Economic Rights: The Big Comeback. (Ethics)

Article excerpt

Is the economic divide a root cause of the September 11 attacks? For several years, human rights organizations have made the fight against economic injustice a top priority

One after the other, the major NGOs campaigning for civil and political rights rallied in the mid-1990s to the banner of "economic rights." Marching behind it was the long-established International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) and its 105 national affiliates along with Human Rights Watch and its supporters in the academic community.

Even more remarkably, the emergency medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders, which has 2,000 volunteers worldwide, launched a campaign in 1996 for access to basic medicines. And finally, Amnesty International and its one million members joined this movement last August.

"We have to be consistent and relevant," say these organizations to explain the move. Governments have to be criticized for their failings in health and education policy, transnational companies for their hypocrisy in doing business in places mired in poverty, and international financial institutions for being blind to the social effects of their programmes.

Beyond the Cold War

Have they been slow in waking up? Economic rights were legally enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 16, 1966 (along with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), it came into effect 10 years later and has been signed by 141 countries. Governments are expected to take steps to improve the living standards of their people by ensuring adequate food, clothing and housing, the right to a job, training and a "fair" wage, the right to join a trade union and go on strike, and the right to health care and education.

For many years, the covenant was hampered by its ambitious reach and by the Cold War. Communist countries hailed its principles, while the West remained primarily interested in civil and political freedoms. Though they were dedicated to defending all human rights, some organizations such as the FIDH in practice focused only on civil rights.

"You have to remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, many dictatorships--communist, Latin American, Asian and African--made defending civil rights an absolute priority for us," says FIDH executive director Antoine Bernard. The resurgence of economic rights was one by-product of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and globalization. With the spread of the market economy, multi-party political systems and technological change, globalization has meant "growing wealth for some, but destitution and despair for many," says Pierre Sane, former secretary-general of Amnesty International, (1) in the organization's 2001 annual report.

Since the expansion of Amnesty's mandate, its researchers and campaign directors have felt more at ease. "Until now, we were calling the famine in Sudan the result of the forcible movement of people in violation of their civil and political rights," says Amnesty researcher Benedicte Goderiaux. "Now we can look at things in a different way, such as whether people have access to food."

Avoiding platitudes

But as Bernard points out, "it's easier to fight for an opposition figure's freedom than for a change in a structural adjustment policy." Freedom may be the same indivisible principle the world over, but one cannot necessarily ask for the same level of access to health care or employment in a rich country as in a poor one. "We have to be able to set minimum standards," says Joanne Csete, an expert on HIV/AIDS and children's rights researcher with Human Rights Watch. "That way even the poorest countries can start applying them."

Some campaigners are already overwhelmed by the vast range of economic rights and some enquiry reports read like catalogues of complaint. Last June, Human Rights Watch published a report on Kenyan children affected by AIDS. …