Human rights are central to understanding – and arresting – the rise in right-wing populism. Farage, Trump, Le Pen and their fellow travellers gain strength from the poverty, inequality and unfairness experienced by millions of working and middle class families. Their experience is sometimes laced with prejudice and intolerance. This perfect human rights storm demands an urgent human rights response. But, if this response is to succeed, human rights need to be refreshed for modern times and understood as important to us all.
This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the world’s two most important international human rights treaties – the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. All British governments since 1966 have signed up to these legally binding Covenants. Their anniversary is the occasion to reclaim and renew human rights for the post-Brexit era.
The history of the twin Covenants highlights their contemporary relevance. Amid the ruins of the Second World War, governments grasped that human rights are needed as safeguards, not only against authoritarianism, but also against the causes of authoritarianism. Remembering the 1920s and 30s, they understood that financial crisis, poverty and widening inequality provided fertile ground for the right-wing populism which led to war. So, in 1945, governments made the promotion of human rights one of the four key objectives of the new UN. Out of this historic commitment grew the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Covenants in 1966.
One of the Covenants protects civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech, which are designed as bulwarks against authoritarianism. The other enshrines economic, social and cultural rights, such as an adequate standard of living, affordable housing, food, education, an equitable health system and workers’ rights, which are designed to eliminate the economic and social causes of authoritarianism.
But in the modern era of globalisation and economic neoliberalism, governments forgot history and their obligation to take all reasonable measures to deliver economic, social and cultural rights for everyone. For millions of families, governments failed to provide the conditions for decent work, a reasonable standard of living and affordable homes. Poverty, inequality and a sense of injustice deepened. This neglect – a neglect of human rights – contributed to Brexit and Trump’s presidential success.
Of all the rights in the twin Covenants, social rights were – and remain – the most overlooked. Take the UK, for example. Civil and political rights are protected by the Human Rights Act which the government wishes to replace with a British Bill of Rights. Powerful forces in the legal profession and elsewhere will rightly rally to the Act’s defence if the government moves against it. Economic rights – better known as workers’ rights – have been seriously eroded in recent decades and must be strengthened. Despite all the obstacles put in their way, trade unions protect workers’ rights, just as GMB did in last month’s landmark case against Uber. When confronted with Islamophobic and other hate crimes, many well-established organisations, including faith groups, call for cultural rights, non-discrimination and equality to be respected. All these human rights are – and must continue to be – protected by their defenders.
But what about social rights? Although successive polls show considerable public support for the idea of social rights, they are largely invisible in the UK. No major interest group consistently comes to their defence.
Who knows there is a right to an adequate standard of living so that nobody should have to rely upon a foodbank? Or a right to education, including access to skills training? Or a right to health protection, including effective measures against child obesity? Or a right to social security based on respect not sanctions? Or a right to affordable housing? Of course, strategies for these social rights are not going to be implemented overnight. The Covenant is realistic. It requires social rights to be realised over a reasonable period of time, as a national priority, accompanied by accountability arrangements to make sure promises are kept. UN committees are dismayed at how the social rights of those living in poverty, and the “just managing”, have been drastically weakened in recent years.
Social rights establish a culture, not of entitlement, but of accountability. These left behind rights are especially vital to left behind individuals and communities. Twenty-five years ago, the content of social rights was not clear, but now their main features are taking shape, enabling them to play multiple roles. They not only establish the values for a fair society, such as equality, freedom and decent living standards, they also provide a detailed guide for policy makers, including in the Brexit negotiations. They position us all as empowered rights-holders, not clients or supplicants.
In the post Brexit era, human rights practice needs strengthening. Equal attention must be devoted to all rights – social rights must no longer be neglected. Although the conventional view is that human rights place obligations on governments alone, they must also be understood as placing obligations on other bodies wielding enormous public power in our globalised world, such as corporations. Social rights must be shaped by the left behind, not the privileged and powerful. They have to be popular and participatory. Human rights have to strike a fairer, healthier balance between individualism and the public good, without ever permitting the individual to become a victim of any collective. Crucially, it must be recognised that human rights are relevant to the lives of everyone and a selective human rights approach diminishes people and rights.
For the time being, right-wing populism is in the ascendancy. But it is not too late for individuals, communities, civil society and progressive political parties to organise around renewed human rights, including social rights. There is no better time to do this than on the fiftieth anniversary of the twin Covenants.
Paul Hunt is a UN independent human rights expert (1999-2008) and Professor at the Human Rights Centre, Essex University. Ruth Lister is a Labour peer and Emeritus Professor, Loughborough University and Chair Compass Management Committee. Both are patrons of Just Fair.