Human rights and social justice: the in(di)visible link

Aryeh Neier affirms that the pursuit of social justice is not an appropriate goal of a human rights organization, arguing that human rights is concerned with restraints on the exercise of power whereas social justice is concerned with the redistribution of wealth and resources. 

Human rights and social justice are not synonymous. But the distinction that Neier draws between the two concepts is based on a questionable characterization of both, as well as on a drastically limited notion of what constitutes “power.”  Human rights are defined in a way that renders economic, social and cultural rights completely invisible. As the international community marks the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration, which unequivocally affirmed the indivisibility and equal importance of all human rights, there can be little credible basis for asserting that civil and political freedoms are the deserving “core” of the human rights agenda. Since Vienna, outdated arguments regarding the non-justiciability of economic and social rights, their vague or exclusively programmatic nature, and the impossibility of measuring progress have all been significantly eroded through practice.

The Center for Economic and Social Rights is part of a generation of international human rights organizations born after the end of the Cold War to challenge injustice in the economic and social sphere from a holistic human rights perspective. Its mission was shaped by the realities of globalization and the chronic persistence of poverty and widening social inequality despite the democratic transitions of the 80s and 90s. In this context, the human rights movement could not just concern itself with constraining abusive interference by the state in individual civil liberties. Protecting human rights involved bolstering the state’s capacity to rein in the unbridled power of market forces, and ensuring its institutions were equipped to protect the enjoyment of human rights from infringements by private actors, such as Chevron/Texaco in Ecuador or Shell Oil in Nigeria, as well as to fulfil a series of positive obligations necessary for people to live lives of dignity.

From its inception in 1993, CESR has articulated its mission as promoting “social justice through human rights”, reflecting the goal of transforming the social and international order in which all human rights can be fully realized (in the language of Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). As human rights advocates focusing on economic and social rights, we have had to address the unfair distribution of resources which fuels deprivation and inequality within and between societies, and is doing so all the more blatantly in the wake of the global economic crisis. It is clear to us, as well as to an ever-growing number of people in the human rights field, that human rights advocacy must be concerned with distributive justice, as well as palliative retributive justice, which does not transform underlying structures of power in society. 

Today, there are powerful reminders all around us that human rights and social justice aspirations are inseparable. From the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, to the protests over public services in Brazil or austerity in Europe, the same frustration is being voiced that democratic freedoms do not in themselves lead to more just societies unless accompanied by fairer social and economic governance.

This does not mean, of course, that all human rights organizations should address the full panoply of human rights. It is perfectly valid for organizations to focus on aspects of the agenda suited to their competencies and traditional modus operandi. But methodology can also adapt to mission, rather than vice versa. The experience of organizations such as CESR shows that is possible to develop effective and rigorous methods to document abuses of economic and social rights, attribute responsibilities for specific breaches of human rights standards and press for accountability, much as organizations like Human Rights Watch do in the civil and political rights sphere. Exposing the injustice behind more systemic policy failures – for example, building the evidence that high rates of preventable maternal death in Angola or Guatemala are linked to inequitable allocation of resources, or that post-crisis austerity measures in Ireland and Spain are discriminatory and retrogressive – has required developing new methods for rights-based monitoring and advocacy. These include quantitative tools (marshalling statistical evidence using indicators, benchmarks and indices) and techniques such as budget and tax analysis to assess whether resources are allocated and generated in line with human rights principles.

These approaches, which demand a more interdisciplinary range of skills, have been married with traditional techniques of human rights advocacy, as well as with various forms of social mobilization, to powerful effect. There is considerable evidence that human rights research, policy advocacy and litigation, particularly when associated with social movement mobilization, have been successful in many different contexts in challenging economic and social injustices, from the denial of access to life-saving medical treatment to starvation deaths resulting from dysfunctional food schemes. Experience has shown that for human rights advocacy to bring about change in the sphere of economic and social policy, accountability must be pursued in a variety of different forms and venues, from courtrooms to boardrooms, newsrooms, classrooms, living rooms and on the streets.  The most durable and transformative change comes about when judicial challenges and policy advocacy aimed at decision-making elites has been part of a broader strategy enabling social justice movements to deploy the tools of human rights advocacy in ways adapted to their particular context.  For this reason, economic and social rights organizations have made it a priority to forge links with social movements and grassroots groups, working with them to devise tools and strategies for accountability and to support their efforts to localize and “vernacularize” human rights claims.

What this debate drives home is that human rights organizations are far from homogenous. They vary greatly in mission, methods, approaches to partnership and levels of resources. While each organization is at liberty to define its mandate based on where it perceives it can make a difference, those with the greatest reach and profile must guard against undermining the efforts of others to promote a more comprehensive and transformative understanding of what human rights mean.