Initiating a Process

Although human rights have become a salient feature in international discourse in recent years, speaking about food, housing, health and similar matters in rights language still often encounters resistance or causes confusion.  The obvious question, asked even by those sup­portive of the idea of eco­nomic, social and cultural (ESC) rights, is: "What do you mean?" "What do you mean by ‘the right to housing,’ ‘the right to education,’ ‘the right to work’"? etc.?  Do you mean that everyone must have a house, must be provided education even up to the university level, must be provided work-and the state is responsible for providing all of this?

Doubts and questions regarding ESC rights may arise from a lack of information and under-standing.  They may also be ideologically motivated.  Whatever their source, they cannot be ignored.  If those asking the questions simply lack information, then answering the questions is an integral part of the process of increasing awareness and understanding of the rights that belong to all human beings.  If the questions are ideologically motivated, answering them is part of the essential process of asserting this set of rights.  Asserting (or reasserting) the the­ory and practice of ESC rights, even to those who may be ideologically opposed or skeptical, is an important means of strengthening our own analysis, understanding and articulation of the rights.

Circle of Rights seeks to answer some of the many questions that are asked nowadays about ESC rights.  Its purpose is to contribute to the process of learning that is currently underway and to encourage an expansion of activism that has as its goal the promotion and protection of ESC rights.  Directed as it is towards activism, the manual seeks not simply to present in­formation on laws and standards related to these rights, but to address issues of strategy and tactics that organizations and individuals need to consider when thinking through how best they might work to promote economic, social and cultural rights.

Circle of Rights is aimed primarily at trainers who are or will be engaged in training human rights activists as well as development workers, members of organizations represent­ing dis­advantaged groups and others who are addressing economic, social and cultural issues.  The hope and expectation is that trainers working with these various groups will be able to take the material in the manual and, if necessary, adapt and expand upon it to con­duct training programs on ESC rights and ESC rights activism.

Circle of Rights is structured in such a way that it can also be used for introducing the con­cept of ESC rights to policymakers, media persons, academics, lawyers and other profes­sional groups as well as staff of intergovernmental organizations.

Circle of Rights represents only the beginning of a process.  Despite its bulk, there are many issues of importance to various groups that it does not address.  It does not deal in depth, for example, with the specific ESC rights concerns of disabled people or the internally displaced, or of specific sectors like fisherfolk, agricultural labor and workers in the informal sector.  It does not contain detailed information about the constitution and laws related to ESC rights in different countries.  In other words, it is not an exhaustive document, and it cannot be.  The objective in producing the manual has been to provide a basic framework on ESC rights ac­tivism, in the hope that numerous similar manuals, providing in-depth treatment of the ESC rights concerns of specific groups or on specific ESC rights issues, will be devel­oped in the future by those with greater knowledge and experience.

Circle of Rights is the result of a global project, and the case studies and examples discussed reflect diverse experiences.  It is for the users of the manual to adapt the materials to their own local contexts.  The experiences of some regions and countries are described more fre­quently than are those of others.  The process of producing the manual neces­sarily included only a limited number of participants, and their information and experiences have informed the development of the project more than have those of many activists in other countries and regions who are also doing valuable work.  As ESC rights activism expands, there will be more exchanges among regions and countries, with the result that a broader range of experi­ences will be reflected in any future project of this nature.

Structure of the Manual

Circle of Rights is divided into two parts: Part I addresses substantive issues related to ESC rights activism; Part II discusses training methods that can be used in a training program drawing on the material in Part I. 

Part I is divided into ten sections.  The purpose and rationale of each section follows:

Section I-Developing a Rights-Based Perspective

Section I contains only Module 1, which goes by the same title, "Developing a Rights-Based Perspective."  This module comes first in the manual because understanding a rights-based perspective is fundamental to any ESC rights activism.  The module seeks to address ques­tions that are regularly asked by people who are already working on economic, social or cul­tural issues: How is the work I do different from human rights work?  The World Bank, for example, cites its project support as promoting economic and social rights.  Does the fact that an institution, organization or activist works on issues of poverty mean that it is doing human rights work?  This section and module seek to answer these questions.  

Section II-History and Overview of ESC Rights

To be effective, any human rights activism must be grounded in a basic understanding of the history of the issues that it seeks to address, the standards on which it relies and the context within which it is taking place.  Section II is, in essence, a brief introduction to the history, standards and context of ESC rights activism.  It contains two modules:

Module 2 begins with an overview of the history of the recognition of ESC rights.  Its pur­pose is to show that this history begins much earlier than the mid-1900s with the initiatives taken by the United Nations.  The module also provides a brief introduction to the contempo­rary international context within which ESC rights activism is taking place.

Module 3 provides an introduction to and overview of the central international treaty on ESC rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  Module 3 is followed by the full text of the Covenant. 

Section III-Perspectives of Specific Groups

The ICESCR and many other international treaties related to ESC rights apply to all people equally.  At the same time, because of their history and their current situations, certain groups of people have developed perspectives on and have experiences of ESC rights that present particularly demanding conceptual and practical challenges.  Effective activism with and on behalf of these people requires an understanding of these challenges.  As a result, before we continue on to a discussion of ESC rights in general terms, we seek to discuss, in Section III, the perspectives, experiences and standards specifically applicable to four of these groups-women (Module 4), children (Module 5), indigenous peoples (Module 6) and refugees (Module 7).  Module 4 is followed by excerpts of General Recommendations issued by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Circle of Rights is not exhaustive in its treatment of issues, and this is no truer than when it comes to addressing the situation of and protections offered to groups who are particularly vulnerable to the failure of governments and others responsible to protect and fulfill their ba­sic ESC rights.  The situation and ESC rights concerns of the millions of internally displaced people are not address in this manual.  In addition, the CESCR has developed General Comments on the rights of the disabled (General Comment 5) and the elderly (General Comment 6), but we have not ad­dressed the specific concerns of these groups in this manual.  Our hope is that those with greater knowledge and experience will develop materials that more fully address the ESC rights of these and other particularly vulnerable people. 

Section IV-Defining Rights and Obligations

One of the main challenges facing those concerned to protect and promote ESC rights is the relatively vague language in which most of the rights are articulated.  How is it possible to "flesh out" the bare bones of the current standards?  A related question is: "Who is responsi­ble for ensuring respect for and the enjoyment of these rights?"  Section IV addresses these issues.  Module 8 looks at the first question, outlining some discussions about and experi­ences in developing a fuller understanding of the content of various ESC rights.  Module 9 examines primarily the obligations of governments to ensure the enjoyment of these rights, but also addresses briefly the responsibilities of nonstate actors, such as corporations.

Section V-Understanding Specific ESC Rights

The ICESCR includes specific rights, and Section V discusses a number of these rights in some detail.  The section includes the right to work and rights at work (Module 10), the right to social security (Module 11), adequate food (Module 12), housing (Module 13), health (Module 14), a healthy environment (Module 15), education (Module 16) and cultural rights (Module 17).  The section also includes a module on land rights (Module 18), which is not specifically addressed in the ICESCR, but which is a matter of great importance to a large number of people.  The purpose of this section is to provide an overview of the current state of understanding of these various rights.

Section VI-Monitoring and Assessing the Enjoyment of ESC Rights

How do we know if a government (or other responsible party) is fulfilling its obligations with respect to ESC rights?  One of the defining features of human rights work is the process of monitoring a government’s actions to determine what it is doing to comply with the rights obligations it has undertaken under international and domestic law, and assessing whether these actions are adequate.  This section is Module 19, which summarizes some of the com­plexities of monitoring ESC rights and examines some available monitoring tools.

Section VII-Strategies and Tools for Activism at the National Level

Once we have knowledge about the various ESC rights guarantees and how to monitor and assess their observance, the next question becomes: How do we use this knowledge to protect and promote ESC rights?  Section VII is the first of four sections that address this question by describing strategies and tools available at the national level-strategies and tools that have been used to some effect by activists and organizations in different countries.  It contains four modules.  Module 20 touches on some key points related to a strategy that is fun­damental to all the others: human rights education.  Module 21 addresses how development and reform of policies, plans and legislation can be used to protect and promote ESC rights.  Module 22 provides some detailed analyses and suggestions about litigation on ESC rights issues, and includes a long "case study" about the experience of the Indian Supreme Court in handling the issue of the justiciability of these rights.  Module 23 discusses the potential role of national human rights commissions in protecting ESC rights.

Section VIII-United Nations Mechanisms and ESC Rights

The ICESCR and other international treaties related to ESC rights provide for the establish­ment of a number of mechanisms and procedures designed to supervise and monitor govern­ments’ compliance with the provisions of the treaties.  Aside from the treaties, the UN has established a number of other human rights bodies and mechanisms that have the authority to address a range of ESC rights issues.  Module 24, the sole module in this section, discusses the mandates and procedures of a number of these UN bodies and mechanisms.    

Section IX-Developing Strategies for Other Dominant Actors

Apart from the United Nations, no other international institution or organization has an agreed-upon legal responsibility to protect and promote ESC rights.  At the same time, there are powerful actors at the international level who have the current capacity and the future potential to act both positively and negatively vis-à-vis ESC rights.  Section IX is designed to discuss some of the activities and impact of these "actors," and review strategies that activists might use to encourage these institutions to bring their power and influence to bear in a posi­tive fashion on the enjoyment of ESC rights.  The institutions are: corporations (Module 25), multilateral trade and investment agreements (Module 26) and the World Bank (Module 27).

Section X-Strategies and Tools for Activism at the Regional Level

There are intergovernmental bodies in three regions of the world that have explicit mandates to protect and promote human rights.  While these bodies as yet have little experience in dealing with ESC rights, they have the potential for providing remedies for ESC rights abuses.  Thus, they are discussed in this section.  Module 28 summarizes the mandate and activities of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; Module 29, bodies and mechanisms within the European system for the protection of human rights; and Module 30, the Inter-American human rights system.

Resources: Part I of Circle of Rights concludes with a short list of some written materials (and organizational resources) relevant to each module.  The list is not exhaustive, but it does pro­vide some suggestions for those wishing to gain more information on the module topic.

Part II of Circle of Rights provides some thoughts and suggestions for those using the manual in a training program.  The manual as a whole is based on the premise that, to be effective, all learning must start from the experiences, understanding and needs of participants in any training.  As far as possible, this perspective is reflected in Part II, which begins with some general points on organizing a training program.  That is followed by some ideas for con­veying each module along with suggestions of methods that might be used.  The methods are not meant to be exhaustive in their handling of the issues and strategies discussed in the manual nor of the approaches trainers can use.  The suggestions are offered simply to help spark the thinking and creativity of those charged with presenting the material.

Appendix 1 includes a descriptive list of the authors of the various modules.  Appendix 2 provides names and contact information for individuals who participated in the two work­shops mentioned in the preface as key to the development of Circle of Rights.

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