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Respect for socio-economic rights is crucial to human dignity,
as it demonstrates our fundamental agreement about basic aspects of human existence
- Jerome Connolly



Social & Economic Rights


Billy Mitchell
The Other View, Winter 2001


While I fully support the principle of human rights being enshrined in domestic legislation, and welcome the debate that has been generated as a result of the Belfast Agreement, I have grave reservations both about the unrepresentative composition of the Human Rights Commission and the approach to human rights adopted by the Commission. My concerns are not that the Commission has gone too far in attempting to address the human rights deficit, but that it has not gone far enough and that it has not produced anything that will make a whit of difference to ordinary people living in marginalised communities.

My primary interest in the current human rights debate is the issue of socio-economic rights and I am pleased to see that the Commission has rejected the dualism that separates social and economic rights from human rights. Criticism of the Commission on this issue appears to me to be unjust and contrary to the widely accepted belief that human rights are indivisible and interdependent. Economic inequality and the social exclusion and poverty that stem from it are human rights issues and must be addressed as such. Inequality throughout the United Kingdom has rocketed during the past twenty years and this growth in inequality, and the consequent growth of the poverty trap, makes the issue of social and economic rights all the more relevant.

As I see it, the whole concept of human rights is meaningless if those rights do not include the right to a standard of living that enriches and enhances the experience of being human. The most fundamental of human rights is the right to life and if life is to mean life as opposed to mere existence, then everyone ought to have the right to a standard of living that develops and expands his or her dignity and worth as a human being. Thus the right to life presupposes certain social and economic rights - the right to work, the right to health care, the right to education, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to adequate and affordable housing, the right to a safe and healthy environment. These rights are fundamental, not aspirational. Without them the right to life does not hold a great deal of meaning.

The importance of social and economic rights is summed up in the following words of Jerome Connolly, "Respect for socio-economic rights is crucial to human dignity, as it demonstrates our fundamental agreement about basic aspects of human existence. Socio-economic rights recognise that to be hungry, cold, shelterless, or avoidably ill violates our dignity and erodes our prospects of developing as human beings. Without enjoying the right to be relieved at the very least of extreme need, we lack a fundamental element to the enjoyment and exercise of many other rights. Thus the struggle against poverty and the promotion of social and economic rights are two sides of the same coin."

My main criticism of the Draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is that it neither improves on existing European or International conventions on social and economic rights nor does it indicate how it's minimalist approach will make a difference to ordinary people. What we need is a core set of social and economic principles that can be used as a basis to assist society and its elected representatives to proof new legislation and update existing legislation. We must never forget that human rights is first and foremost a people's issue and must be defined by representatives of the people in consultation with the people. Rights are far to important to be left to a legal system that thrives on adversarial courtroom contests.

The Commission has not given us anything that meets the need for a proofing mechanism. Clauses such as "everyone has the right to just and favourable conditions of work" (see 14.f.3 of the Draft Bill) is far too vague to be used as baseline for legislation. Nor has it succeeded in stimulating real debate amongst ordinary people living in marginalised communities, or indeed using language with which the people can identify.

Legislation, however, is not enough. Even where we have legislation - such as the National Minimum Wage Act, the Employment Relations Act, Working Time Regulations, etc - there are widespread breaches that impact adversely on the most vulnerable in society. Human rights cannot be defended by legislation alone, they can only be defended by the development of a human rights culture that is rooted and grounded in just relationships and respect for human dignity within and across the political and social divisions that exist in the Province. This will mean decommissioning the selfish individualism and greed that motivates people to take what they can from society without making any real contribution to the common good. It will also mean radically addressing the whole issue of inequality that sees the richest 10% of the population having ten times more than the poorest 20%. Effective social and economic rights requires a more equitable distribution of power, resources and wealth. That may well require legislation, but it also requires education and changed attiudes.

Finally, many within my own Protestant community appear to have developed an approach to social and economic rights that is contrary to the core principles of our faith. We need to return to a Biblical concept of creation and the inherent worth and dignity of those who have been created in the image and likeness of God. A genuine belief in creation and the equal worth and dignity of human beings must inevitably lead to a demand for equality in respect of social and economic justice. Matthijs de Blois, in a recent article insists that "Concern for the poor and just social relations are fundamental in the Bible". He goes on to argue that the equal worth and dignity of human beings should not only lead to a recognition of formal equality, resulting in an equal legal position between human beings, it "should also find expression in a measure of equality in respect of the material means people need for their subsistence and development".

I see nothing in the Draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland that will advance the cause of social justice, address social exclusion and economic inequality, or enhance the dignity and worth of those living in marginalised communities.



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