Economic and social rights as human rights

Andrew Fagan

Many people in the UK live in a chronic state of fear and anxiety and a profound dissatisfaction with the way things are. There is a great deal to be concerned about: job insecurity, old age, increasingly uncertain access to health care, the lack of safe and affordable housing, schools, and even the pot-holes in the roads.

Poverty, inequality and marginalisation are the consequences of prevailing economic policy. Capitalism enriches a few and impoverishes the many. The ludicrous “trickle-down” alibi offered for the Washington Consensus, which has had disastrous consequences for countless millions of people across the globe is, one hopes, in its final death throes. Right-wing political parties have persuaded generations of voters to support an ideology which, to quote Bruce Springsteen, has brought only death to many of their home towns. The so-called ‘wretched of the earth’ are no longer only to be found in developing world slums: Growing numbers of people in the UK are facing poverty, inequality and marginalisation. One must not forget, however, that de jure economic and social rights have co-existed with these unjust and unfair conditions.

Having identified what (and who) is to blame for the continuing dilapidation of large parts of the UK, democratic socialists must then strive to persuade those most affected to support policies which seek to establish justice and fairness for all. Call me an optimist, but I believe that there now exist real opportunities to achieve this most difficult of political tasks.

Safe and affordable housing is not a privilege, which is dependent upon market forces. It is a fundamental human right. Access to adequate health-care should not be dependent upon one’s ability to pay or, indirectly the same thing, one’s post-code. It is a fundamental human right. But it is not enough to recognise that these are human rights for this will not, on its own, ensure that they can be enjoyed by all. You shouldn’t have to stand up and fight for your fundamental rights, but often you do, particularly when the rights you are fighting for pose a challenge to the prevailing order. Human rights have a fundamentally important role to play in transforming British society.

In portraying human rights claimants as, for example, terrorists, paedophiles, prisoners, migrants and refugees to those who have good reason to feel aggrieved by many aspects of their lives, the right seeks to mobilise some of the very people most affected by inequality and marginalisation in support of maintaining the conditions which reduce them to electoral and economic ‘cannon-fodder’. In this way, ‘ordinary’ people are encouraged to take sides against the very values and ideals which can help transform their fate.

Part of the reason why it has proven so easy to mobilise so many people against human rights in the UK is that the UK human rights community has, generally, failed to adequately engage with many of the challenges confronting those who are vulnerable to poverty, inequality and social marginalisation. Human rights lawyers and many human rights professionals are more likely to be perceived as belonging to the so-called “liberal elite” than to the many people who suffer poverty, inequality and social marginalisation. This is then compounded by the characterisation of the broader human rights community as disproportionately focused upon the specific concerns of terrorists, paedophiles, prisoners etc.

While human rights lawyers might be criticised for being remote from the concerns of our most deprived citizens, it is crucial to acknowledge that their professional efforts are determined by the prevailing content of human rights law. And here, little attention is given to economic and social rights as human rights.

Much of the human rights community is agitated by concern over the future UK Human Rights Act (HRA) and the opposition from large elements of the Conservative party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It is of course important to defend these highly significant legal instruments. But we should also acknowledge that they only include a limited, ideologically partial, collection of human rights, namely the so-called civil and political rights. A separate instrument, the European Social Charter (ESC), provides a mostly ineffective mechanism for upholding British citizens’ economic and social rights. The charter’s ineffectiveness is, arguably, most apparent in the right-wing media’s almost complete disregard for it. Essentially those human rights which are so central to combating poverty, inequality and social marginalisation in the UK attract limited attention and the protections around them are largely ineffective. As distinctly human rights, economic and social rights have been almost entirely ignored by many. There is an urgent need to address this situation.

Now with so many people employed on insecure, zero-hours contracts, with continuing and glaring wage inequalities; with access to benefits being increasingly based upon discretionary criteria; with the NHS having been driven to breaking-point and the wholesale infrastructural decay of impoverished and marginalised communities across the UK, there is clearly an urgent need to effectively protect and promote economic and social rights. We need to make them real.

Too many people amongst the UK human rights community have neglected economic and social rights. Too many within the UK human rights community have been prepared to tolerate, even if they do not celebrate, a prevailing economic platform which has manifestly failed millions of people in the UK. To embrace human rights is to embrace a concern for all people, including the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our society. If we are to work effectively towards realising the promise of economic and social rights, we must recognise the need to embrace a political vision which fundamentally rejects the perpetual prioritisation of the partial interests of the few.

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