet to ratify the ICESCR: the question is still “under study” by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Around the world, civil and political rights have received more attention than ESC rights, in the form of data collection, monitoring, and advocacy. They have been subject to greater legal codification and judicial interpretation. It is widely believed that only civil and political rights can be subject to violation, monitoring, assessment, redress, and legal scrutiny. ESC rights are seen as secondary, unenforceable, and nonjusticiable, even by states parties—countries that have ratified the ICESCR.

Monitoring under ICESCR, crucial to the creation of a more meaningful international human rights regime, is hampered by the notion of “progressive realization,” the standard currently used to assess state compliance. Governments have interpreted their obligation under the covenant “to [achieve] progressively the full realization of the rights” according to the “maximum available resources” as implying that a certain level of development must be reached before ESC rights become effective. This interpretation, rather than a human-centered approach to realizing ESC rights, has allowed individual and group rights to be overridden by states’ drives to meet development goals.

Without effective monitoring states cannot be held accountable for the implementation of rights, or be made liable for the violation of rights; nor can countries that ratify or accede to specific human rights instruments assess their own performance in promoting effective realization of the enumerated rights. The articles in this issue of Dialogue highlight the need to improve the current human rights assessment regime. They describe the work by a few individuals and organizations to accomplish this, primarily by investing attention and resources in the recognition, monitoring, and realization of ESC rights.

Yasuaki Onuma, a participant in the Carnegie Council’s Human Rights Initiative, leads this issue with a critique of aspects of the current “Westcentric” assessment regime and a call for an “intercivilizational approach” to human rights assessments. The other contributors expand upon Onuma’s central requirement for the development of an intercivilizational approach: that assessments first treat the rights enshrined in the ICCPR and the ICESCR in “a comprehensive and well-balanced manner.”

Aside from the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Labor Organization, United Nations bodies, including those with specific obligations under the covenant (UNESCO, WHO, FAO), have made little effort to promote and monitor ESC rights. The article by Håkan Björkman suggests what more the United Nations Development Programme, and in particular the agency’s influential Human Development Report, could do in this regard.

The development of a more balanced human rights assessment regime, at least with regard to the equal inclusion of ESC rights, does appear to be making headway. The articles by Chris Jochnick of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, Jessica Neuwirth of Equality Now, and Peter Baehr of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights show that a variety of entry points—women’s rights, development assistance and cooperation, grassroots activism, and social justice issues—are being used to promote and improve methods of monitoring and assessing ESC rights in the West. And they show that recognition of the importance of ESC rights is not limited to the East and the South.

The challenges posed by the process of developing more effective approaches for monitoring ESC rights and ensuring their realization surface in the articles by Maria Socorro Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group in Quezon City, Philippines, and Audrey Chapman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washingon, D.C. Diokno’s article returns us to the Asian context and highlights the dire need to design a framework for establishing and enforcing government accountability for human suffering resulting from violations of ESC rights in her country. She describes her organization’s work to develop indicators to assess progressive realization, and suggests monitoring and assessment approaches related to violations of ESC rights. Directly related to Diokno’s proposals is Chapman’s work to develop a “violations approach” to assessing ESC rights, which she argues must replace the flawed standard of progressive realization.

A violations approach to rights assessment offers one strategy for taking a human-centered approach to ESC rights and establishing these rights as enforceable and justiciable. Effective monitoring and assessment of ESC rights assumes their recognition—at all levels—as rights, and promotes constructive dialogue around their intent, meaning, and content. Such dialogue in turn can compel the development of better mechanisms for monitoring ESC rights, thereby making assessments of the overall human rights performance of countries East and West a more informed and less subjective endeavor.