The indivisibility of human rights

International human rights can be categorised into two main sets of rights: civil and political rights (CPR) on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) on the other. Taken together, these sets of rights form the foundation for the international normative human rights regime. Although they impose different obligations on the state, the two sets of rights are generally considered by the international community as “universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated”, and as such should be treated in an equal and fair manner and with the same emphasis (Vienna Declaration 1993).

However, this position does not reveal the deep and longstanding disagreement over the status of and relationship between the two sets of rights. From one extreme to the other, the views stretch from ESCRs being superior to civil and political rights – for what use is the right to free speech if one cannot read or write? – to ESCRs not constituting rights at all. Most NGOs and the international community at large, however, support a more intermediate view, whereby these rights are given equal status and importance. Nonetheless, the implementation and recognition of ESCRs in domestic legislation have a tendency of being neglected in favour of civil and political rights. This can arguably be attributed to the different nature of the two sets of rights: ESCRs presupposes a proactive state that attends to the citizens’ needs whilst civil and political rights revolve around limiting the state’s interference in citizens’ lives.

The debate

The debate over the indivisibility of rights dates back to the Cold War period and carries much ideological baggage. Countries such as Russia and China have consistently argued that ESCRs have equal status to civil and political rights. Countries like these have on a number of occasions been criticised for breaching civil and political rights, but have been less inclined to breach ESCRs. Equating the two groups of rights makes it easier for more authoritarian states to point to countries usually considered to uphold and support civil and political rights when such countries fail to uphold or sufficiently implement ESCRs. In other words, the indivisibility argument is a simple way of pointing fingers at traditionally more liberal democracies (like Norway) for breaching their human rights obligations as they can claim breaching ESCRs is as grave a breach as committing torture, persecution and crack-down in political dissent.

Moreover, in recent decades the discussion has also taken a North-South dimension. How can developing countries be expected to be held to the same standards as more developed countries? Should the respect for rights by poorer states be connected to development aid, trade and other economic concessions?

On the other hand we find those who argue that in the absence of civil and political rights, ESCRs will be violated and abused.  Armatya Sen has for instance stated that the conceptualization of “economic needs depends on open public debates and discussions, and the guaranteeing of those debates and those discussions requires an insistence on political rights” (Sen: 1994).  Economic disasters such as famines are less likely to occur in countries with democratic systems in place, as an active political population, a free press and the practice of democracy can have a great impact on prevention policies aimed at avoiding social and economic disasters, Sen argues.

The solution       

Like many other NGO’s, the Oslo Center works mainly in the sphere of civil and political rights. Our main programme is on democracy assistance which entails strengthening political institutions and processes, creating spaces for open political dialogue and enhancing electoral legislation and frameworks.

However, this is not to say that the respect for and promotion of ESCRs is of lesser importance. It is clear that democracy in itself does not automatically guarantee universal access to education, an adequate standard of living, adequate health services or grants people the right to participate fully in the cultural life of the community. Social and economic injustice, inequalities and legal discrimination lead to unequal enjoyment of social services. Such trends can be remedied by empowering citizens, correct legal defects and encouraging civil society organisations to campaign against social, economic and cultural practices that sustain unfair and unjust practices (Alston and Robinson: 2005).

As such, the solution is a functioning democracy where active political participation, room for dissent, freedom of the press and freedom of speech creates a framework in which ESCRs rights can be promoted, respected and upheld. Similarly, ESCRs should serve as a foundation for developing democratic mindsets and encouraging public participation. In other words, civil and political rights and ESCRs are considered interdependent, indivisible and of equal importance.

White Paper on Human Rights and Foreign Affairs

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is currently in the process of drafting a White Paper on Human Rights in Foreign and Development Policies. In connection with the drafting process, the Oslo Center and a number of other NGO’s and civil society organisations have signed an open letter to the MFA aimed at ensuring that the White Paper’s perspective, priorities, recommendations and actions will reflect the indivisibility and interdependence of the two sets of rights. Given the importance of recognising the two sets of rights as a means to achieving a well-functioning democracy, the Oslo Center has given its unquestioned support to this stance.

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