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.”
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.