Defenders of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

10 November 2007

Economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights are given the same emphasis in the UDHR as civil and political rights. However, these rights were in many ways a casualty of the Cold War; it was not until the early 1990s that recognition and understanding of ESC rights began to strengthen in response to action by grassroots activists and other civil society actors. Campaigns by social movements around the world drew attention to:
  • the drastic social impact of structural adjustment programmes
  • the effects of the crushing debt burden on developing countries' capacity to satisfy the basic needs of the population
  • the deepening inequalities which many countries witnessed in the context of economic globalization.

Over the last twenty years, social justice movements, development practitioners and human rights activists have increasingly taken the language and tools of rights into the sphere of economic and social policy. They have faced major challenges along the way. Some governments, including that of the world's most powerful economy, the United States, have remained hostile to the very concept of economic and social rights as enforceable entitlements.

Legal mechanisms for ESC rights

At both the international and domestic level, legal mechanisms for claiming redress for ESC rights violations are severely underdeveloped in comparison to civil and political rights. Whereas the UN Human Rights Committee has been hearing individual complaints of violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for decades, there is still no equivalent complaints mechanism under its counter-part treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Activists have had great success in putting some issues on the domestic and international agenda such as:
  • poverty
  • inequitable trade
  • unsustainable debt
  • insufficient aid.

But human rights defenders still encounter resistance from governments and other sectors of civil society when speaking about rights relating to:
  • food
  • housing
  • health
  • education.

The challenges involved in identifying violations, attributing responsibility and proposing appropriate measures for redress and prevention have led some to view ESC rights as inherently less enforceable through legal means ("justiciable"). The complexity of addressing issues of national resource allocation or international macroeconomic policy from a human rights lens also poses a formidable challenge.

Nevertheless, economic and social rights defenders have made enormous strides forward in recent years. For example:
  • national parliaments have adopted laws and constitutional changes directly recognizing economic and social rights
  • groundbreaking victories have been won through landmark court cases, such as the South African Constitutional Court decision ordering the provision of anti-retroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission.

These achievements have also reflected the work done by ESC rights defenders, in cooperation with development experts, social scientists and professionals from such fields as health, education and housing, to develop new tools and methodologies for assessing ESC rights violations. These have included identifying indicators and benchmarks for measuring:
  • compliance with the obligation to satisfy minimum essential levels of these rights
  • budget analysis to gauge whether governments are realizing ESC rights progressively according to their maximum available resources.

The progress made in affirming and claiming ESC rights is not solely a result of court rulings, the deliberations of human rights professionals and academics, or even global campaigns mounted by international NGOs. It is primarily the result of concrete struggles fought by individual communities to defend their livelihoods in the face of abusive action by government authorities, powerful industries or corrupt elites.

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