Social Justice is gaining Momentum
By Anthony Ravlich
Chairperson, Human Rights Council Inc.
The very controversial economic, social and cultural rights, first championed by New Zealand at the United Nations
almost 56 years ago, have finally got significant recognition in this country in the Human Rights Commission’s major
study, Human Rights in New Zealand Today, released last month.
There appears to be a growing global emphasis on social justice however it seems that there seems to be a concern by
government that widespread knowledge of these economic, social and cultural rights, which envisage a more egalitarian
society, may open a pandora’s box. In the past these human rights have been deliberately kept from the people.
The above study is part of the New Zealand Plan of Action for Human Rights launched by the Human Rights Commission on 10
Dec 2002. The final action plan report is due on 10 Dec 2004 and this is expected to be discussed by Cabinet early next
According to the United Nations Handbook on National Action Plans 15 countries had completed their action plans by April
2004. It is anticipated that more countries will follow suit. Most of the action plans so far include economic, social
and cultural rights which regard employment, fair wages, health, housing, education and an adequate standard of living
as human rights to be, similar to the traditional civil and political rights, ideally ensured by government and
protected in the courts. This global concern for social justice may represent an attempt to undermine the support base
of the terrorists by, for example, offering hope to angry, unemployed young men who are often a source of recruits for
terrorist activity. It may also be an attempt to address some of the concerns of protestors against the World Bank, IMF
and WTO, in the mass demonstrations from Seattle to Calcun.
Countries may restrict knowledge of economic, social and cultural rights because they provide a challenge to the
dominant ideology and/or for reasons of social stability. Economic, social and cultural rights provide a major challenge
to the neo-liberal ideology which dominates world wide and in New Zealand because they empower the poor and the ordinary
people. Economic globalisation and privatisation should not involve infringing economic, social and cultural rights. In
the view of Yash Ghai – “The regime of rights provides the nearest thing to a coherent change to economic globalisation.
It emphasises the importance of human dignity, the right to work in just conditions and in return for fair wages, the
right to welfare….Contemporary economic globalisation is self-evidently inconsistent with these objectives” (The East
Asian Challenge For Human Rights, ed J. Bauer, Daniel Bell, 1999, p59). In addition those countries where the poor also
have few civil and political rights may be concerned about social stability as economic, social and cultural rights
provide the poor with an ideology to fight for. If unable to influence government through the democratic process the
oppressed may only have recourse to terrorism.
While New Zealand ratified both sets of human rights under international law in 1978 only civil and political rights
have been included in domestic law in the form of the Human Rights Act 1993 and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990
which contain the traditional liberal rights such as the rights to life, liberty, fair trial, democratic rights, freedom
of speech, association, non-discrimination etc.
Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen is one of many who challenge scholars, policymakers, and human rights
advocates to give greater attention to the economic and social rights so often ignored. He asks, “Why should the status
of intense economic needs, which can be matters of life and death, be lower than that of personal liberties?” (Realising
Human Rights, ed Samantha Power, Graham Allison, 2000, pxiv).
America has been one of the most staunch opponents of economic, social and cultural rights since the UDHR came into
being. Noam Chomsky states that economic, social and cultural rights are “largely dismissed in the West” and furthermore
that in the United States the “contempt for the socio-economic provisions of the Declaration are…deeply ingrained”
(Human Rights Fifty years on – A reappraisal ed Tony Evans, 1998, pp32-39). For example, early this year at the UN with
America leading the way, Australia and the UK were the major opponents of an Optional Protocol for the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which would have enabled those suffering from serious social
injustices to lay a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee (as has been possible under civil and political rights
since 1976). Although these countries have managed to delay the decision to draft an Optional Protocol for a further two
years that it is being seriously considered also indicates the growing international concern for social justice despite
the continuing global dominance of the neo-liberal ideology espoused by the US in particular. New Zealand was described
by Maria Graterol, representing a major South East Asia NGO, as “light opposition” to the Optional Protocol, against
immediate drafting but happy to continue discussions.
New Zealanders generally consider that they have enviable human rights record however they may not think so if
employment, fair wages, health, housing etc are also regarded as human rights. Neo-liberalism, advocates a limited
state, requires these social problems to be seen as more of an individual responsibility than a state responsibility.
New Zealanders appear to have been deliberately kept in the dark with respect to economic, social and cultural rights.
For instance section 5(a) of the Human Rights Act 1993 also requires that people be educated in these rights yet by the
Human Rights Commission’s own admission successive governments have refused to fund the education. Sir Geoffrey Palmer
in an address to the International Law Association on 30 April 1998 stated: “Although not often acknowledged, members of
the United Nations are under a legal obligation to act in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter.
Under the Charter they have a legal duty to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
Index New Zealand at the Public Library list articles written in New Zealand magazines and newspapers. It cites 1221
articles written on civil rights since 2002 but only 16 articles written on economic, social and cultural rights since
1996. Also over the past 14 months the action plan, which includes economic, social and cultural rights, has received
very little publicity in fact no articles could be found in Index New Zealand. To my knowledge where there has been
publicity economic, social and cultural rights have not been mentioned. Since I began promoting these human rights in
1991 no member of parliament, that I am aware of has been reported in the media promoting economic, social and cultural
rights. And yet it was included in the Labour Party’s Human Rights Policy.
Incidentally since I have been promoting these rights I have never gained a professional position despite 100s of
attempts. According to Kathy Lys, Consultation Facilitator for the action plan, the main areas of participation were the
facilitated consultation meetings involving 3144 individuals, the web-based survey involving 14 groups and 158
individuals, the employment outreach project involving 42 organisations and groups and 511 individuals and the
Children’s rights project involving 745 individuals. However a random sample of the Auckland telephone directory
conducted by the present writer found that only 4 out of 50 individuals contacted had heard of the action plan. In
addition 23 citizen’s advice bureaus were contacted. Twenty-one of those on telephone duty had not heard of the action
plan and none of the bureaus had any information on it.
In 1948 the New Zealand delegation led by former PM Peter Fraser to the ‘great debate’ at the United Nations antagonised
its Western allies by supporting the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights in the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. At the time and throughout the Cold War the western capitalist countries promoted the traditional liberal
rights, civil and political rights while the eastern communist countries championed economic, social and cultural
rights. Professor Paul Lauren, who visited New Zealand in 1998 to research the role New Zealand played at the United
Nations stated: “In launching this revolution, New Zealand was far out in front of other nations, though its role is not
generally known and certainly not appreciated” (NZ Herald 10 Dec 1998).
In 1951 at the insistence of the west the universal declaration was divided into two covenants reflecting the different
sets of rights. This ensured that human rights were to continue to be a political football. By prioritizing certain
rights over others certain interests are favored. Socialist countries tend to favor the interests of workers and the
most disadvantaged while liberal democratic countries tend to revolve around the middle class professional sector. The
United Nations has constantly maintained, at least in terms of rhetoric, that both sets of human rights should have
equal status (Vienna Declaration 1993, Limburg Principles 1987). However Mary Robinson, formerly UN Commissioner for
Human Rights, admitted in 1998 that economic, social and cultural rights have been marginalised particularly since the
collapse of communism. She stated:
“We must be honest and recognise there has been an imbalance in the promotion at the international (also regional and
national) level of economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development on one hand, and of civil and
political rights on the other” (Discussion Paper Re-evaluation of the Human Rights protections in New Zealand, October
2000, pp21-22). In New Zealand, Margaret Wilson, Attorney General, virtually repeated the words of Mary Robinson in her
address to the Asia Pacific Forum in August 2000.
A common criticism of economic, social and cultural rights is that it is completely unrealistic to expect to provide
these rights to nearly half the world living on less than $2 per day. Consequently the west usually regards these human
rights a aspirational and only to be achieved progressively. However the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights considers that the covenant would lack any meaning unless the core content of each right was
addressed immediately (General Comment 3). Consequently while these human rights are to be achieved progressively there
are certain core obligations that must be addressed immediately. Austria gave considerable support for this view at the
recent UN Human Rights Commission’s meeting discussing the previously mentioned Optional Protocol. Core obligations in
New Zealand terms could refer to homelessness, serious cases on the hospital waiting list, benefits below the poverty
line, eliminating the use of food banks and begging, illiteracy and long term unemployment.
Another criticism is that economic, social and cultural rights are non-justiciable (not amenable to judicial decision
making). New Zealand also takes this view. However South Africa (and Denmark) has justiciable economic, social and
cultural rights in their constitution. They were applied, for example, in the case of Grootbroom.
In my opinion civil and political rights, the rights to life, liberty, fair trial, freedom of speech, association etc.
are only readily accessed in an egalitarian society where there is no great power or economic differences. For instance
in liberal democracies it is by and large the professional sector who own and/or control the mass media and the work
place. They have powerful associations, like the Business Roundtable, to influence government and their dominance in
parliament has grown over the years. Jack Nagel in the British Journal of Political Science (1998) provided statistics
on the occupations of NZ Labour MPs – in 1935 only 17.9% were from a professional, semi-professional background but by
1984 this had risen to 73.2%.
Tyson and Aziz Said state: “The model of of the modern democratic state was – and still is – a capitalist, mercantilist,
middle-class system and society, emphasising civil and political rights, and arguing that economic, social and cultural
rights will come later, that they have to wait, because after all, “these things take time”, as old segregationists in
the south of the United States used to say” (Human Rights: A Forgotten Victim of the Cold War, Human Rights Quarterly
It is perhaps not surprising that from 1982 to 1996 looking at the decile average of household equivalent disposable
income the top income group 10 increased their income 32.4% ($62100 to $82200), income group 9 increased by 2.8% with
the other eight income groups taking a decrease some quite large i.e. group 4, -10.8%; group 5, -9.3% (Our Children –
the priority for policy, Child Poverty Action Group, 2001, p8). By contrast, the most disadvantaged have little access
to their civil and political rights. I am speaking from 13 years experience as a human rights activist working at the
bottom end of society.
While I have tried to do statistical research in the area there seems to be a reluctance to fund such research. However,
I was reliably informed by a Human Rights Commission source that ‘the poor stay away in droves’. Henry Shue maintains:
“It is fraudulent, in other words, to promise liberties in the absence of security, subsistence and any other basic
rights” (Basic Rights, princeton University Press 1980).
Francis Fukuyama describes liberal democracy as the doctrine of individual freedom and popular sovereignty (i.e. civil
and political rights). He adds that in its economic manifestation, liberalism is the recognition of the right of free
economic activity and economic exchange based on private property and markets. Fukuyama states that the number of
liberal democratic countries increased dramatically, from 30 countries in 1975 to 61 countries in 1990 before the
collapse of communism in 1989. Without communist support economic, social and cultural rights became completely
marginalised and neo-liberalism increased its global domination.
Tony Evans states: “Instead of fulfilling its intention of offering protection to the weak and the vulnerable,
neo-liberal interests have co-opted the idea of human rights as a justification for grabbing 'even more of the world’s
(and their own nations) resources than they previously had’ and ‘to steal back the concessions to social democracy that
were forced out of them at the end of the Second World War” (The Politics of Human Rights, 2001, p104).
In my view while liberalism, during the Cold War, tended to be confined to the state neo-liberalism is essentially
imperialistic because it is prepared to use military and structural violence to spread liberal democracy e.g. Iraq. Also
the structural adjustment progams of the World Bank and IMF involving cutting back on welfare is structural violence.
Ideological and economic globalisation go hand in hand. Limited government ensures large private sectors suitable for
the corporate control rather than state control of, for example, the Iraqi oil fields.
With economic, social and cultural rights now more prominent activists could utilise the democratic process to promote
these human rights and ensure that political parties indicate where they stand on human rights and let New Zealanders
decide on the future of these human rights.
PS. The Human Rights Council Inc. provides courses on human rights.