The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948. The UDHR outlines the fundamental rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled without discrimination, declaring, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Adopted not long after the horrors of World War II, the UDHR was the UN’s first declaration regarding human rights and freedoms.
In an effort to prepare the declaration for implementation, the General Assembly charged the Commission on Human Rights with drafting covenants for the two subcomponents of rights in the declaration: civil and political (CP) rights and economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights. Following a lengthy drafting process and extensive input from participating governments, the Commission completed the two documents almost twenty years after the adoption of the UDHR. The General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on December 16, 1966.
Economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights are those that enable people to meet basic human subsistence and socioeconomic needs. The ESC rights in the ICESCR include the rights to work, to favorable working conditions, to form and join trade unions, to social security, to protection and assistance for family, to adequate standards of living and health, to education, and to participation in cultural life. (For a full list of ESC rights, see http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm.) CP rights, in contrast, relate to the protection of individual liberties. The ICCPR establishes basic CP rights like the rights to life and to freedom from slavery and compulsory labor, but also establishes protections for individual participation in political and civil matters, including freedom of movement, thought, and expression, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to equal protection before the law, and the right to peaceful assembly and association. (For a full list of CP rights, see http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm.)
The division between these two groups in many ways overlaps with the distinction between negative and positive rights. Negative rights require abstention from certain behaviors or manners of treatment, whereas positive rights require the provision of certain goods or opportunities that enable individuals to reach sufficient standards of living and health. CP rights are in many cases negative rights, in that they require that the government (or any other actor) refrains from behaviors like arbitrary arrest, torture, and discrimination. ESC rights, on the other hand, require that access to adequate nutrition, healthcare, and employment opportunities, among other things, are available for all humans. In this light, the different challenges that governments face in enacting protection and implementation of these different categories of rights become clearer.
For a number of important reasons, CP rights have generally been emphasized in the academic and international debate. Part of it is the daunting challenge of implementing ESC rights (see below). But another important element is the emphasis on CP rights by the industrialized democracies of the West. Much of the impetus for this emphasis stems from a reasonably well justified self-congratulatory impulse: CP rights are the cornerstone of our freedom and led us to development, and the same can happen to you.
But the emphasis on CP rights has become more controversial in recent decades. The “global South” has developed a stronger voice in the human rights dialogue and many critics, particularly from outside the West, argue that the CP rights outlined in the ICCPR are not at all universal, but are in fact distinctly Western values that align very closely with the so-called developed democracies of the West. This argument is perhaps most well-known in relation to what was called the “Asian values” debate, which was particularly prominent in the 1990s heyday of economic growth in Asian economies like Singapore and Hong Kong. The “Asian values” argument was put forth most forcefully by leaders like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia. Along with a number of intellectuals and policymakers, these leaders described a set of values inherent to East and Southeast Asian culture, including the prioritization of the community over the individual, the emphasis on social harmony over unrest and dissent, respect for political and religious leadership, and the insistence on hard work and loyalty. Proponents of these values contended that they were in part responsible for East Asia’s impressive economic growth and that modern Asian political systems should develop with them as a foundation (almost unfailingly in the form of single-party rule), rather than traditional Western democratic values. Unlike Western values, Lee Kuan Yew and others claimed, Asian values were not overly tolerant of eccentricity or abnormality and their stress on the community over the individual produced the social discipline necessary for economic and political development. (For more discussion of the Asian values debate, see Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom and other works.)
Political leaders and intellectuals in the West and advocates of liberalism in Asia and elsewhere cried foul at the Asian values argument, countering that Asia’s rich political and religious diversity meant that no clear political or social philosophy truly represented an Asian perspective, and that culture was an insufficient explanation for economic performance. Observers like Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen pointed out that the arguments promoters were usually authoritarian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir, whose authoritarian policies and crackdowns were conveniently rationalized in the context of the supposedly Asian focus on hard work in service of the state and national community.
The Asian values question fell out of the spotlight somewhat after Asia’s financial crisis in the late 90s, but its core notion that CP rights are not universal but a distinctly Western preoccupation and that political and economic systems in Asia (and elsewhere) should develop according to a set of unique local values (including less democratic values, where appropriate) certainly persist today, most clearly in the case of China. Establishing a foundation of political and economic programs based on values unique to a particular area or culture is an idea that remains compelling in much of the world.
Another issue that has led Western countries to emphasize CP rights is the thorny issue of responsibility for implementing ESC rights. The implementation challenges inherent in ESC rights are highly controversial, particularly in cases where the government in question has limited capacity because of low economic development and weak institutions. A common argument regarding ESC rights is that the implementation of ESC rights requires a capacity far higher than does the implementation of CP rights and that many governments are simply incapable of ensuring ESC rights. One key component of the establishment of specific human rights is the identification of a competent party whose duty it is to enforce the right in question. David Beetham summarizes the capacity argument in relation to this requirement:
“Whose duty is it to see that these ‘rights’ are met—national governments, international institutions, the UN itself? If it is the governments, can they be required to provide what they do not have the means or capacity to deliver? Since ‘ought’ entails ‘can,’ since to have an assignable duty entails a realistic possibility of being able to fulfill it, can the positive requirements of the Covenant be reasonably expected of impoverished and less than fully autonomous regimes? While we may reasonably require them to refrain from torturing their citizens, it is not obvious that we can equally require them to guarantee them all a livelihood, adequate accommodation, and a healthy environment. Moreover, for them to do so, it is contended would require a huge paternalist and bureaucratic apparatus and a corresponding extension of compulsory taxation, both of which would interfere with another basic right, the right to freedom.” (42)
However, Beetham goes on to argue that, despite being compelling in some ways, the capacity argument in fact represents anxiety over the economic redistribution and assistance entailed in the enforcement of ESC rights on a global scale. In cases where a government is incapable of securing ESC rights for its citizens, he says, it is incumbent on the UN and member states to protect such rights. The fact that many developing countries view the West as having based its early development on colonialist exploitation add force to both the intellectual and emotional argument for obligatory assistance in implementing ESC rights. (Note that Beetham is not alone in arguing that developed world resources are more than sufficient to eradicate global poverty—Jeffrey Sachs argues a similar case, most notably in The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time.) For the Western countries that would inevitably be obligated to shoulder the burden of wealth redistribution—no matter how small or large—such a position is politically difficult to support. Given the perennial debates in the UN and the international community over the responsibility of individual states in global humanitarian and security challenges, these disagreements will not be resolved anytime soon.
Thus, the ESC vs. CP debate has become more highly charged in recent years. How this plays out on the ground, however, is not always wholly related to the philosophical questions at hand. A follow-up post will look more closely at how the debate plays out in practice, and in particular, ways in which authoritarian governments have used the discourse of ESC rights to justify anti-democratic policies.