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Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Headed for another Cold War?

Welcome to our blog, the Human Righter. We shed light on contemporary human rights issues and comment on human rights developments. We dig deep into our focus areas within human rights, discuss SDGs and human rights. You will also find book reviews and analyses of new laws.

Prof. Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, Executive director at Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, former Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

Adj. Prof. Morten Kjaerum, member of the UN Board of Trustees of the Voluntary Fund for Technical Cooperation in the field of Human Rights, Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute

Most of us notice it.

Since the Ukraine war started, fuel and food prices are skyrocketing. And it again hits those in an already precarious position hardest. An additional 198 million people had already fallen into extreme poverty due to COVID-19, and the World Bank estimates that the recent price increases will add 65 million to this figure: these people will not be able to satisfy even their basic needs. Hunger and unrest will follow. In combination with ongoing extreme climatic conditions, more people are pushed to migrate out of despair.

But this is not a question of purchasing power alone. It also shows a lack of commitment to uphold legally binding economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR). Markets have traditionally been trusted to create economic growth, but they were not assessed either for their ability to reduce inequalities, or for their contribution to ensuring that housing, food, education or healthcare be affordable and accessible to all. Yet, even before the rise of the pandemic and the Ukraine war, inequalities were driving protests globally. Populations understand that markets cannot remain a human rights free zone.

International financial institutions and capital markets should see ESCR for what they are, part of the rule of law in the countries where they operate and treat them as such. ESCR provide one of the few agreed upon international frameworks to help create a better tomorrow. But they are now at a critical juncture: they could either become the glue to put the multilateral system back together or they could fall victim, once again, to opposing geopolitical forces. Despite human rights being proclaimed indivisible and of equal importance, the political climate of the Cold War led to an artificial divide between ESCRs and civil and political rights. Already in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave equal importance to both sets of rights.

During its drafting,  a Chilean diplomat, Hernan Santa Cruz, with support from many others, including the US delegate Eleanor Roosevelt, pushed for the inclusion of ESCR as they felt the document needed to address both the freedom from fear and freedom from want.  ESCR are not “second generation rights”, rather, they were always seen as essential to real freedom, and both sets of rights were perceived as interdependent and interrelated. The Cold War however did create a cleavage, and ESCR fell victim. They failed to provide signposts for development and economic activity, as they all too often were pushed aside by Western governments and major institutions dominated by Western powers.

In recent years ESCR were slowly gaining adherents. The European Union newly prioritized ESCR within its external human rights policy. Likewise, the Managing Director at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressed concern about how IMF actions can undermine or enhance the rights to health, education and social protection. And while the United States has been traditionally skeptical,  the new US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council spoke of the importance of ESCR at this moment in history. Nonetheless, more efforts are neded to ensure that these rights are treated as human rights, with the clear legal consequences that this entails, and not simply as development goals or synonymous of social progress.

ESCR remain marginal to the work of most international agencies promoting poverty alleviation and social development even at a time when the global economy has to be rebuilt: “building back better” or rather “build forward fairer”. Within the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), while its Secretariat side has a good deal of activity related to ESCR, its operational side has been fairly light. The current High Commissioner has pushed for change and operational activity related to ESCR is increasing, but it still represents a very small fraction of its activities and budget.  Most of OHCHR’s largest donors do not contribute much to this area of work.

Recently, China and some countries from the non-aligned movement pushed for more operational support for OHCHR’s ESCR work. The resolution was not perfect. But these countries typically do not support greater operational capacity for OHCHR, and against that background, this move can be seen as an interesting development. In the end however, geopolitics took over and no Western country supported this ESCR resolution.  The fear of China’s influence is real and may have played a significant role in the lack of consensus; yet global consensus is needed to grow OHCHR’s work in this area.

Some Western countries want to see China provide more budgetary support to OHCHR and other international entities. Others instead fear such an engagement, already worrying that China has become the second largest contributor to UN assessed contributions. Some Nordic countries recently announced cuts to the amounts of money they had indicated they would donate to OHCHR in 2022, citing the impacts of the war in Ukraine.  In this context China’s influence as a donor will continue to increase.

The recent visit to China of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet should be read against this background.  It was high-stakes and high-risk. It was bound to disappoint and to create misunderstandings, and maybe it was inopportune. But it should not be invoked as a pretext to derail efforts of the OHCHR to promote ESCR, the role of which in guiding reconstruction efforts is more urgent and more important than ever.

Even without the visit, it was predictable that China would begin to provide more voluntary contributions to OHCHR. They now provide about 10% of what Finland donates and about 4% of the US donates. Their contribution should increase, not decrease.

A contribution by China into this area of work should increase and should come without any strings attached.  OHCHR’s traditional donors as well as others should follow suit.  A global consensus may emerge on the need to do more in this area.  The concern is that  the exact opposite evolution is also possible. Geopolitics again may send ESCR back into the freezer, just like it happened in the 1950s, although they are needed more than ever.

That is unfortunately how international geopolitics sometimes works: the support of one country for ESCR may mean that other countries will oppose them, simply because they fear a hidden agenda or a diversion of attention from other issues perceived as more pressing.

That reaction would be understandable and  to a certain extent predictable. But it would be wrong. Inequality and several other underlying problems in our societies, from populism to terrorism require attention to ESCR of those most excluded from the benefits of economic growth. A conception of human rights that would marginalise ESCR would fail to embrance the concerns of most of the population.  The world can’t afford to wait another 75 years to have ESCR play the role they must play to ensure the world becomes a better place.


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