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Human Rights Made Whole

On June 18, the United Nations’ intergovernmental Human Rights Council took an important step toward eliminating the artificial divide between freedom from fear and freedom from want that has characterized the human rights system since its inception.  By giving the green light to the Optional Protocol to the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Council has established an important mechanism to expose abuses that are typically linked to poverty, discrimination, and neglect, and that victims frequently endure in silence and helplessness.

It will now be up to the UN General Assembly to provide final approval of the Protocol. If adopted, this instrument can make a real difference in the lives of those who are often left to languish at the margins of society, and are denied their economic, social, and cultural rights, such as access to adequate nutrition, health services, housing, and education.  

Sixty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized that both freedom from want and freedom from fear are indispensable preconditions for a dignified life. The Declaration unequivocally linked destitution and exclusion with discrimination and unequal access to resources and opportunities. Its framers understood that social and cultural stigmatization precludes full participation in public life and the ability to influence policies and obtain justice.

Yet this unified approach was undermined by the post-World War II logic of geopolitical blocs competing over ideas, power, and influence. Human rights were also affected by such Cold War bipolarity. Countries with planned economies argued that the need for survival superseded the aspiration to freedom, so that access to basic necessities included in the basket of economic, social, and cultural rights should take priority in policy and practice.