Human Rights Council Inc.

New Zealand

Economic, Social, & Cultural Rights.


A People’s Freedom: the introduction of the ‘unspoken’ economic, social and cultural rights in New Zealand.

Anthony Ravlich
Human Rights Council Inc.

For so long suppressed the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights (social justice) in the Human Rights Commission’s New Zealand Plan of Action for Human Rights in February 2005 is an opportunity for people to take control of the human rights agenda and determine our future freedom. But despite this significant recognition these rights are rarely spoken.

The record of liberal elites, which have controlled the human rights agenda since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, has been abysmal in the education and implementation of economic, social and cultural rights with any progress being torturously slow. Global elites, particularly liberal elites, often more concerned with wealth and power, have every reason not to want to give their people social justice.

Liberal democracies such as the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada have been major obstacles to the progress of economic, social and cultural rights which are concerned with social justice. At an international level it took 55 years for the United Nations (with New Zealand attending the working groups) to consider drafting a complaints procedure (Optional Protocol) for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which allows those suffering social injustices to make complaints to the United Nations. The above liberal democracies have been the major opponents of drafting. New Zealand has taken a neutral stance against immediate drafting but happy to continue with discussions. New Zealand at the international level (United Nations, Asia Pacific Forum), in line with the United Nations position, promotes the equal status of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights (the view that ‘freedom’ and ‘food’ are of equal importance) but says nothing domestically to the people. Also the liberal press in New Zealand refuse to report anything on these proceedings. Also open-ended working groups (also attended by New Zealand) are presently meeting to discuss the Declaration on the Right to Development (1988) and how policies should conform to human rights so all people can develop their skills, abilities and talents . What is surprising about the development declaration is that it is the first international instrument to recognise the equal status of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights reflecting what the United Nations, at least in terms of rhetoric, has stated on numerous occasions (Lindberg Principles 1987, Vienna Declaration 1993, Maastricht Treaty 1992). This comes 36 years after the universal declaration was divided, at the West’s insistence, into two covenants thereby separating the two sets of rights (Henry Shue, Basic Rights, 1980, pp158-159) thereby enabling the West, and New Zealand, to define human rights only in terms of civil and political rights. Also while most jurisdictions have included civil and political rights in law very few countries even after 58 years since the signing of the universal declaration have included economic, social and cultural in law as justiciable rights (amenable to judicial determination) (Mario Gamez, Social Economic Rights and Human Rights Commissions, 1995, pp155-169). These countries include Norway, Finland, South Africa and Russia.

Typically the liberal West only defines human rights as civil and political rights which are concerned with freedom and democracy.

Noam Chomsky states that economic, social and cultural rights are “largely dismissed in the West” and in the United States the “contempt for the socio-economic provisions of the Declaration are…..deeply ingrained”(The United States and the Challenge of Relativity, 1998, pp 32 - 39).
Human rights, without economic, social and cultural rights, fails to capture the interest of New Zealanders because it is seen as having little relevance in their lives. The Human Rights Commission state : “Among the general population there is limited knowledge and understanding of human rights, their relevance to everyday life…..”. (Human Rights Commission, Human Rights In New Zealand Today, September 2004, p376).
Human rights in New Zealand only deal with civil and political rights such as freedom of speech, the prohibition on torture, non-discrimination, and a fair trial etc but these are not as relevant to the lives of ordinary people as economic, social and cultural rights are. Unlike most of the middle class, professional sector, which New Zealand society tends to revolve around, ordinary New Zealanders struggle to get sufficient choices to give them ‘a fair go’ in life. Economic, social and cultural rights are meant to ensure sufficient choices to enable a person to live a life of dignity. The latter rights are concerned with choices in employment, the rights to fair wages, health and education and an adequate standard of living.

The information society which New Zealand presently promotes is only as good as the ideology (Classical Liberalism) under which you must work. We need to extend the ideological boundaries by the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights in law. For this what is required is an imaginative society. This is vital if New Zealand is to be able to adapt with any finesse to the rapidly changing world around us.

Recent world events are showing that an individual cannot be truly free unless all are free. This has been demonstrated over the past 22 years when the liberal democracies have promoted ‘freedom and democracy’ (civil and political rights) but have largely ignored social justice (economic, social and cultural rights) with the result that walls between people have grown within and between countries resulting in considerable global instability. Freedom cannot exist when lack of social justice creates so many social prisons. And this occurs even though most juridications have civil and political rights in law as there is a vast difference between law and implementation at least for those at the bottom. The decline in social justice in New Zealand can be seen from the following figures showing an increasing gap between rich and poor. The Ministry of Social Development in 2004 provided updated statistics covering the period 1982 – 2004. New Zealander’s incomes were divided into ten groups (top 10% to bottom 10%, called deciles). The percentage change of incomes (average household equivalent disposable income) for each decile was calculated. The income of the top decile of New Zealand households increased dramatically, by 35% over the 1982-2001 period, while the income of the lowest five deciles, where most young children are located, fell by 8% on average (Susan St John et al, Cut Price Kids: Does the 2004 ‘Working for Families’ Budget Work for Children?, Child Poverty Action Group, November 2004). The Human Rights Commission states: “Research indicates that nearly three out of the ten children and young people live in poverty” (Human Rights Commission, Human Rights in New Zealand Today, September 2004, p55).

Jane Kelsey, Professor of Law, Auckland University, describes the economic situation of many countries: “ Free market policies have increased inequality within and between countries, and in the case of the poorer countries have condemned millions to entrenched life threatening poverty” (Jane Kelsey, Building the Constitution, ed C.James, 2000). Although India and China are regarded as economic success stories what is rarely measured but is intuitively obvious that the big gaps between rich and poor virtually everywhere indicates the increasing powerlessness of the poor who are unable to explain their situation to the majority and offer their ideas. People need to be aware that sometimes ‘freedom’ can be offered people while ‘food’ is taken away while sometimes ‘food’ can be given while ‘freedom’ is taken away. The latter may well describe the present situation, for instance, while economic, social and cultural rights are rising on the agenda at the UN the War on Terror is resulting in curbs on liberties in the Western liberal democracies.

Former United States President Franklin Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address considered that ‘true’ freedom required economic, social and cultural rights in addition to the civil and political rights in the bill of rights. He stated: “We have come to the clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men’. People who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second bill of rights, under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all – regardless of station, race or creed” (Steiner H.J. and Alston P., International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politic, Morals (1996), Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp258-259). He went on to articulate four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and _expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear (The “Four Freedoms”, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Address to Congress January 6, 1941, Chapter 36). However after the war and Roosevelt’s death America changed its stance and became the leading opponent of economic, social and cultural rights.

In 1984 in New Zealand the liberal elite, which controls the human rights agenda, reverted from Modern Liberalism, which had its origin in the early 20th Century to Classical Liberalism which had its origin in the 17th Century. Whichever form of liberalism is employed (modern or classical) by the liberal elite it is merely a matter of politically expedience.
The liberal elite’s belief system, at core, only includes civil and political rights and the rights to property and as such they essentially uphold the human rights law which is part of the system. Although not in terms of its core beliefs, Modern Liberalism involved a concern for social justice a response to the socialism that developed in the 19th Century. The Cold War ensured the continuation of Modern Liberalism - if the people were not treated well they could become communist. However prior to 1984 there as a rapid increase in the number of liberal democracies. The considerable ideological success of neo liberalism (or the globalization of liberalism) is illustrated by the doubling of liberal democracies around the world since 1972. For example, in 1972 there were 43 liberal democracies (29% of countries) but by 2003 there were 87 (45% of countries) (Professor R.J. Rummel, Democratic Peace (Internet), 13th July 2005). Francis Fukuyama states that the number of liberal democracies was 30 in 1975 but by 1990 it had increased to 61. With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 Fukuyama probably reflected the feelings of the triumphant West when he exclaimed that humanity had ‘come to the end of ideological history’ (The End of History AND the Last Man, pp49-50). The success of the neo liberal ideology is not hard to understand as global elites, particularly liberal elites, and as well as the corporations, have every reason not to want to give their populations social justice.
At the end of the Cold War liberal democracies led by America wasted little time in reverting to their core beliefs i.e. ‘their natural state’ - Classical Liberalism. Instead of adopting the economic, social and cultural rights the East European Communist countries had championed at the United Nation the liberal West ignored these rights and instead placed far greater priority on civil and political rights – Freedom and Democracy – with a vision (neo liberalism) to spread liberal democracy around the world with its attendant middle class, professional sector dominance supportively linked globally to ensure minimal social justice for their people.
Tony Evans states: “Instead of fulfilling its intention of offering protection to the weak and vulnerable, neo-liberal interests have co-opted the idea of human rights as a justification for grabbing ‘even more of the world’s (and their own nation’s) resources than they previously had’ and ‘to steal back the concessions to social democracy that were forced out of them at the end of the second World War’ (The Politics of Human Rights, 2001, p104)

In 1984 the liberal elite (bureaucratic and business) went on the offensive shedding modern liberalism’s concern for social justice leaving it to individual responsibility. Bruce Jesson describes the greater proactive role of liberals at this time and the formation of a liberal establishment. He states that just prior to 1984 there were considerable changes occurring at a sub-political level ‘with a mood of liberal conformity spreading among a section of the middle classes’: “Students who had experienced the ferment of the sixties made their careers in the universities, the public service, teaching, broadcasting, some trade unions, the churches and the welfare industry. These institutions and professions overlap to a fair extent, and the consequence is a network of influence that amounts to the emergence of the liberal equivalent of an Establishment” (Jesson Bruce, To Build a Nation, ed Andrew Sharp, 2005, p152).

Classical liberalism allowed for the cutting back of the public service permitting a large private sector suitable for the corporations. There was to be much less government intervention and this meant not only less social justice but less efforts to ensure that people had access to the civil and political rights in law. Caroline Thomas describes the liberalism (modern liberalism) which existed prior to 1984 as ‘embedded’. She states: “This meant that whilst the system aimed at reducing the barriers to trade, in reality significant levels of state intervention in the market continued. Governments were highly responsive to domestic pressures, and were unwilling to leave everything up to the market for reasons of domestic political stability and national interest” (Thomas Caroline, Poverty ,Development and Hunger in The Globalisation of World Politics, ed John Baylis and Steven Smith, 1997, p453).
The liberal elite (bureaucratic and business) is a very small group and can be regarded as the political wing of the middle class, professional sector. To date the agenda excludes economic, social and cultural rights but if it is included it is unlikely, in my opinion, that the liberal elite will be prepared to relinquish control i.e. the interpretation and implementation of human rights. Liberal elite rather than people control of the human rights agenda means the social control of the population is largely in the hands of this group whose enormous power stems from the dominance of their ideology world-wide, led by the United States which is the only industrialized country not to have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. By contrast credible alternatives such as socialism or ‘equal status of both sets of rights’ are marginalised e.g. the poorer regions of South America and Africa who also promote economic, social and cultural rights or socialism.

In my opinion, control of the human rights agenda should be in the hands of all the people not just left in the hands of a small elite whose understanding of the lives of ordinary people, let alone the most disadvantaged, is highly suspect. Our council, Human Rights Council Inc., has stood candidates under the banner of the Human Rights Party (which can be adopted universally) in the past two elections. Our plan is to have the New Zealand Plan of Action for Human Rights included in human rights law and to have both sets of rights entrenched and made supreme law. Our intention is to educate by making use of the democratic process by standing as many candidates as we can throughout the country. The two essential requirements, which by making use of focus groups to set culturally appropriate standards and statistical surveys to measure progress, have universal application. They are:
(1) To immediately address the core obligation of the state with respect to both sets of rights e.g. deal with homelessness, outlets for freedom of speech for the poor (core obligations deal with extreme deprivations of human rights – see General Comment 3, The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).
(2) To immediately educate all the people in human rights particularly economic, social and cultural rights (our council regards this as a core obligation).

Higher levels of economic, social and cultural rights can be achieved progressively (United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Part 11, Article 2(1)).

The liberal elite, which represents the middle class, professional sector, should be joined by other groups to control the human rights agenda. The following figures showing the representation of various groups in parliament. It shows there is a need for greater involvement of manual workers, farmers, union officials and small business people are represented in parliament. In addition one could now add superannuitants and beneficiaries.

Our parliament is dominated by MPs from the middle class, professional sector (77%). An example of this dominance is given by Jack Nagel in the British Journal of Political Science (1998) who provides statistics on the occupations of NZ Labour MPs:

1935 1984 2000(my figures)
Professional, semi-professional 17.9% 73.2% 77.1%
Business, other white collar 26.8% 12.5% 6.3%
Manual workers, farmers, union officials 55.3% 14.4% 14.6%

The backgrounds of MPs in parliament three years ago consisted of 10 farmers, 7 trade unionists, 11 from small business and 73 professionals. To give an indication of how unrepresentative this is there are approximately 191,000 professionals (1996 Census of Populations), 327,800 trade unionists (Dec 1997, New Zealand’s Second Report under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, p32) and 880,007 beneficiaries aBroken Welfare?nd superannuitants (North and South, May 2000, ). As these figures of the backgrounds of MPs are very unrepresentative of society as a whole I consider that greater efforts should be made to have more MPs with backgrounds in small business, trade unions, religion, voluntary work, and beneficiaries/superannuitants in the same way that parliament has now achieved a higher proportion of women and Maori. Improved representation would protect human rights by ensuring no ideology and/or socio-economic group gets the upper hand.


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