Human Rights--The Next Step | The Nation


Human Rights--The Next Step

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Ultimately, which rights are enforced--or not enforced--comes down to a question of priorities. And, of course, to international law. If economic and social rights are to achieve parity with civil and political rights, more cases must be brought before courts to establish legal precedents for their enforcement. Richard Wilson, a law professor at American University and director of the school's International Human Rights Law Clinic, says this is beginning to happen. "The European Social Charter recently added an optional protocol that allows certain social and economic rights to be litigated," he points out. In addition, many countries in Eastern Europe, and some in the developing world, like South Africa and India, actually recognize social and economic rights in their constitutions. In October South Africa's Constitutional Court ruled that the state "failed to make reasonable provision within its available resources" to provide housing for a group of squatters who had been evicted from their land.

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While courts may differ in how to interpret these rights, the same is true of civil and political freedoms. "I'm very skeptical of the notion that these rights are too fuzzy" to ground in legal precedent, says Nussbaum. "Freedom of speech is also fuzzy, until over the years it gets increasingly refined and specified by judicial interpretation. When Eugene Debs went to jail [on sedition charges during World War I], it was not yet established that freedom of speech encompasses the right to criticize one's country during wartime. Our understanding gets more refined over time, and I'm confident the same thing could happen with social and economic rights."

Still, real difficulties remain in pursuing legal remedies to violations of social and economic rights, in part because in many countries, including the United States, judges have held that issues such as healthcare and housing should be left to voters and their elected officials, not the courts. Given this, human rights organizations campaigning for change will need to rally support among ordinary citizens and grassroots groups, not just lawyers and elites. Roger Normand, one of the founders of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, explains, "If you're going to take economic and social rights seriously, you need to work with grassroots organizations that are calling for a redistribution of resources--indigenous groups, groups representing people who lack access to food, clothing, housing, education."

Too often in the past, Normand contends, human rights advocates have concentrated on influencing elites rather than building alliances with grassroots organizations that could help spearhead a movement. Normand questions whether the mainstream human rights organizations, which rely on foundations and, increasingly, on corporations for funding and support, are really willing to alter their orientation and place issues such as poverty and inequality at the forefront of their agendas.

Yet, as already mentioned, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have begun to incorporate social and economic rights into their campaigns. In its 1998 annual report, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration, Amnesty acknowledged its past neglect of economic and social rights and vowed to draw more attention in the future to women's rights, the impact of globalization and the role of business and economic institutions in perpetuating human rights abuses. In 1993 Human Rights Watch began to investigate and monitor economic and social rights. The group has launched a project tracking the role of corporations in human rights abuses, and it has published recent reports on famine in Sudan, the trafficking of women in Asia and abuses in Mexico's maquiladora factories.

How far this commitment will go remains to be seen. "Even though the major international human rights groups accept the interdependence of economic rights and political rights," says Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, "until we develop a methodology to report on government violations of economic rights, we risk reinforcing the attitude that these rights have second-class status. If we are serious about the violation of human dignity represented by issues like preventable disease, homelessness and poverty, we need to hold states accountable for these abuses just as we do for torture and murder."

It may be that the challenge of doing so falls to a new set of players. "The real push on economic and social rights is coming from a new generation of NGOs," says Larry Cox, senior program officer for international human rights at the Ford Foundation. "Many of these groups have a more grassroots orientation, and many are in developing countries, where it's simply unthinkable to separate civil and political rights from questions of economic and social justice." In recent years, notes Cox, countless groups have launched projects throughout the developing world on issues such as poverty, indigenous rights, gender equality and access to education.

Taking these issues seriously doesn't mean focusing exclusively on Africa or Asia. Some activists are beginning to draw attention to violations of economic and social rights in the United States. In 1999, Representative John Conyers and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with Food First and the Institute for Policy Studies, launched an Economic Human Rights Bus Tour, which traveled across the country to highlight issues of poverty, substandard housing conditions and racial discrimination. At about the same time, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a group based in Philadelphia that is made up largely of low-wage families, homeless workers and people on public assistance, organized a monthlong march for economic human rights from Washington, DC, to the UN in New York City. "Seventy percent of the people in our community live below the poverty line," says Cheri Honkala of KWRU. The KWRU, with support from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Urban Justice Center, submitted a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights charging that draconian provisions in the welfare reform law have led to human rights violations.

In the past, people like Honkala were not considered part of the human rights movement. In the future, they may be among its leaders.

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