Ripple in still water : reflections by activists on local and national-level work on economic social and cultural rights
While the International Bill of Human Rights1 embraces a holistic description of human rights, a corresponding holistic recognition and respect for all rights has been lacking. Around the world, and for too long, attention to "human rights" has been limited largely to those rights detailed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights2. Over the years the spotlight has turned on many governments, illuminating grave human rights violations such as torture, "disappearances," arbitrary detention, and censorship. The attention afforded civil and political rights has helped to define, enforce and popularize human rights. However, this narrow attention has meant that other rights -- primarily those detailed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights -- have received inadequate attention. There is commensurately less international under- standing of and agreement on the fundamental obligations of governments to protect and promote economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights.
In countless situations the human rights contained in the two separate Covenants are intertwined. One illustrative case is in the Delta region of Nigeria where for several years the Ogoni people have mounted an organized resistance to the destruction of their land and contamination of their waters by their own government and by multinational oil companies. The companies have sought the support of the Nigerian military to quell resistance by the Ogonis to their practices in the area. Recent government attacks on the Ogoni illustrate the interconnection of economic, social and cultural rights with civil and political rights. While the human rights violations perpetrated by the military's actions -- rapes, extrajudicial executions, floggings, and so on3 -- fall under the heading of civil and political rights, the nature of the conflict over land, waters, use of resources and national economic policies stands firmly in the arena of economic, social and cultural rights.
A vast range of local, national and international NGOs worldwide -- humanitarian relief organizations, women's micro-lending institutions, social service groups educating child laborers, community self-help groups, and so on -- work in and with communities to improve the quality of life. They understand intimately the plight of the poor, the dispossessed and the oppressed. They see first-hand the effects of economic and social development policies -- or lack thereof -- on the day-to- day existence of individuals and communities. At the same time, virtually all of these organizations seek to alleviate adverse conditions largely through direct service or social work. While some include in their work formulating and advocating for national policies to improve the situation of the poor, they generally do not adopt the "rights" paradigm in formulating their issues and arguments. Many are not aware that there is a set of internationally recognized rights directly related to their daily work.
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