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Human Rights--The Next Step | The Nation

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Human Rights--The Next Step

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This past Labor Day, Human Rights Watch published a report on the "culture of impunity" that reigns in a realm not normally associated with human rights abuses--the American workplace. Each year, the report shows, more than 20,000 US workers are fired or subjected to other reprisals for attempting to organize a union. As Human Rights Watch notes, the pattern not only makes a mockery of US labor law, it violates the basic right to freedom of association that is affirmed in numerous international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN fifty-two years ago this month, which recognizes that "everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions."

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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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The Human Rights Watch report is part of a growing effort to broaden the agenda of the human rights movement. In recent years both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which for decades focused exclusively on political and civil rights, have begun to address issues like child labor, gender discrimination and the impact of globalization in their reports. New groups like the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), launched in 1993 by three Harvard graduate students, have emerged to advocate recognition of an array of economic and social rights that are affirmed in the Universal Declaration yet have long been relegated to second-class status.

At a time of rising inequality and growing concern about the consequences of unregulated global capitalism, making the right to education, shelter and other basic necessities coequal with civil and political rights is not only long overdue; it may also be the only way for the human rights movement to recapture the power and urgency that faded somewhat after the end of the cold war. In much of the world, after all, the struggle for access to basic necessities like education and medical care has become every bit as urgent as the struggle for free speech or fair trials. Despite claims that social and economic progress flows inevitably from the adoption of the rule of law (the guiding premise of the Clinton Administration), over the past three decades the gap between the world's rich and poor has doubled, even as dictatorships have collapsed and formal democracy spread. A billion adults, the majority women, cannot read or write; an estimated 35,000 children die of malnutrition and preventable disease every day.

But while incorporating social and economic rights into the human rights agenda holds great promise, it also raises new challenges. It requires, for one thing, that human rights organizations develop credible standards and legal precedents for measuring such rights--standards that recognize that states often lack the resources to implement these rights immediately but that nevertheless obligate governments to make them a priority. It means holding not only governments but private actors--including corporations--accountable for violations. Above all, perhaps, it necessitates challenging the view, still dominant among Western policy-makers, that issues like education, food and housing have no place in the traditional pantheon of rights.

The relegation of economic and social rights to secondary status began early in the cold war. As Michael Ignatieff noted recently in The New York Review of Books, beginning in 1948 "there were two human rights cultures in the world--socialist and capitalist--one giving primacy to social and economic rights, the other putting civil and political rights first." While Soviet leaders dismissed free speech as a bourgeois luxury, Western policy-makers held that recognizing economic and social rights played into the hands of Moscow. Using this as its justification, the Reagan Administration ceased to catalogue violations of social and economic rights in the State Department's annual human rights reports, reversing a practice begun under Jimmy Carter.

Although social and economic rights came to be associated with the Eastern bloc, their origin can in fact be traced to Enlightenment conceptions of basic human rights. As Stephen Marks, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, notes in a recent study of the French declarations of human rights of 1789 and 1793, "It is historically inaccurate to claim that those rights falling within today's category of economic, social and cultural rights were unknown to the Enlightenment and absent from the French declarations of the eighteenth century." Among the positive rights enumerated in these declarations were the right to education and the right to work or public assistance.

Nor do the economic and social rights that made their way into the Universal Declaration owe their existence to the Soviet Union, which in fact abstained from the final vote on the declaration. As Johannes Morsink notes in his recent book, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting and Intent, the key provisions on social and economic rights actually originated in draft declarations submitted by various developing nations, including Chile, Panama, Cuba and the Philippines. Although these provisions prompted debate among the Western powers, they were widely accepted, in part because many of the Western delegates (including Eleanor Roosevelt) were deeply influenced not only by World War II and the Holocaust but by the Great Depression. Part of the inspiration for the vision of rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration came, after all, from Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union address, which called for a "second Bill of Rights" that would recognize, among other things, "the right to a useful and remunerative job," "the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing," "the right to adequate medical care" and "the right to adequate protection against the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment."

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