Human rights are also about social justice

Aryeh Neier explains the early significance of Human Rights Watch – an American organization seeking to influence human rights in other parts of the world by altering the way the US used its money, power and status in its relations with other countries. The abuses of despots, civil warriors, and international criminals were and remain its focus. Social justice may be important, he notes, but it is a concern of a different order.

Are the demands of social justice really so different?

As is today common knowledge, the egregious lack of regulatory oversight among US authorities saw the American financial establishment trigger an economic and human crisis that resonated around the globe and in the words of commentator Thomas Frank, ‘cheat the world to the very edge of the abyss’.[1] Job losses worldwide are predicted to reach 50 million, figures on developing economies indicate 64 million people will be pushed below the meagre poverty line of $1.25 a day, 100 million more people will be without access to safe drinking water, an additional 1.2 million deaths of children under the age of 5 are anticipated between 2009-2015, there are cuts in foreign development aid, sharp drops in remittances, and cuts in social programmes including for HIV/AIDS.  In Europe, bailouts and austerity measures as a response to stabilizing economies have brought their own long list of social woes on the back of budget cuts, with women, children and migrants disproportionately affected.  Social unrest has been part of the popular response to the weakening of social institutions with violent police action not unusual.

What would social justice require of an NGO? It seems to me it would require many of the tactics Aryeh Neier highlights as central to the work of Human Rights Watch – ‘documenting thoroughly and with great care abuses of human rights by governments … pointing out the responsibilities of various international actors; comparing the practices that are documented to international standards; and generating pressure on those directly and indirectly culpable to end or alleviate abuses.’  True, where social justice is at issue organizational attention might be directed to the private sector, to business, and to a different set of government laws and policies than might usually be the purview of traditional human rights organizations, but the methodology remains the same, as does the primary aim foregrounded by Neier: ‘to place limits on the exercise of power’.

And it is true that social justice is about the distribution or redistribution of wealth and resources, as Neier points out, but it is also about the distribution and redistribution of power, and in this social justice is no different than civil and political rights, those so-called ‘core’ human rights issues.

The idea that civil and political rights are the true (‘core’) human rights  - Neier refers by way of example to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom of expression, equality before the law, the prohibition of cruel treatment or punishment, the right to privacy – is an idea that has been superseded by developments in theory, law and practice. Human rights – civil and political and economic and social – work synergistically. The political failures epitomized by the lack of financial oversight that led to the crisis gave rise to social and economic harms of the gravest of sort. Solutions will also invite a holistic approach, from ensuring ‘the minimum core content’ of all rights in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights required recently of Spain, to the right of citizens to information so as to monitor and shape policy now and in the future.

That a human rights organization has to make choices as to where to focus its energies and its financial and human rights resources is a given, and a number of factors will naturally influence that decision. But to suggest that social justice is in some defining way different in significance or value from civil and political rights, or indeed that social justice cannot be understood as part of the canon of contemporary human rights, cannot be one of them.