The Purpose of Module 1

The purpose of this module is to enable participants to develop a rights-based perspective and approach to economic, social and cultural (ESC) issues. 

The module discusses

  • the development of a rights-based perspective;
  • the intrinsic value of economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights;
  • the need to reflect on development policies and strategies;
  • the debate on the role of the state in ensuring ESC rights; and
  • the indivisibility of rights.

Developing a Rights-Based Perspective

The dignity of an individual cannot and should not be divided into two spheres-that of civil and political and that of economic, social and cultural.  The individual must be able to enjoy freedom from want as well as freedom from fear.  The ultimate goal of ensuring respect for the dignity of an individual cannot be achieved without that person’s enjoying all of his or her rights.  Ultimately, it is a question of putting the human being in the center-not as an atomistic individual, but as part of a community and an ecological system.  Advancing ESC rights requires a new paradigm and a new perception of rights.

In February 2000 the Indonesian government imposed a ban on use of becak in the capital, Jakarta.  Becak are tricycles that are used for transporting goods and people; they provide a livelihood for the many people who pedal them.  In imposing the ban, the government argued that becak cause traffic jams; they are slow-moving and an oddity in a city full of brand-new cars and other motor vehicles.

This is not the first time that the use of becak has been declared illegal.  The previous ban was lifted in 1997 due to the acute economic crisis in the country.  Becak driving provided much-needed employment.  Many poor people sold their meager possessions to buy a becak in order to earn their livelihood.  Now, with the new ban, they are back to square one.

The implicit assumption underlying the government’s ban is that becak drivers have no place in Jakarta’s busy urban environment, where their mode of earning a livelihood is no longer relevant.  The ban also carries the implication that the government holds no responsibility for the marginaliza­tion of the becak drivers; while the latter may have rights that protect them against arbitrary arrest, torture and killing, they have none that would ensure their economic and social well-being. 

A common argument is that the becak drivers’ choice of liveli­hood should give way to eco­nomic development, which will, in the long run, save them from the drudg­ery of pedaling a becak all day.  In the meanwhile, instead of tell-ing them they have rights, why not provide them with charity, so that they do not starve?  The food, hous­ing, health and other basic require­ments of becak drivers are typically viewed within a de­velopment per­spec­tive; they are seen simply as needs and not as entitle­ments.  The as­sumption is that economic development will enable a person or group to meet its basic needs.

The plight of the becak drivers is not unique.  Their circumstances and similar circumstances of many other people, however, do pose a diffi­cult question: How can we understand and discuss their situations not as ones involving charity or development, but as ones in­volving human rights, and specifically economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights?  It is easy to say that ESC rights exist, but articulating their relationship to real-life situations such as these is a chal­lenge. 

It is essential to understand that working for develop­ment by extending services or providing for basic needs is different from working to ensure the enjoyment of ESC rights.  We cannot ignore the effect that depri­vation of basic ESC entitlements has on the dignity of a person.  Individuals cannot be asked to wait for economic development to happen before their dignity is respected.  The dignity and well-being of human beings is the foundation on which a rights-based approach is built.

ESC rights rest on the belief that economic and social deprivation should no longer be con­sidered the result of natural conditions ordained by God or fate, as has historically often been the case.  They also rest on the belief that those who do not enjoy the fulfillment of their ESC rights are not to be automatically blamed for their plight, on the charge of being lazy, reck­less in spending or nonenterprising. 

A rights-based approach is founded on the conviction that each and every human being, by vir­tue of being human, is a holder of rights.  A right entails an obligation on the part of the government to respect, promote, protect and fulfill it.  The legal and normative character of rights and the associated governmental obligations are based on international human rights treaties and other standards, as well as on national constitutional human rights provisions.

Thus a rights-based approach involves not charity or simple economic development, but a process of enabling and empowering those not enjoying their ESC rights to claim their rights.  When individuals or peoples cannot exercise what they understand and believe to be their right, activists can encourage and help them to claim the right through judicial and adminis­trative channels or, where an established mechanism does not exist, by other means such as public demonstrations.  The process of staking a claim not only asserts an individual’s own­ership of his or her entitlement.  It also helps define the right and raises awareness that what has been claimed is not a privilege or an aspiration, but a right.

One human rights activist has described a rights-based approach in the following way:

What does a "rights approach” mean? First, it means clearly understanding the differ­ence between a right and a need.  A right is something to which I am entitled solely by virtue of being a person.  It is that which enables me to live with dignity. Moreover, a right can be enforced before the government and entails an obligation on the part of the government to honor it.  A need, on the other hand, is an aspiration which can be quite legitimate, but is not necessarily associated with an obligation on the part of the government to cater to it; satisfaction of a need cannot be enforced. Rights are associ­ated with "being,” whereas needs are associated with "having.”

Second, a rights approach cannot focus on defending or attacking the form of govern­ment, on making statements for or against the victim’s political inclination, or on the motivations-alleged or actual-of those violating human rights, but rather on the rights being violated themselves and the apparatus that makes the violations possible.  In other words, a rights approach cannot attack or support a particular type of political system, even though it cannot ignore its resistance as a factor which blocks or favors the effective exercise of human rights . . .

Third, and as a consequence of the foregoing, a right is defined on the basis of dignity, that is to say, on the basis of "being,” not "having” or the social or economic program of a party or a government.  A political program can-and should-be negotiated, where dignity is non-negotiable.  Political programs are necessary to honor human rights, but they cannot be substituted for them.  Political programs are subject to change in social and economic dynamics, and what is important today may not be important tomorrow. The dignity of the individual is immutable; it is the same all times and in all places, and its essence transcends cultural particularities. [1]

The Intrinsic Value of ESC Rights

ESC entitlements (for example, food, education, housing) are normally perceived only as in­strumental to achieving certain ends, such as development and economic growth.  This view has been in line with the notion that ESC rights are only aspirations, not rights proper.  De­rived from this is the idea that these rights can only be achieved progressively, since their enjoyment is linked to availability of resources.  At this point, the "negative” and "positive” categorization of rights comes into play, whereby civil and political rights can be immedi­ately enforced, since they require only nonintervention by the state, while all ESC rights sup­posedly require a positive role by the state.  The debate regarding ESC rights thus becomes entangled in the politics of free market versus state intervention. 

The debate on ESC entitlements is typically conducted not from the perspective of rights but from the perspective of development or welfare policy.  An approach that makes ESC enti­tlements dependent upon the development policies of a state undermines the fundamental principle that human rights cannot be given nor taken away.  It is essential to establish the intrinsic value of ESC rights.  They have a value-and are an end-in and of themselves.

The "capability” approach suggested by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen pro­vides a useful frame­work for understanding the intrinsic value of ESC rights.  According to Sen, "the notion of capability is essentially one of freedom-the range of options a person has in deciding what kind of life to lead.” [2]   He argues that economic poverty and deprivation should be seen in relation to their role in curtailing the freedom of a person to lead a life that s/he values.  The freedom to live a normal span of life, for example, is curtailed by premature mortality, and the freedom to read or write is curtailed by illiteracy.  Enjoyment of ESC rights enhances the freedom of individuals by increasing their capabilities and their quality of life.

Seeing poverty as a capability failure can lead to demands for appropriate social arrange­ments through placing obligations on states.  This approach also provides a framework for judging policies by their impact on the enhancement of citizens’ capabilities (whether or not the enhanced capability comes through the growth of real incomes).  Finally, a capability ap­proach can be a means of assessing the impact of dis­crimination based on factors such as race, class, caste and gender.  Discrimination can, for example, constrain the capability and thus freedom of a person through denying him/her employment or ap­propriate medical care.

Sen identifies five ways in which education and health contribute to the freedom of a person.

      1.   Intrinsic Importance

Being educated and healthy are valuable achievements in themselves, and the op­por­tunity to have them can be of direct importance to a person’s effective free­dom.

      2.  Instrumental Personal Roles

A person’s education and health can help him or her to do many things-other than just being educated and healthy-that are valuable.  They can, for instance, be impor­tant for getting a job and more generally for making use of economic op­portunities.  The resulting expansion in incomes and economic means can, in turn, add to a per­son’s freedom to achieve functioning that he or she values.

      3.   Instrumental Social Roles

Greater literacy and basic education can facilitate public discussion of social needs and encourage informed collective demands (e.g., for health care and social security); these in turn can help expand the facilities that the public enjoys, and contribute to the better utilization of available services.

4.  Instrumental Process Roles

The process of schooling can have benefits even aside from its explicitly aimed objectives, namely formal education . . . Schooling also brings young people in touch with others and thereby broadens their horizons, and this can be particularly impor­tant for young girls.

      5.  Empowerment and Distributive Roles

Greater literacy and educational achievements of dis­advantaged groups can increase their ability to resist oppression, to organize politically, and to get a fairer deal. [3]

The effects of education and health are not nec­es­sarily confined to the person who receives them. 

Expansion of health and education can have influences that go much beyond the immedi­ate personal effects.  For example, one per­son’s educational ability can be of use to an­other.  The interpersonal connections can be of political significance as well; for example, a com­munity may benefit generally from the civic attention it receives through the educated activism of a particular group within that commu­nity. [4]

Sen also examines the role of food in fostering freedom:

The free­dom that people enjoy to lead a decent life, including freedom from hunger, from avoidable morbidity, from premature mortality, etc., is quite centrally connected with the provision of food and related necessities.  Also the compulsion to acquire enough food may force vulner­able people to do things which they resent doing, and may make them accept lives with little freedom.  The role of food in fostering free­dom can be an extremely important one. [5]

With regard to food policy, Sen distinguishes two kinds of perspectives-the instrumental perspective and the intrinsic perspective.  The instrumental perspective emphasizes economic incentives for expansion of national output, including food production.  Sen proposes that the instrumental perspective should not limit itself to advancing the freedom to earn profits, however.  Other, broader kinds of freedoms such as freedom of information, assembly and opposition should also be advanced.  These freedoms play a crucial role in the delivery and use of food. 

In the intrinsic perspec­tive, according to Sen, freedom from hunger can be seen as having value in and of itself.  Therefore, economic development and social progress should be as­sessed by examining whether they enhance basic positive freedoms to avoid premature mor­tality, to escape morbidity, to eliminate malnutrition, and so on.

The importance of this perspective arises partly from the fact that the metrics of gross national product, real income, etc., may often be quite misleading about the extents of freedom that people do enjoy and can build their lives on.  Even in such elementary matters as avoiding premature mortality, the statistics of national products (including those of food output) can hide more than they reveal.  It is possible for the national product per head and the food availability per person to go up sharply without reduc­ing mortality rates, sometimes accompanied by increased mortality. [6]

Sen’s arguments regarding food policy can be extended to social and economic policy (de­velopment policy) matters in general.  They can be examined to assess whether they intrinsi­cally enhance ESC rights and thereby the dignity and freedom of the individual.

A Look at the Becak Drivers through a “Capability” Lens

At first glance, the outlawing of the becak appears to only affect the working status of the becak drivers. However, an examination of their situation through the lens of Sen’s “capability approach” reveals a much greater impact on the rights and freedoms of the newly marginalized becak driver: §

  • Having a job as a driver held intrinsic value in and of itself. The opportunity to work and to carve out a position in society increased the driver’s effective freedom and overall quality of life;
  • The self-employment of the driver enabled him to support himself and potentially his family as well. This, in turn, increased his ability to take part in community life, and gain access to necessary services and needs, such as adequate food, health care, etc.;
  • In workday life, the becak driver came into contact with many people, thus expanding his knowledge and awareness of society as a whole. These interactions are essential to his freedom in society and community; and
  • The ability of the driver to earn a living may well have affected his ability to organize, resist oppression and create a more just life for himself and his family.

The Indonesian government’s decision to outlaw becak was taken without the effective participation of those whose livelihoods depend on them. This not only deprived the becak drivers of their ability to earn a living and the freedoms that would ensue from this, but also denied them their voice, role and potential. It effectively “disappeared” them from society. A rights-based approach to this situation would include encouraging and helping the drivers to claim their right to a livelihood and the accompanying freedoms that are theirs as human beings.

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[1]  Ligia Bolívar, "The Fundamentalism of Dignity,” in A Human Rights Message, ed. Swedish Institute (Stockholm: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, 1998), 29-30.

[2] Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity (Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks, 1998), 11.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Amartya Sen, "Food and Freedom,” World Development 17 (1989): 769.

[6] Ibid., 780.

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