Where we came from

Having concentrated too long on the basic human needs approach was a time consuming diversion from any serious attempt to change the prevailing unjust order.

1. Contrasting the basic human needs approach with the human rights-based approach reminds us of the difference between animals living in a zoo, where their basic needs are met, and animals living in freedom. Simply going for fulfilling these needs is only as good as the discredited trickle-down principle. In the case of health, focusing on it as a set of basic human needs and not as a human right (HR), assumes absolute scarcity of health resources thus calling for assistance-oriented policies that are, at best, palliative. The basic human needs approach in this case is a discredited form of triage as it aims at optimally targeting public health and nutrition programs. The current prevailing development paradigm simply thrives by concealing the true causative forces underlying preventable ill-health and preventable deaths, i.e., their social and political determinants and, therefore, the contradictions of capitalism.* (Najwa Makhoul)
*: Paradigm changes do cause us to see the world differently; and when a paradigms changes, the world itself changes with them. (Thomas Kuhn)

Where we are now

2. There is a tendency these days to be defensive or to be critical of the HR discourse.** This is especially difficult to understand as decisions are, more and more, reduced to certain powerful groups’ choices –a fact that degrades the idea of what being human means. But times have changed: We cannot confront hegemonic power the same way as we historically confronted colonial domination; power in the 21st century has to be fought from inside. And for that, we must reach across silos, as well as across North/South and academic/activist divides to be able to more effectively struggle to implement the HR framework and its tools so as to subvert the forms of hegemonic power that so pervasively colonize our consciousness. The HR community has already developed methods to identify harmful stereotypes, e.g., in gender, as well as in the case of many other recognized or inadvertent discriminations often based on criteria that assess and end up making unequal policies and biased budgets visible. Now, the HR community needs to develop a workable praxis for exposing and disrupting the hegemonic discourse, as well as destabilizing the neoliberal paradigm that impoverishes our conceptions of development and of democracy. (Alicia Yamin)
**: Social scientists are not innocent in voicing the same criticism. What the social sciences need is using less elaborate techniques and demonstrating more courage to tackle rather than dodge the central issues behind HR violations. (J. D. Bernal) But why should this surprise us? Political science is a young discipline born in stable Western democracies. This is why it is mainly concerned with changes in the system and not changes of the system. Modernization thus has become westernization –a mere imitative process.

3. The HR community’s responsibility towards those whose HR are being violated is not to go in and ‘do for them’, but to help remove the obstacles preventing people from providing their own solutions. It is not about going into countries rendered poor ‘to set things right’. It too often is rich countries and TNCs plus local elites that are behind those obstacles. This is why this Reader keeps calling for you to look, not only at the close determinants, but also at the more distant forces that keep things the way they are.

The application of laws consistent with universal human rights standards and guarantees is the only workable antidote if our struggle against human rights violations is ever to be successful (Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)

4. The above notwithstanding, as part of being critical, human rights law has long been ridiculed by the influential tabloid press (think xenophobia, bigotry, spreading fear…). The viewpoint they paint has resonance with certain slices of the public unaware of the importance of international human rights law –often seen by far too many people as too removed from everyday life, too lawyerly, too activist and ultimately ‘too weird’. It is the very bodies of international HR law that are thereby endangered.

5. Taken to an extreme, if you believe the rhetoric of many governments, every lawyer or journalist is almost by definition a terrorist, if they are human rights-focused. But to defend the human rights of all requires a continuous investment of thought, where the natural prejudices lying deep within each of us must be watched out-for and rejected every day of our lives. The dangers to the entire system of international law are therefore very real. But human progress never glides; it will always stagger and sometimes even temporarily collapse. We must thus be vigilant. The common effort, for a common HR cause, within the common HR frame of understanding and regulation, will always be attacked by those more committed to the pursuit of narrower personal or national interests. Reason alone has proven to be insufficient to counter them.

6. The two words ‘human rights’ were not placed in the preamble of the UN Charter by its final editor, Virginia Gildersleeve. They were instead written into the later text –almost at the beginning, in the third line– because human rights were viewed as the only choice possible for that first beat of a new pulse towards development. Only by accepting HR as the cornerstone could the rest of the edifice of the UN Charter –success in economic development, durable peace– become possible. It is a point that even today –perhaps especially today– needs to be absorbed by the numerous political actors who only see HR as a tiresome constraint. Indeed, many people who have enjoyed their rights since birth simply do not realize what these principles really mean. Like oxygen, they lie beyond our daily sensory perception; only when suddenly deprived of HR do we fathom their enormous significance.

(Not so) new a challenge: Social protection as a human right (Global Charter for Social Protection Rights, Francine Mestrum et al)

7. The International Labor Organization has for long had a Recommendation on Social Protection Floors, but that floor is thought to be rather minimal. ILO repeats that social protection is a human right, but the recommendation bears some of the characteristics of the now dominant neoliberal approach to social protection, i.e., it is very much at the service of the economy.

8. The main objective, therefore, is to promote a different perspective on social protection,*** one that encompasses environmental needs and bridges the unacceptable gap between production and reproduction, all this meaning that social protection is not a correction mechanism for the prevailing economic system, but is to be transformative and contribute to a better system that better sustains persons throughout their life cycle.
***: We need social protection systems that are based on solidarity, sharing of risks, and built on collective bargaining and social dialogue, democratic structures and long-term strategies to combat poverty and address inequalities and inequity. Universal social protection is essential to achieve gender equality and there is a strong link between the provision of public services and the ability of women to enter the labor market, to address unpaid care work responsibilities and to ensure that children have access to health and social services. The international financial institutions (IFIs) continue to promote social protection reforms that focus on targeting, which is less efficient and more costly, rather than promoting a broad coverage. (Sandra Vermuyten, Public Services International)

9. Demands can and will differ from country to country depending on the priorities of local groups. But principles of social protection are to be universal and are the following: (They are to be used by all groups preparing the strategies for their social struggles)

Embed the right to social protection in national legislation and laws
• Public authorities have the primary responsibility to guarantee social protection. The same is to be rights-based and be organized on a non-profit basis. All countries are to ratify and implement the relevant treaties and conventions and embed the right to social protection in their national laws.
Respect core labor standards and eliminate all discrimination
• Social protection systems are to include ILO’s Core Labor Standards, an adequate level of living wages, as well as minimum income levels. They must eliminate all discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or sexual orientation. They must include a series of social services, such as a right to water, health, nutrition, education, public transport, energy and communication, housing, vocational training, etc.
Guarantee solidarity-based and redistributive financing mechanisms for universal social protection
• Social protection is affordable, even in the poorest countries, provided there is sufficient political determination. Sufficient means to implement a well-developed social protection system are to be provided at the national and international level. However, unfair tax policies, nationally and internationally, reduce the capacity of countries to invest in social protection and essential public services. More international cooperation is needed to stop these destructive tendencies.
Involve citizens and social movements in the development and governance of social protection systems
• The design, development, monitoring and evaluation of national and international policies for social protection must be a participatory, inclusive and democratic process. Social organizations, such as trade unions, solidarity-based health groups, organizations of farmers and small businesses and informal sector and domestic workers know best what the real needs of people are. Public support for social protection systems is to be built through social dialogue.
Enact coherent policies to strengthen social protection systems at national, regional and international levels
• Social protection is part of a reproduction process that cannot be de-linked from the production process, while both must be aimed at human sustainability throughout the life cycle. Public policies in all fields have an impact on countries’ capacities to set up comprehensive and universal social protection systems including environmental and agricultural policies, trade and investment agreements, etc. International financial institutions and international cooperation in general have a huge responsibility in enabling States to provide social protection for all.

10. Bottom line: Although we already have an International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, we do not have a specific codified text about rights to universal social protection. Much work to be done.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

-In HR work, we need a plan and not just become a brand. Working for the sake of a brand becomes a problem, because we end up making decisions based on protecting the brand as opposed to on building the largest HR movement that we can with a much more open ethos, a plan, a vision and a mission. (adapted from Naomi Klein)
-The hour calls for optimism; we will save pessimism for better times. (Jean-Claude Servais)

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