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Human rights turn 60: time to party?

Written by Marta Foresti


The Universal Declaration on Human Rights – which underpins international human rights standards, laws and institutions – turns 60 this week. This is clearly a reason to celebrate, and key players like Amnesty International and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) encourage us to do so. Much has been achieved since 1948: over the years, the vision and determination of those who drafted the Declaration has inspired not only the struggle of activists and defenders across the globe, but also the drafting of many national constitutions. So why am I in no party mood?

In December 2007 I suggested that these are not easy days for human rights.  One year on, security concerns are still firmly on the global agenda, but expectations are high that the new US administration will be able to fix at least some of the damage done since the ‘War on Terror’ began. However, closing Guantanamo and seeking justice for those unlawfully detained still feels like a drop in the ocean. Human rights abuses are still too common, and dignity is still just a word, rather than a reality for many, particularly men, women and children living in poverty or countries affected by conflict. The recent outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe is just the latest addition to the long list of suffering caused by irresponsible governments who fail to protect civilian populations.

Is there a role for international development in all this? It has long been agreed that international development policies and practices could, and indeed should, contribute to the realisation of rights. But we still don’t know how to do this in practice, partly because the evidence of what works, where and how is too weak, where it exists at all. Can development help to realise rights? If so, how? In what ways does having rights help to achieve poverty reduction? Despite years of debates, we don’t actually know the answers. And that is not good enough.

What is clear is that having rights, including economic and social rights, matters. Human rights treaties, and their resulting frameworks and national laws, help people claim justice and obtain redress. But the history of human rights shows that signing up to an international convention is easy enough, but it does not change reality. Turning fine words into the delivery of rights is another matter, and one that deserves more attention, including research and analysis to address the evidence gap. There are two factors that loom over attempts to turn rights into reality: economics and politics.

Rights and economics. This never has been, and never will be, an easy relationship, between rights and economics, even though there is growing agreement between scholars and practitioners that the two are not mutually exclusive at the conceptual level and that they can be reconciled.  However this only takes us so far, we are still not clear as to how this plays out in practice. How much does it actually cost to fulfil the right to education or health? Can developing countries afford these costs? These questions remain unanswered and, as a result assumptions are made about what is realistic for governments to achieve, particularly in developing countries. It is partly because we don’t know enough about the economic reality of economic and social rights that many economists conclude that the notion of these rights is simply unrealistic, irrelevant or inapplicable.

One way to gain a better understanding on whether economic and social rights translate into concrete changes for people is to assess the extent to which governments are complying with their rights  obligations. Traditionally, this means monitoring violations through dedicated international bodies or mechanisms and through national civic engagement. But the capacity of these bodies and mechanism to actually achieve change is limited. In our new Briefing Paper on the costs of implementing economic and social rights, we suggest a different, and potentially controversial, approach. These rights have costs and are often considered unaffordable in environments where resources are constrained, and we suggest that realistic assessments of these costs and their affordability in a country context are necessary.

This can be done by applying empirical social science methods, including economic analysis, to gain a better understanding of whether a government is doing enough to fulfil its obligations to economic and social rights. This is, potentially, a complex and controversial endeavour, but not an impossible one. It will certainly require both rights experts and economist to step out of their comfort zone to learn from each other’s vocabulary, conceptual paradigms and strengths as well as weaknesses. One reason for optimism is that this is not the first attempt. In recent years, human rights group have been using budgetary analysis tools and scientific and statistical tools for both research and advocacy purposes.

Rights and politics. As much as it is a legal and economic matter, realising rights is clearly a political challenge. An ODI Opinion shows that the swift ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is a case in point.  If taken seriously, the implementation of the Convention would require major shifts in power relations between adults and children, within the family as well as in the public sphere. But this is clearly not the case in the vast majority of countries who have ratified the Convention. Surely things are much better when it comes to women in modern Europe? Not really. In the UK - which ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1981 and adopted the Equal Franchise Act in 1928 – the part-time pay gap between men and women is more or less the same as it was in 1997 and the full-time pay gap this year began to widen again, and now stands at 17%.

After 60 years, the time for theoretical debates is long past. This is the moment for action. We should start by breaking down the barriers between the different disciplines – law, development, humanitarianism, economics, social development– and promote a dialogue to find solutions. Our Briefing Paper is an attempt to get started in this direction. We had better make sure that, in this dialogue, we steer clear of the perceived ‘moral high ground’ that often permeates rights discourses. Protecting and fulfilling basic rights is about very tangible results: livelihoods, health, safety in the home, access to justice. It is about human dignity. These things cost money and this is clearly an additional challenge in the current global financial crisis. This is no reason to be defeatist – on the contrary:  the crisis is a wake up call to make sure that we get our facts right so that we are ready to face the challenge.