A few days ago, the world celebrated Human Rights Day, which is the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), drafted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on the 10th of December in 1948, as GA Res 217 A, and set as a common standard for individuals and nations to achieve - for the first time in human history, human rights were universally protected.
The UDHR, along with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) form the ‘International Bill of Human Rights,’ (IBHR).
Okay, hold up, what are human rights?
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the principal human rights official of the United Nations, defines human rights as rights inherent to all human beings"...whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status."
However, interestingly enough, the UNHCHR also adds:
"Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law , general principles and other sources of international law."
In general there are two types of human rights: positive human rights, and negative human rights; negative rights usually oblige inaction, and positive rights usually oblige action.
Put more simply, negative rights do not require governmental efforts to be provided, examples of negative rights are freedom of speech, freedom of worship and right to life; the government doesn't need to really do anything to let you say whatever you want to say, for example.
Positive rights, on the other hand, require governmental efforts to be provided, such as the right to housing, clean water and education - so socioeconomic rights, more or less.
Two questions come to mind:
1- Can we make the assumption that, for example, if a government doesn't provide its citizens with positive rights, then it isn't breaching human rights?
2- Is it always the case that these positive socioeconomic rights, are always, well... positive?
Well, let's take a look...
According to Article 2, subsection 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, all parties to the Covenant are bound to take steps in any way possible to the maximum of their resources to achieve progressively the rights mentioned in the Covenant, which are, primarily, positive socioeconomic rights.
To the maximum of their resources...
That's a key phrase we're going to focus on. Keep it in mind.
Article 4 in the ICESCR says that parties to the Covenant have the right to subject the rights mentioned in the Covenant to limitations as are determined by law "... only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society."
Let's take an example:
In Egypt, free education is available in all stages of education, from primary to high education. However, in South Africa, free education is available from primary to middle education. So if a South African citizen wishes to pursue a secondary education, they have to find the means to pay for it, and the government is under no obligation to provide secondary education for free, and it wouldn't be breaching human rights. The same would apply to Egypt if it decided that higher education should not be free of charge and that students should pay the true price of receiving education from a governmentally sponsored institution like Cairo University, for example.
So to answer the first question, yes. A government is obligated, in general, to the maximum of its resources, or capabilities, to achieve the socioeconomic rights mentioned in the Covenant, or at the very least, not to prevent their development. This brings us to answering the next question: are positive socioeconomic rights always positive?
In a report by the BBC, "The United Nations has warned that more than 8.2 million people in Ethiopia will be in need of food aid by the beginning of 2016 because of a severe drought."
The worst-affected areas in Ethiopia have experienced a 90% drop in crop yield this year. The Ethiopian government has set aside £130m to deal with the crisis but the UN said that it needs more than twice as much to solve the crisis. Here, the government is not able to provide more than this amount of money from its current national budget, so if the government chooses to invest this sum in a certain way that it won't be able to save the entire Ethiopian population, then it's not breaching human rights, nor is it breaching international law. Because according to Article 2, it is trying to achieve the right to food to the maximum of its resources.
Suppose, on the other hand, that the government ignored the crisis altogether and used the £130m that it could have used to solve the crisis for something else. Not only would it be breaching the ICESCR, in particular Article 2, but it would also be breaching negative human rights - the access to food, eventually, will no longer be there.
I would argue that this form of government intervention is preventing Ethiopians, indirectly, from the right to life. The government would then be slowly killing its population. In this case, if the Ethiopian government does that, it would be breaching multiple sources of international law, in particular the ICESR, the ICCPR, and the UDHR, or rather, the IBHR.
So, next time you read a news article about a government policy and you think it's against human rights, can you argue that it was illegal?
14 Dec. 2015.
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, n.d. Web.
Commissioner for Human Rights, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.