In her article, “The International Law of Human Rights,” Debra DeLaet explains that the United Nations differentiates between civil and political rights (first generation rights), and economic, social and cultural rights (second generation rights). While both sets of rights are vital to ensure basic human rights in any society, second generation rights are more essential in enabling people to lead dignified lives. At least some version of first generation rights are guaranteed to citizens of most democratic societies.
In contrast, economic, social and cultural rights – although fundamental to individual dignity and well-being – are not applied equally without discrimination in even the most affluent democracies like the United States, which purports to uphold human rights. Without these basic economic, social and cultural rights, societies cannot uphold freedom and equality for all. One reason why economic, social and cultural rights should take precedence over civil and political rights is because without second generation rights, first generation rights are essentially useless.
First generation rights are more specific in nature and are targeted towards individual members of society, rather than society as a whole. Second generation rights address more universal needs that everyone in a given society should be guaranteed in order to live with basic dignity. If one compares the list of first generation rights to that of second generation rights, the former seem to presume the context of a free, democratic and capitalist society.
In order for these types of rights to have any value, they must exist in a state that already recognizes the freedom and equality of all its citizens, and that guarantees their basic human, cultural and social needs are met. That is to say that they are free to practice their cultural traditions, to receive equal education, to be able to earn a living, to have access to basic healthcare, food and water, etc. This is not the case in many countries around the world.
The civil and political right of being allowed to practice your own religion is one reason why a country would not agree with first generation rights. Many states that are xenophobic or have a dominate religion in their country will have many arguments to bring up as to why they would disagree with this right. One change, needed more so in first generation than second generation rights, to obtain widespread support, is to begin with including a wide range of provisions which will reflect different states’ traditions.
These conflicting views between states eliminates the chance of creating universally accepted human rights and only encourages some states to set human rights obligations as goals, rather than operative mandates. Only then, will the precedence of second generation rights over first generation rights will be lowered. The way states adhere to all rights within their territory is by self-enforcement and human rights organizations that act as international watchdogs. Some rights require more enforcement than others, but it entirely depends on whether or not the state has recognized one of the rights.
A large reason why some states do and do not ratify some human rights treaties is because the amount of resources used to enforce that these rights are being applied differ. Civil and political rights do not require much resources of a state to enforce. Economic, social and cultural rights do require state resources and can sometimes be costly; seriously affecting the states’ decision to recognize them. Second generation rights are geared towards more basic, fundamental human rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living, right to education and the right to clothing.
This is unsettling to some states because by guaranteeing these rights, their citizens would have opportunities to become more informed and empowered, and to potententially attempt to change the established socio-political order. It is hard to argue that the right to food is not essential to human life. The right to education could actually be economically beneficial to a given state, and it empowers people to take more control over their own lives. How can people live with dignity, let alone benefit from civil or political rights, when they cannot read and are hungry?
Without the right to education, people cannot make informed decisions or contribute to political and civil society. States may fear that if their citizens are educated, the pre-existing government would lose power because more people would want to participate civil life or in politics. Many countries felt threatened by the UN’s increasing emphasis on human rights, claiming their internal state affairs are no one else’s business and fearing loss sovereignty. Some state governments associate the education of their people to sparking the growth of democracy and even possibly capitalism in their country.
This is one of the main reasons why states have trouble agreeing to a whole list or covenant set out by the UN. Civil and political rights are less empowering to the citizenry as a collective whole, and are relatively simple changes for states to make internally. Some states’ exclusion of more second generation rights versus first generation rights is doing nothing to counteract cheap labour, world hunger or to ensure fair trade throughout the global community. For the good of our global citizenry, the UN should, quite obviously, implement the rights listed under economic, social and cultural rights into international law.
But, that does not seem like it will happen at all anytime soon due to resistance from a number of key players, including the United States. There is a large problem with the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights into international law. The countries that have the most influence in creating the economic, social and cultural human rights are also the same countries that should have the easiest time enforcing these rights within their societies. That is because these states are superpowers and the majority of them are democracies with lots of money.
For example, the US, France and the UK already had second generation rights in place for the majority of their populations. These are also countries that they rely heavily on cheap foreign labour from countries that do not protect the second generation rights of their citizens in order to maintain cheap domestic consumer prices. The implementation of second generation rights into international law would mean no more access to this cheap labour for the superpower states, and the demand for certain scarce resources among some countries would rise dramatically.
People living in developing countries would become too equal, demanding higher standards of living and higher wages for work; basically everything a citizen of more privileged country has come to expect. This means demand and competition for materials and services would increase, creating a world where everyone wants what they cannot have. UN Security Council and other global superpowers would be shooting themselves in the foot and the current geo-political balance of power would be upset if second generation rights were to become international law.
In addition, it would be impossible to impose these rights on some countries who refuse to abide by them, thus hindering the legitimacy of international law. Economic, social and cultural rights are more essential to human dignity than civil and political rights for many reasons. Civil and political rights can be interpreted to suit the particular ideology of a given state. Economic, social and cultural rights, if guaranteed, would be universal and ensure basic dignity for all. They would help build a strong foundation upon which civil and political rights could be exercised.
On their own, civil and political rights are too open to interpretation by self-serving states. Human rights outlined by the UN can be contradictory and unclear, causing confusion or providing states with an excuse to negligently ignoring some rights. Although second generation rights are more important to enable people to live dignified lives, they are harder for states to fully guarantee to their people. On the other hand, first generation rights allow for a minimal amount of change in citizens’ rights and are therefore more appealing to many countries.