Last week, researchers at the University College London announced that eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day would prolong lives and cuts the risk of dying from cancer and heart disease. Analysing data between 2001 and 2008, they found that the risk of death by any cause was reduced by 42% for those who consumed seven or more portions of fruit and veg a day. For those of us who struggle to achieve the currently recommended ‘five a day’, this new target is certainly daunting. However, achieving this target when you are one of the millions of people in the UK living in food poverty, is impossible. It is simply too expensive.
A rise in living costs coupled with a continuous fall in wages means that more people than ever are falling into food poverty in the UK. The Trussell Trust has seen a 170% increase in the number of people using its food banks in recent years. However, whilst many lament this poverty occurring on our own doorstep, there has been little mention of holding the government to account for failing to secure Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ESCR) such as the right to an ‘adequate standard of living’ (Art 11 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) or ‘the right to work’ (Art 6 ICESCR). These are the forgotten human rights.
An Introduction to ESCR
ESCR were first introduced into the International Human Rights legal system via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. In addition to the vast number of civil and political human rights set out in this document, Articles 22-27 of the UDHR set out a number of ESCR. These include the right to education (Article 26), the right to work (Article 23) and the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 25). However, the UDHR does not impose any legal obligations upon States but is simply a non-binding statement of principles. It was not until 1976, and the entry into force of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that States had a legal obligation to protect the ESCR of their citizens. This legally binding document provides a comprehensive list of ESCR by which State Parties are bound (to read the text of the Covenant, click here). The implementation of the ICESCR by State Parties is monitored by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) to whom State Parties must submit reports every five years.
‘Real’ Human Rights?
Officially, ESCR carry the same weight as civil and political rights. Indeed, ‘All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated.’ (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, 25 June 1993). However, in reality only civil and political rights are seen as ‘real’ human rights. Too often ESCR are simply seen as ‘aspirations’ without legal enforceability. A key reason for this lies in the different obligations created by the two Covenants governing the two sets of rights. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), States have an immediate obligation to respect and protect all civil and political rights (Article 2 ICCPR). Contrastingly, the ICESCR provides for the ‘progressive realisation’ of ESCR, taking into account a State’s available resources (Article 2 ICESCR). Although intended to acknowledge the difficulty in immediately achieving ESCR, this requirement that ESCR merely be progressively realised allows States a considerable leeway which unfortunately has led to many States not taking these rights seriously.
There are several arguments levelled against ESCR which question their status as ‘real’ human rights. Firstly, some argue that ESCR are too vague to enforce. The imprecise nature of ESCR means they are simply not capable of being enforced in a judicial process in the same manner as civil and political rights. However, such arguments are unconvincing. Many civil and political rights are equally vague. It is only by making ESCR justiciable and building up a case law that the legal definition of specific ESCR will be clarified. Also, there are many examples from other jurisdictions in which courts have shown themselves to be particularly adept at ruling on ESCR and challenging government protection of these rights (see People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India, 2001). A final argument is that even if courts are capable of ruling on ESCR, they should not do so because this would be to wrongly interfere in areas of government economic policy. However, the CESCR disagrees (General Comment 9, para 10):
‘courts are generally already involved in a considerable range of matters which have important resource implications. The adoption of a rigid classification of [ESCR] which puts them…beyond the reach of the courts would thus be arbitrary and incompatible with the principle that the two sets of human rights are indivisible and interdependent.’
It is not that courts are unable to enforce ESCR but rather that governments do not want them to.
Protecting ESCR in the UK
In October 2000, a monumental piece of legislation in the form of the Human Rights Act came into force. This Act incorporated the human rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law for the first time, meaning that those seeking to enforce their rights no longer had to go to Strasbourg to make a claim. However, more than a decade later, we are still waiting for the government to similarly incorporate the rights protected by the ICESCR into domestic law. Only in December 2012 the Commission on a Bill of Rights rejected appeals to incorporate these rights into domestic law, arguing it preferred leaving such rights involving the allocation of scarce resources to other organs of government who are more accountable than the judiciary.
However, at the moment no one is being held accountable for these rights. Shockingly, those living in food poverty have even been blamed for their own plight with some suggesting they are unable to manage their money. It would be unthinkable to blame a victim of torture for his own experience, and yet we have little difficulty attacking those living in poverty. ESCR have a huge role to play in the fight against poverty in the UK and would ensure that the government finally becomes accountable for failing to protect the most vulnerable in society. Unfortunately, until these rights are incorporated into domestic law and recognised as ‘real’ human rights, it is likely that little will change.
BBC News- “Seven-a-day fruit and veg ‘saves lives'” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26818377
Commission on a Bill of Rights, ‘A UK Bill of Rights? The Choice Before Us’e (Vol 1, Dec 2012) para 8.28 http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/about/cbr/uk-bill-rights-vol-1.pdf
Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 9, para 10 http://www.escr-net.org/docs/i/425230
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966
D Moeckli & S Shah, ‘International Human Rights Law’ (OUP, 2010) p175
People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India (2001)
I Trispiotis, ‘Socio-economic Rights: Legally Enforceable or Just Aspirational?’ (2010) p2 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/opticon1826/archive/issue8/articles/Article_Laws_-_Ilias__Social_equality__Publish_.pdf
The Trussell Trust, ‘Biggest Ever Increase in UK Foodbank Use’ http://www.trusselltrust.org/resources/documents/Press/BIGGEST-EVER-INCREASE-IN-UK-FOODBANK-USE.pdf
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948