Governments can no longer shirk human rights responsibility

A new UN protocol raises economic and cultural rights to the same prominence as civil and political rights.

Guernica mural in London [Getty]
This tapestry replica of Picasso's 'Guernica' was formerly displayed in the United Nations' New York headquarters. Cultural rights will now be treated by the UN with the same importance as political rights [GALLO/GETTY]

The idea is simple: all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. No exceptions. Yet, in the 65 years since the modern human rights movement was born from the ashes of World War II, some rights have been seen as more crucial than others.

Civil and political rights have been prioritised over economic, social and cultural rights. Governments have ignored their obligations to promote the right to education, health, housing, food and a living wage. 

Numerous promises of overseas direct aid have been broken. Governments claim lack of resources and argue they are not responsible. They have allowed responsibility for helping those living in poverty to fall on charitable organisations, while continuing to invest in military assistance.

There is nothing inevitable about poverty, and income disparity is not just a matter of numbers. They are a consequence of laws, policies and practices of governments; an indicator of whether a state is committed to promoting equality. Those that reject the principle of equality do so knowing that they are placing individual lives at risk.

Vast numbers of people globally are denied their rights to adequate housing, food, water, sanitation, health, work and education due to lack of political will rather than lack of resources.

Every 90 seconds, a woman or girl dies over pregnancy related complications – complications that can be treated. Lack of investment in health care services and entrenched discriminatory attitudes towards women mean that countless women die – women who could have easily been saved.

Each day, thousands of people move to slums because they have no other options. In some cases they were forcibly evicted from their land. In other cases, the failure of the government to address environmental degradation means that they had to move to survive. On current trends, 1.4 billion people will live in slums by 2020.

It is impossible for people who are poor to be treated equally before the law and difficult for those who are ill and without access to healthcare to participate actively in society.

And yet, despite their neglect, these rights are enshrined in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; a treaty that has been ratified by 160 states and has the same status under international law as other human rights – such as the right to a fair trial and the right to free speech.

Amnesty International can point to many examples where governments routinely flout international law protecting these rights, such as in Nigeria, where the local government in Port Harcourt on August 28, 2009, ignored a court order and demolished a waterfront settlement, leaving more than 13,000 people homeless; or in Slovenia, where many Roma families living in informal settlements are denied access to water and sanitation. From segregated education of schoolchildren in Europe to the lack of access to reproductive health care for women in Africa and the Americas, the list goes on.

Access to justice and an effective remedy is essential for victims of all human rights violations and a new hope is on offer to victims of these violations. On May 5, the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights came into force.

Ten countries – from Ecuador and Argentina to Spain and Portugal – have accepted the new mechanism, enabling individuals and groups to seek justice from the United Nations should their economic, social or cultural rights be violated and an effective remedy in their own country be unavailable.

Almost 40 years after the equivalent protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force we have finally achieved parity between the two treaties and given true meaning to the principle of indivisibility and interrelatedness of all rights that found expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite this significant step, not a single African country is currently party to the protocol, while Mongolia is the only Asian country to ratify it. Worldwide, just ten of the 160 countries that are in a position to ratify the protocol have done so.

I congratulate the first ten countries that have ratified the protocol, but all other states must follow. For human rights to be truly achieved, everyone whose rights are violated, whether civil and political or economic, social or cultural, must have an effective remedy. The legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights demands no less.

Salil Shetty is the Secretary General of Amnesty International. A long-term activist on poverty and justice, he leads the movement’s worldwide work to end the abuse of human rights. Prior to joining Amnesty International, he was the director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign.

You can follow Salil on Twitter: @salilshetty