Governments can no longer shirk responsibility to protect all human rights

By Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General

The idea is simple: all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. No exceptions. Yet, in the 65 years since the modern human rights movement was born from the ashes of World War II, some rights have been seen as more crucial.

Civil and political rights have been prioritized over economic, social and cultural rights. Governments have ignored their obligations to promote the right to education, health, housing, food and a living wage.  

Numerous promises of overseas direct aid have been broken. Governments claim lack of resources and argue they are not responsible. They have allowed responsibility for helping those living in poverty to fall on charitable organizations, while continuing to invest in military assistance.

There is nothing inevitable about poverty, and income disparity is not just a matter of numbers. They are a consequence of laws, policies and practices of governments; an indicator of whether a state is committed to promoting equality. Those that reject the principle of equality do so knowing that they are placing individual lives at risk.

Vast numbers of people globally are denied their rights to adequate housing, food, water, sanitation, health, work and education due to lack of political will rather than lack of resources.

Every 90 seconds, a woman or girl dies over pregnancy related complications – complications that can be treated. Lack of investment in health care services and entrenched discriminatory attitudes towards women mean that countless women die – women who could have easily been saved.

Each day, thousands of people move to slums because they have no other options. In some cases they were forcibly evicted from their land. In other cases, the failure of the government to address environmental degradation means that they had to move to survive. On current trends, 1.4 billion people will live in slums by 2020.

It is impossible for people who are poor to be treated equally before the law and difficult for those who are ill and without access to healthcare to participate actively in society.

And yet, despite their neglect, these rights are enshrined in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; a treaty that has been ratified by 160 states and has the same status under international law as other human rights – like the right to a fair trial and the right to free speech.

Amnesty International can point to many examples where governments routinely flout international law protecting these rights, such as in Nigeria, where the local government in Port Harcourt on 28 August 2009 ignored a court order and demolished a waterfront settlement, leaving more than 13,000 people homeless; or in Slovenia, where many Roma families living in informal settlements are denied access to water and sanitation. From segregated education of schoolchildren in Europe to the lack of access to reproductive health care for women in Africa and the Americas the list goes on.

Access to justice and an effective remedy is essential for victims of all human rights violations and new hope is on offer to victims of these violations. On 5 May, the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enters into force.

Ten countries – from Ecuador and Argentina to Spain and Portugal – have accepted the new mechanism, enabling individuals and groups to seek justice from the United Nations should their economic, social or cultural rights be violated and an effective remedy in their own country be unavailable.

Almost 40 years after the equivalent Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force we have finally achieved parity between the two treaties and given true meaning to the principle of indivisibility and interrelatedness of all rights that found expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite this significant step, not a single African country is currently party to the Protocol, while Mongolia is the only Asian country to ratify it. Worldwide, only 10 of the 160 countries that are in a position to ratify the Protocol have done so.

I congratulate the first 10 countries that have ratified the Protocol, but all other states must follow. For human rights to be truly achieved, everyone whose rights are violated, whether civil and political or economic, social or cultural, must have an effective remedy. The legacy of the UDHR demands no less.

Read more:

Find out if your country is a State Party to the Optional ProtocolCampaigning for legal protection for all rights
Demand Dignity campaign