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In times of economic crisis it is particularly essential to ensure the protection of social rights

Strasbourg 17/11/2008
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Enormous sums of tax payers’ money have been poured into the banking system in order to prevent a global financial meltdown. Ordinary people have been forced to pay for the reckless practices of a few. On top of this, there are already signs that it is the less wealthy who will suffer most from the recession the world is now facing.

Increased unemployment will place a further burden on state budgets and there will be less space for social assistance at a time when needs will inevitably grow. This is likely to cause tensions and perhaps even social unrest. There is a risk that xenophobia and other intolerance will spread further and that minorities and migrants may become targets. Extremists might seek to exploit and provoke such tendencies.

This is an extraordinary challenge for governments today - requiring wise leadership. It is also obvious that no country can resolve these major problems alone. Multi-lateral cooperation is a must and inter-state institutions should demonstrate political determination and solidarity beyond narrow national interests. Rules to regulate the financial markets are a necessary first step, but not sufficient alone. It is also necessary to develop concrete programmes which promote social cohesion and prevent any watering down of the already agreed human rights standards.

These standards include economic and social rights, several of which are listed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One source of inspiration is the former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had to deal with the aftermath of the financial crises at the end of the 1920s. One of the four freedoms he defined in his State of the Union speech in January 1941 was "Freedom from Want". Not only should human beings be able to express their opinions and to practice a religion freely, they should also be protected against repression and social misery.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that human rights include the right to social security, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to food, the right to education, the right to housing, the right to health, the right to work and the right to rest and leisure.

Such rights have since been legally recognized in United Nations and the Council of Europe treaties– the latter through the European Social Charter of 1961 revised in 1996. These rights are furthermore covered through International Labour Organization (ILO) core conventions. They cover, for example, trade union rights, protection against forced labour and rules against the exploitation of child labour.

While economic and social rights must be regarded as an integral part of international human rights law, they have still not been fully recognized as justiciable rights in some European countries. This was obviously one reason why these rights were not incorporated into the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights but only later codified in the separate Social Charter. Some countries have been slow in ratifying the Revised Social Charter1.

There may well be an ideological background to this hesitation. Some believe that government administration should not take full responsibility for providing possibilities for education, healthcare and a decent standard of living for all citizens. Some regard these rights as mere political aspirations.

However, the fact that the implementation of economic and social rights could be controversial is no rational basis for treating these rights as less important or as radically different from others.

They deal with some of the most crucial issues on today's political agenda: the right to a job and acceptable working conditions, the right to go to school and have a meaningful education, the right to protection and care in situations of crisis.

They are agreed in international treaties and must not be seen as the “poor cousins” of civil and political rights. All human rights are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible and therefore should not be ranked in any hierarchy.

There are governments that accept this approach in principle but state that they just do not have the resources to meet these obligations. What is the answer to them?

Implementation of most human rights has a cost. It is true that some economic and social rights tend to be particularly expensive, for instance, the right for everyone to education or to health care. For this very reason, the agreed standards allow for a gradual implementation of rights - anything else would be unrealistic. Governments should establish minimum acceptable standards or core entitlements and at the same time strive to attain full implementation as soon as possible. They cannot postpone the realisation of these norms indefinitely.

To help achieve this goal, the definition of socio-economic indicators is particularly important. Such benchmarks have been developed in certain areas – for instance, by UNICEF in the field of children’s rights and the WHO in the field of healthcare– and could be defined in other areas as well.

If we do not implement economic and social rights, large numbers of the poor will remain marginalised on the edges of our society, and ultimately political and civil rights become devoid of all meaning. The notion of human dignity is key here and builds the bridge between civil and political rights on the one hand and social and economic rights on the other. By way of example, the European Court of Human Rights has commented that a wholly insufficient amount of social benefit or pension may, in principle, raise an issue under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment2.

Economic and social rights have not been defined in a vacuum; they are based on the experience of past crises and on the knowledge that ignoring social justice comes at an enormous cost. They can also serve as very useful guiding principles for political decision makers at a time when difficult choices have to be made.

We are in such a situation now and I would therefore like to support the statement of the Director-General of the ILO that we need ‘prompt and coordinated government action to avert a social crisis that could be severe, long-standing and global3.

This requires a serious programme for the protection of economic and social rights.

Thomas Hammarberg


1. As of 11 November 2008, Croatia, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and « the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia » have not signed the Revised Social Charter. Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Poland, the Russian Federation, San Marino, Serbia, the Slovak Republic, Spain and the United Kingdom have signed but not ratified the Revised Charter.

2. Larioshina v Russia, application no.56869/00, decision as to the admissibility of 23 April 2002. Although in the circumstances of this case, the application was declared inadmissible. Also see the pending case of Antonina Dmitriyevna Budina against Russia (45603/05) of 21 November 2005. 

3. 20 October 2008, reference ILO/08/45.