Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as the cornerstone of African Human Rights

Nega Ewunetie and Admasu Alemayehu Feb 28 2012

AGBAKWA, SC ‘RECLAIMING HUMANITY: (2002) 5 Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal 177

A point very often missed in human rights praxis is that economic, social and cultural rights (ESC) ‘are the only means of self-defense for millions of impoverished and marginalized individuals and groups all over the world’. Despite the international rhetoric on the equal relevance, interdependence, and indivisibility of all human rights, in practice states have paid less attention to the enforcement and implementation of ESC, and their attendant impact on the quality of life and human dignity of the citizenry, than other rights. African states, still living with the nightmares of slavery and colonial exploitation, are perhaps unsurpassed in this dreamy, rhetorical exercise.

African states ought to take the lead in enforcement of ESCR, given African’s deplorable socio-economic conditions. They ought not to emulate the industrialized states of the North which can afford the luxury of hollow rhetoric in the implementation of ESCR. Regrettably, African states have so far failed to match their words with appropriate, sufficient action. Where African leaders have asserted the importance of satisfying ESCR as part of protecting other rights, some have done so with the intention of using this rhetoric as a ploy to suppress civil and political rights.

Africa’s worsening socio-economic conditions, and resulting exacerbation of civil and political strife coupled with the current lack of interest in the enforcement of ESCR, renders the effective realization of human rights on the continent a remote possibility. Even if largely unintended, the neglect of ESCR, a substantial part of an indivisible whole, has brought about this sad state of affairs. This article contends that there is an urgent need for a change of attitude and a relocation of emphasis from neglect and discriminatory enforcement of human rights to respect and balanced, holistic enforcement. Given the prevailing socio-economic circumstances in Africa, ESCR remain the cardinal means of self-defense available to the majority of Africans.

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In the 1993 Vienna Declaration, the consensus opinion recognized the futility inherent in entrenching civil and political rights without the corresponding ESCR. This consensus emerged despite the bipolar (East-West) ideological differences, which then dominated international relations, and led to the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by means of two international covenants, and continue to have grave implications for ESCR. Long before the Vienna Declaration, the UDHR set the parameters for evaluating the legitimacy of governmental actions by codifying ‘the hopes of the oppressed, [and] supplying authoritative language to the semantics of their claims’. The euphoric ‘Never Again’ declaration by the victorious powers after World War II was intended to encapsulate humanity’s resolve to banish human misery in all its ramifications, whether arising from physical abuse or from want.

If the purpose of government is provide for the welfare and security of all citizens, governments fail to fulfill this purpose when they commit to enforcing only civil and political rights. Such an ostrich-like posture denies the various forms of state abuse against which the citizen must be protected: Above all, the state’s neglect of its citizens. Even opponents of enforceable ESCR recognize this axiom. The de facto commitments of many Western states to a welfare ethos, despite, despite their official opposition to ESCR, assures a high degree of compliance in protecting the rights of their citizens.

Modern governments are active participants, not passive spectators, in events that fundamentally impact the ability of the people to lead a meaningful and dignified life. Governance ceases to be meaningful when the majority of the people is put in a situation where it cannot appreciate the value of life, let alone enjoy its benefits, and where it lacks the appropriate mechanisms to compel change. Where human survival needs frequently go unmet, as in Africa, protection of human rights ought to focus on ‘preventing governments from neglecting their citizens’.

A point that is often overlooked in contemporary human rights discourse and practice is that the greatest benefit of guaranteeing enforceable rights is the assurance it gives to people that effective mechanisms for adjudicating violations or threatened violations of their rights are available. As events in many parts of Africa have shown, the absence of such as gives the impression  that resort to extra-legal means, such as armed rebellion, is the only way to improve one’s condition or challenge governmental abuse and neglect. Most current African conflicts consist of people who are fighting not against themselves but against poverty and governmental inaction in the face of destitution. This conflict usually is due to many years of impoverishing neglect and to the absence of other viable ways of compelling meaningful change. Because governments are increasingly expected to meet the basic needs of their citizens, there is growing tendency to demand results in militant terms, particularly in the absence of a proper forum to compel governmental action. As Callisto Madavo, World Bank Vice President for the African region, observes, ‘Africa’s wars are not driven . . . by ethnic differences. As elsewhere, they reflect poverty, lack of jobs and education, rich natural resources that tempt and the sustain rebels and [ineffective and insensitive] political systems . . .’

These are, for the most part, socio-economic and political conflicts among ethnically differentiated peoples. Although holistic protection of all rights will not prevent every conflict, it will defuse the majority of conflicts that are triggered or sustained by those who exploit abject socio-economic conditions. Scholars have demonstrated a casual link between these conflicts, which can be seen as a people’s violent resistance to their deplorable socio-economic conditions, and the absence of perceived modes of effecting a peaceful change.

This relationship between deprivation and conflict underscores the fundamental link between protection of human rights and stability. The intimate relation between stability and human rights, in turn, reinforces the necessity of guaranteeing the enforcement of all human rights without exception. Since the different rights are interconnected and operate in support of each other, it logically follows that the full realization of one set remains dependent on the realization of the other. In a state of instability resulting from the denial of basic ESCR, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to realize civil and political rights, and vice versa.

Apart from the instability it causes, the non-realization of ESCR creates insurmountable obstacles to the enjoyment of civil and political rights. People can only be free from abuse and exploitation when they have what it takes to assert their rights and free themselves from exploitative rule. Because the majority of Africans are illiterate and poor, they lack the requisite knowledge and means to assert their rights, let alone enjoy them. As UO Umozurike observes:

A great impediment to the attainment of civil and political rights is constituted by illiteracy, ignorance and poverty. To the many rural dwellers in any African state, and indeed to the urban poor, the lack of awareness or means make it impossible for them to assert their rights. They are very much at the mercy of their rulers.

Thus, even a society interested in protecting only civil and political rights should give equal priority to ESCR as a practical means to achieving the former. An absence of the latter commitment deepens a collective feeling of injustice. The majority, comprised of the more vulnerable members of society, cannot but feel that it has been denied an accepted forum for the recognition and redress of injustices. Moreover, the non-enforcement of ESCR ridicules the so-called autonomy of the individual, a concept that is the linchpin of civil and political rights. Adequate socio-economic conditions must exist as a precondition to personal autonomy.

African states have not failed to recognize the dangers of selective- as opposed to holistic- recognition of human dignity. The African Charter remains a testament to the collective recognition of the indivisibility of human rights and dignity. As parties to the Charter, African states apparently appreciate the necessity of a holistic approach to enforcement. While this must be pursued at the international and regional levels-as the African Charter seeks to do-the locus of active enforcement must be the domestic arena where the mechanisms of enforcement will be within easy reach of aggrieved citizens and thus more widely utilized. Moreover, international protection or mechanisms are designed to complement the domestic protection of human rights.

Anything short of a holistic enforcement of human rights at the domestic level belies the African Charter’s recognition that ‘the satisfaction of economic, social and cultural rights is guarantees for the enjoyment of civil and political rights’.

The excuse of impossibility of performance due to underdevelopment, often put forward by African leaders and some scholars, does not represent the whole truth. It is too often a rationalization for lack of political will and the continued elevation of luxury over necessity.

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