Social Justice necessary for the realisation of Human Rights

“No human rights without social justice”

Keynote speech at ENSAC Conference in Istanbul, 17 April 2013

There is a clear link between social equality and the realisation of human rights. All our experience in human rights work has taught us that human rights are better protected in the more equal societies.

This is obvious in regard to economic and social rights: equality is normally based on an adequate standard of living for the many. In an equal society more people enjoy the right to decent work, quality education, reasonable housing and access to health care. Where the gaps are wide, these very rights tend to be undermined.

Less obvious, but equally true, is that basic freedoms and other civil and political rights also tend to be better protected in the more equal societies.

In those, more people have the possibility to use the instruments that democracy offers, including political participation – and this, in turn tends to strengthen their civil and political rights. In other words, the inter-relationship between equality and human rights tends to go in both directions, they are mutually supportive.

Human rights in politics

This is controversial as it exposes the very political nature of the human rights cause even further.

There has been a deliberate effort from civil society groups and others who have tried to promote human rights to avoid politicisation, especially in the form of party politics.

We have hoped that the agreed standards and norms would be accepted and supported by all governments – irrespective of their political colour. This has to some extent been successful, at least at the stage of the drafting, adopting and ratifying of international human rights treaties.

However, recent developments have demonstrated that the human rights principles cannot be applied in a vacuum. They should be carefully considered in the highly political discussions on economic and security policies.

This time I will limit myself to issues relating to economics and social justice.

Growing gaps

In this part of the world – Europe – social equality has been gradually undermined for several years by now. Gaps in income, wealth and other aspects determining the individual standard of living have widened in Europe for the last three decades.

It is estimated that of the 800 million people living in greater Europe more than 150 million are living in poverty, that is, in households with less than half the country’s median income.

Many elderly people and persons with disabilities live in extremely poor circumstances which have become worse during the economic crisis. Women still suffer from pay inequalities and job discrimination, and even in the richest countries children live in acute poverty in many disadvantaged communities.


The poor and the marginalised – among them minorities such as the Roma – tend to lack influence and opportunities to make their voices heard. Surveys have shown that they feel ignored by political parties and they often have little confidence in the authorities.

When they are victims of crime, they hesitate to report this to the police – because of mistrust. In courts, they are at a disadvantage in comparison to those who can hire senior lawyers and in prisons they are over-represented.

Children living in poverty often have little support to cope with problems in school. Some do not speak the majority language and are therefore doubly excluded. Social exclusion is passed on from one generation to the next. Inequalities prevent social mobility.

These problems are indeed consequences of political decisions.

Austerity programs

Social legislation has been “reformed”, social services reduced and support to the most vulnerable cut back. Care for the aged, disabled people and children in trouble have been privatised – and the oversight of these new private enterprises has not been sufficient in a number of cases. Inmates in social institutions have been the victims.

This trend was there already before the 2008 economic crisis but has become worse thereafter.

Enormous sums of tax payers’ money were made available and poured into the banking system in order to prevent a global financial meltdown. Ordinary people were forced to pay for the reckless practices of a few.

Increased unemployment placed a further burden on state budgets and there was therefore less space for social assistance just at the very time when needs grew inevitably.

These developments took place parallel to the advance of neo-liberal ideas which promoted the philosophy that the state should be slimmed and market forces free to solve major problems in society. These attitudes came to affect social policies.

The crisis was made worse by the response from European institutions to the Euro crisis. Draconian austerity programs were introduced in the midst of the recession and unemployment grew further.

Many leading economists questioned the wisdom of this policy and human rights experts warned about the social consequences – but with little impact. Only very recently could we see some signs of rethinking, for instance from the International Monetary Fund.

Extreme nationalistic movements

The original financial crisis turned into a broader economic crisis which in turn ended up in a political crisis – and a crisis of basic values. We have clear tendencies of tensions in our societies, signs of lacking trust in the political establishment and even outbursts of social unrest.

One side effect has been the growth of extreme nationalistic movements, some of them heavily Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and anti-migrants. These racist and xenophobic tendencies do certainly complicate the work for human rights in our societies.

In his inauguration speech in January 2009, US President Barack Obama made the point that the crisis is not only the result of reckless risk-taking by some bank officials or the “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some”. It was also, he said, the result of “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age”.

Inequalities cannot be ignored

That new age will not arrive if we continue to ignore the deep inequalities and injustices in our societies. These inequalities undermine social cohesion and thereby threaten the security of all; they clearly violate the principles of human rights which we have pledged to respect.

Instead of allowing these inequalities to grow even further, the current global crisis ought to be a turning point for concrete measures to restore social justice.

It has been shown that an equal, rights-respecting society is better for everyone, not only for the most vulnerable. Equal communities have less illness and a longer life expectancy than unequal communities. Facts about social problems and crime rates demonstrate that inequalities, even in the most affluent societies, create insecurity which harms everyone.

It has also to be recognised that the crisis goes deeper than its obvious economic aspects; it touches on questions of public confidence and ethical values. It is time to start building a cohesive society again built on respect for the individual whoever he or she is.

Right to an adequate standard of living

This is a human rights challenge. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that all human beings have the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing and medical care (Article 25).

An overwhelming majority of states have ratified the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and many European states have endorsed the European Social Charter and the revised European Social Charter. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have got wide support.

However, we have to realise that social justice cannot be established only by way of traditional human rights instruments, even if they are updated and modernised.

The enormous gap between the haves and have-nots is a major ethical, ideological and political challenge – the resolution of which will require change in many aspects of our societies.

It is necessary to analyse in more depth how these gaps in human rights protection have emerged and grown: the link between the extreme wealth of some and the extreme poverty of others has to be analysed. The reckless speculation that caused the banking crisis – leading to untold tragedies for many people – has illustrated the need for regulation and accountability.


Corruption is widespread, almost endemic, in several European countries. Too many politicians have allowed themselves to exchange favours with big business interests.

When corrupt practices are tolerated in local and central government administration, it is the poor who suffer the consequences. Occasionally, people are forced to pay bribes for services which they should receive for free and as of right.

The unequal status of women is another reflection of continued discrimination and, at the same time, a source of injustice on a broad scale. It is estimated that about two thirds of those who live in absolute poverty are women.

They are often in weak negotiating positions, in poor communities, and are faced with almost insurmountable barriers preventing them from effectively asserting their rights. This is a tremendous loss for the whole of society.

The marginalisation of the poor also owes a lot to basic attitudes. When political leaders and opinion formers engage in rhetoric implying, for instance, that the poor have only themselves to blame, they justify political inaction in the face of poverty.

There has also been a tendency to see marginalised groups as security threats rather than as people in need.

Credibility gaps

We are facing several inter-related gaps. One disjunction is the distance between the agreed standards on human rights on the one hand, and continuing violations on the other – the implementation gap.

Another gap lies in the striking difference between the promises made by politicians (not least during election campaigns), and what is actually delivered when they are in office.

These gaps are different sides of the same problem and they tend to undermine public trust in the possibility of social justice. I have become increasingly worried about this credibility gap and its consequences more generally for democracy and, thereby, the protection of human rights.

In the current atmosphere of xenophobia and reduced empathy, extremist political groups have been given an increased possibility to spread their message of fear and hatred. This is a threat against democracy itself – calling for reflection and action. The challenge is to build a society in which everyone is included and no one is left behind.