Book review published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 02 September 2001.
Human rights activism has often ignored social and economic issues in its emphasis on civil and political rights. NOEL RAJESH reviews a book that highlights conceptual tools and strategies and encourages expansion of activism.
Circle of Rights. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Activism: A Training Resource, International Human Rights Internship Program, USA and Asian Forum of Human Rights and Development, Thailand, 2000, p.660.
The issue of human rights in relation to social and economic issues is explored in Circle of Rights. In the view of the authors, comprising people from countries in both the North and South with a rich and varied experience in the field of human rights, international human rights activism has often sidelined social or economic justice issues because of its predominant concern with civil and political rights issues.
Therefore, those involved in human rights work still have many questions when dealing with the economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights such as food, housing, health and similar matters. Even those supporting the idea of social rights may often ask “What is the ‘right to housing’ and the ‘right to work’? Should everyone be provided with education even up to the university level? Is the state responsible for providing all of this?” and so on.
At the same time, many vested economic interests, for instance multinational corporations, consider ESC rights to be unacceptable constraints or limitations on their own freedom to make profits. In this process, in many countries of the world, the plight of individuals and groups who have little or no access to food, shelter and education is largely forgotten.
Circle of Rights attempts to answer some of the many questions that are asked about ESC rights as well as “encourage an expansion of activism that has as its goal the promotion and protection of ESC rights and fill the absence of conceptual tools to deal with the social and economic issues”.
According to the authors, Circle of Rights is about regaining the dignity of all those who have lost it due to a lack of food, health and a healthy environment, education, housing, social security, work or a quality of life that embodies and perpetuates their culture. It is designed to enable social activists and other groups to ensure that the poor and other disadvantaged groups are able to claim their economic, social and cultural entitlements as a matter of right.
Despite its daunting size, the book is elegantly assembled with 10 sections (interspersed with illustrations, poems and country case studies) that range through the history and overview of ESC rights, explore specific ESC rights, and examine strategies and tools for national and international activism. The publication successfully brings together in one place information about concepts and tools that are central to developing and applying a rights-based perspective on ESC issues.
But what is a rights-based perspective? According to the book, the dignity and well-being of human beings is the foundation on which a rights-based approach is built. Each and every human being, by virtue of being a human being, is a holder of rights, and this entails an obligation on the part of the government to respect, promote, protect and fulfil it.
So individuals and communities cannot be asked to wait for “economic development,” or to “sacrifice their livelhoods or natural resources for national benefits,” before their dignity is respected. Violations of human rights are therefore defined as breaches of the related state obligations.
In fact, this is one of the more interesting sections of the book dealing with the “obligations of states and nonstate actors.” The central international treaty on ESC rights – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – as well as related treaties provide the individual and community with a range of guarantees related to economic, social and cultural issues. The section clarifies how each of these rights carries with it corresponding obligations by the state.
First of all, states must not destroy the standard recognised by a human right that describes a quality of life such as access to education, the opportunity for a fair trial and freedom from torture. Therefore, state authorities must not keep people from educating themselves, they must not tolerate unfair trials, they must not torture. An obligation of this type is called “the obligation to respect”. Such obligations are sometimes also called negative obligations, since they tell states what they must not do – torture people, undermine educational opportunities or conduct unfair trials.
On the other hand, the state also has positive obligations that are called “the obligation to protect”. Thus states have to prevent third parties from destroying this quality of life. For instance, states have to ensure that children are not prevented from attending school, for example by their parents; states have to prevent children and wives being tortured by their fathers and husbands.
Another positive obligation is the state’s “obligation to fulfill” the human rights standards by taking appropriate measures to ensure that human rights standard is attained. Therefore, states have to provide remedies to address a faulty trial, or guarantee access to education, or intervene in situations of torture.
The authors also stress the importance of recognising that there is a dialectical relationship between the obligations placed on the state and the claims of those who feel their rights have been violated. So the claimants of rights are not simply “beneficiaries” but have often engaged in a struggle for, and won recognition of, specific rights – a struggle that remains central to ESC rights.
The history of human rights law indicates that human rights were intended to protect the individual against excessive use of state power, and the key conventions make explicit that only states hold human rights obligations.
But what about “nonstate” actors? As the book notes, in the changing environment at both the national and international levels, nonstate actors such as corporations, fundamentalist groups and armed opposition groups are having an increasing impact on the enjoyment of ESC rights. International human rights law does not oblige private actors (whether corporations or others) to act in particular ways, and therefore they cannot be brought to account directly through human rights law.
However, human rights obligations can be imposed on nonstate actors such as corporations by national constitutions or laws. For example, courts in some countries, such as the Supreme Court in India, have placed human rights obligations directly on nonstate actors such as corporations dumping poisonous effluents into rivers and threatening the fishing livelihoods of local communities.
Moreover, human rights law does oblige states to regulate the conduct of nonstate actors, including corporations, to ensure that they do not commit human rights abuses. For example, in 1997, a United States district court judge ruled that victims of forced labour and other gross human rights violations could bring suit against the Unocal Corporation, for its joint participation in a petroleum pipeline project with the Burmese military junta in which Burmese people were used as forced labour and atrocities committed against them.
Needs as rights
Human rights language has emerged out of struggles to protect the rights of the politically marginalised peoples, particularly of individuals and communities displaced or dispossessed of cultures and livelihoods, of their homes, fields, farms and commons by conventional economic development. The human rights-based approach offers tools so that states or corporations are forced to respect the inviolability of humans, based on the belief that if we all have the same needs, we have the same rights.
Yet, we also recognise our mutual humanity in our differences, in our individuality, in our history, in the faithful discharge of our particular culture of obligations. In his powerful book about human rights and social needs, The Needs of Strangers, Michael Ignatieff notes that beneath the duties that tie us to individuals, there ought to be a duty that ties us to all men and women whatever their relation to us.
However, he states, beneath the social and the historical, there is nothing at all: “The abstract subjects created by our century of tyranny and terror cannot be protected by abstract doctrines of universal human needs and universal human rights, and not merely because these doctrines are words, and whips are things. The problem is not to defend universality, but to give these abstract individuals the chance to become real, historical individuals again, with the social relations and the power to protect themselves”.
Circle of Rights goes some way towards enabling social activists and other groups to support the struggles of the poor and other disadvantaged groups to ensure they are able to claim their economic, social and cultural entitlements as a matter of right.