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Human Rights--The Next Step | The Nation

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Human Rights--The Next Step

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"True individual freedom," Roosevelt declared, "cannot exist without economic security and independence. 'Necessitous men are not freemen.'" Today there is a growing recognition that, as Roosevelt's words imply, the two sets of rights are not mutually exclusive but interrelated. People who are desperately poor or illiterate frequently cannot exercise their civil and political rights. By the same token, the absence of political freedom in countries like Indonesia and China has paved the way for gross economic abuse. Recognizing such linkages, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the economist Amartya Sen have advocated a "capabilities approach" to human rights that specifies the basic material resources individuals need to realize their rights and full potential, or capabilities, as human beings.

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Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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"If you want to think about how women will have a right to bodily integrity," explains Nussbaum, "you have to think about the material side of life as well as legal rights. Why can't a woman leave an abusive marriage? Very often it's because she lacks property rights, and therefore can't get a loan. These issues are interrelated."

The United States, however, has never ratified the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN treaty adopted in 1966 that obliges states to honor economic and social rights, and Washington has persistently tried to prevent recognition of these rights in subsequent conventions. In 1996, at the Habitat II UN conference in Istanbul, for example, the US delegation attempted to eliminate every reference to a right to housing from drafts of an international declaration, an effort that failed only because representatives from all other nations rallied against the US position. At the World Food Summit in Rome a few months later, Melinda Kimble, head of the US delegation, led a charge against recognition of the right to food, objecting that such a standard could make America's welfare reform a violation of international law.

The prevailing view in the US foreign policy establishment and among some prominent human rights advocates has been that issues like housing, jobs and healthcare involve questions of governmental policy, not principle, and cannot realistically be guaranteed as universal rights, particularly in poor countries with limited resources. Civil and political rights are negative liberties, the argument runs, requiring governments not to interfere actively in citizens' lives, while economic and social rights impose positive obligations on states--obligations that cost money to enforce. Northwestern University law professor Anthony D'Amato, objecting to the idea of a universal right to housing, asks, "If the houses are to be 'affordable,' and if a billion of them are to be constructed immediately around the world, then who is going to furnish the raw materials--the wood, the metal, the glass?"

In fact, however, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes, in Article 22, that when it comes to enforcing economic and social rights, "the organization and resources of each State" must be taken into account. In a poorer country such as Bangladesh, advocates of a right to housing might focus on encouraging equitable land distribution, halting discriminatory lending practices and preventing mass evictions--all relatively inexpensive reforms that could improve millions of lives. In a wealthy country like the United States, the expectations would rightly be higher.

Taking a country's available resources into account does not, however, mean that no uniform standards can be developed for such rights. In the past year the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has issued a series of "General Comments" outlining the minimal obligations that all states are expected to fulfill. With regard to education, the committee calls on all governments to provide "a detailed plan of action for the progressive implementation" of "compulsory primary education free of charge for all," noting that if a state lacks resources to furnish this basic human need, "the international community has a clear obligation to assist." Sage Russell, a senior program associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that the AAAS and a number of international NGOs, including the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland and the Commonwealth Medical Association in London, have been working to develop resources to monitor violations of the right to food, housing and other economic and social rights.

It is true that calling on states to make such goods more widely available to citizens does require governments to spend money. But the same holds for civil and political rights. As Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein argue in their important study The Cost of Rights, it is a myth that civil and political rights come at no financial cost to taxpayers and states. "All rights are costly," Holmes and Sunstein contend, because all "presuppose taxpayer funding of effective supervisory machinery for monitoring and enforcement." Freedom from arbitrary arrest, for example, a classic "negative liberty," requires extensive positive action by the state, which must train police officers, fund monitoring agencies and maintain an independent judiciary. (The cost of providing clean drinking water and vaccines to the world's poorest children is comparatively modest.) Conducting free and fair elections, the quintessential political right, requires staffing of voter booths, monitoring of fraud and distribution of ballots. "Our freedom from government interference is no less budget-dependent than our entitlement to public assistance," Holmes and Sunstein conclude.

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