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.

Since the end of the Cold War, increasing attention has been paid at the international level to ESC rights. A few international organizations and institutions -- both intergovernmental and non- governmental4 -- are working toward a more detailed understanding of the various rights incorporated in international instruments, and of how best to enforce governmental obligations to protect these rights. These efforts are essential to creating global respect for and enforcement of economic and social rights.

However, it is also generally true that international human rights endeavors are more effective when they are developed in collaboration with and are based upon the experience and priorities of local- and national-level organizations. Due to their familiarity with the political, economic, social and cultural contexts within their own countries, local and national organizations are well-situated to undertake certain tasks critical to the realization of economic, social, cultural, and indeed, all rights. In particular, they are ideally placed to:

  • identify the economic, social and cultural issues of greatest immediate concern to the country or community;
  • apply economic and social rights standards in international law and national constitutions to the particular local and national conditions and structures, analysis of which is essential to elucidating the core content of the rights and the corresponding obligations of governments;
  • monitor closely the state's development of the conditions necessary to ensure economic and social rights and, in particular, its implementation of related policies, plans and legislation;
  • monitor and report on the government's actions in compliance with or in violation of its obligations;
  • ascertain the jurisprudence, availability of legal remedies, and enforceability under national laws of economic and social rights;
  • respond to individual or community complaints of violations;
  • educate the population on their ESC rights; and,
  • mobilize and collaborate with communities and other organizations to advocate for these rights.

While the effective promotion and protection of human rights depends on local and national organizations undertaking these important tasks, there are, in fact, few local or national organizations which address economic and social issues from a rights perspective. Organizations which have experience working on ESC issues with a rights approach -- that is, using international human rights norms and treaties and constitutional rights guarantees to monitor and assess governments' policies and actions -- are charting new territory. The challenge of working in largely unmapped terrain can be isolating for these pioneering groups and deter new groups from entering the field. All of these organizations will be encouraged to persevere if they are able to share information, experiences and ideas with others who have themselves undertaken some of the difficult process of conceptualizing and implementing work in this area.

As growing numbers of human rights and other NGOs turn or expand their focus to include ESC rights, the need for relevant training resources will also increase. In 1995, in order to enhance its capacity to facilitate training projects and the exchange of experience and expertise among human rights organizations in the area of ESC rights, the International Human Rights Internship Program (IHRIP) initiated a project to enhance its own understanding of local- and national-level ESC rights activism. The project has been aimed in particular at learning more about the fundamental components of ESC rights work and identifying existing training capacity so that IHRIP can better respond to requests for training in this arena.

IHRIP's first task was to identify local- and national-level organizations and activists focusing on ESC rights to learn about the nature and extent of their work. In particular, IHRIP sought out organizations and activists who have systematically used a rights approach and have gained valuable insights about ESC rights advocacy. IHRIP did not attempt to be exhaustive in its identification of ESC rights activism; rather it sought to learn about the use of different advocacy tools, such as monitoring, litigation or policy formulation, and experience with different ESC rights, for example, the right to housing, health and education. IHRIP wanted to learn about the processes which organizations have followed in defining their ESC rights work: the goals they have identified; the strategies and tools they have used to pursue their goals; key insights and questions that have emerged; as well as major challenges and obstacles they confront and how they have addressed these challenges.

The International Workshop on National-Level Activism in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

As part of its project, IHRIP held a workshop July 22-24, 1996 in Thailand to which it invited a diverse group of activists from different regions who are working primarily with local and national- level organizations that are currently active on ESC rights using a rights approach5. Also participating were a few individuals who are not working precisely in this way, but who have significant relevant experience with one or more aspects of local or national-level work, as well as a few individuals from international-level NGOs.

The objectives of the three-day workshop were:

1) To facilitate the exchange of information, resources and expertise among the participants;

2) To identify aspects of participants' experience and thinking processes -- key challenges organizations have faced in their work, useful insights they have gained, questions that remain outstanding -- which would be helpful to other organizations; and,

3) To identify training capacity in this field and design a framework for encouraging further development of training resources.

The first two days of the workshop were devoted to an overall discussion of the issues, goals and strategies groups have chosen for their work, followed by more detailed consideration of specific strategies and tools: monitoring and data collection, including budget analysis; education and mobilization; policy work and legislative advocacy; litigation; work with intergovernmental bodies; and work with multilateral development banks. One or two participants with significant experience and understanding of the particular topic began each session with a presentation. IHRIP asked presenters to address the following questions:

  1. What approaches, information or resources have you found particularly helpful?
  2. What particular problems or challenges have you faced that other groups are likely to encounter, and how are you addressing them?
  3. What particular insights have you gained or lessons have you learned from this process?
  4. What would you want to be sure that newcomers to the field are aware of?

On the third day of the workshop the group reviewed the main points which had been brought out and identified those which were important to flag for newcomers to the field. The discussions also focused on those points which needed greater clarification, about which there had been dispute, or which remained unresolved.

The group also briefly considered potential training resources. However, despite their experience, participants felt that it was premature to develop any concrete training programs. They concurred on the need for more time to implement their strategies and evaluate what they have learned before integrating their experiences into formal training programs. IHRIP's workshop goal of creating a framework to encourage and facilitate further development of training resources was thus put on hold.

Ripple in Still Water: Reflections by Activists on Local- and National-Level Work on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

This resource, Ripple in Still Water, is a digest of information and experiences that seem particularly relevant and useful to local- and national-level ESC rights activism. Workshop participants stressed that materials coming out of the workshop should not be considered as a "blueprint" or handbook for how to go about ESC rights activism. Rather, they should:

inform interested activists about some useful experiences in the use of a human rights approach to ESC issues;

share the thinking processes and organizational strategies groups have applied to their work in this area; and,

encourage others active or interested in ESC rights work by illustrating some of the many tools and strategies which can be employed.

The digest integrates experiences of organizations as described in the workshop preparatory packet, key insights and questions shared at the workshop, and reflections by IHRIP staff based on the program's contact with human rights organizations and its experience in facilitating training/ exchange projects.

Ripple in Still Water concentrates on various advocacy strategies and tools for ESC rights activism, limiting its theoretical or historical analyses to those issues which workshop participants mentioned as having a direct bearing on their present-day work. There is ample literature available which focuses on the history of the split between economic, social and cultural rights on the one hand and civil and political rights on the other; theoretical legal analyses of the justiciability of ESC rights; interpretations of various ESC rights, such as housing, by international human rights bodies, and so on. (See bibliography, Appendix A, for some suggested readings.) However, few materials are written which describe what ESC rights activism looks like at the local and national levels, the reasons organizations choose to tackle their work in a given way, what programs organizations have developed to implement their ESC rights work, and what pitfalls newcomers to the field may encounter. These latter concerns are often of more immediate relevance to activist organizations.

Structure of the Resource

Section I: Developing a Framework for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Activism initiates the exploration of national-level ESC rights activism, presenting reflections about a human rights framework and human rights approach and discussing in general terms the international human rights standards which relate to ESC rights. It includes:

Chapter 1 - General Principles for ESC Rights Activism
Chapter 2 - Content of International Standards

Section II: Strategies and Tools for ESC Rights Activism stresses the need for a clear identification of issues and establishment of goals for work, and provides information about the thinking processes organizations have employed to identify and implement various strategies for ESC rights activism and what they have learned through doing so. The resource has attempted to focus on specific strategies and tools for activism, recognizing that, in practice, organizations typically use a combination of various advocacy strategies and tools in implementing specific programs. This section is organized as follows:

Chapter 3 - Organizational Issues, Goals and Strategies
Chapter 4 - Monitoring and Data Collection
Chapter 5 - Education and Mobilization
Chapter 6 - Policy Work, Legislative Advocacy and Litigation
Chapter 7 - Work with Intergovernmental Bodies

The Appendices are a collection of resources which were offered by workshop participants or otherwise collated by IHRIP. They include:

Appendix A - Bibliography
Appendix B - A List of Relevant UN Documents and Partial Collation of ESC Rights Standards
Appendix C - Matrices Designed by the Caribbean Initiative on Equality and Non- Discrimination for the Development of National Laws and Policies
Appendix D - "Budget Analysis: DISHA's Experience"
Appendix E -Provea and the Case of El Hornito
Appendix F - Excerpt from a Submission to the African Commission for Human and Peoples' Rights
Appendix G - Excerpt from Health as a Right by Provea
Appendix H - "The Chiangmai Statem
ent on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights"
Appendix I - Workshop Participant List

It is our hope that Ripple in Still Water will be useful to national- and local-level human rights organizations foremost, and to other NGOs interested in undertaking ESC rights activism. IHRIP welcomes your comments, ideas and questions.

1. The International Bill of Human Rights comprises the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, the Second Optional Protocol to teh ICCPR. See Appendix B for information about obtaining these and related documents.

2. The work of the International Labour Organisation on labor rights is the notable exception.

3. See Civil Liberties Organisation, Annual Report on Human Rights in Nigeria, 1993, Lagos, 1993. See also Human Rights Watch, The Ogoni Crisis: A Case-Study of Military Repression in Southeastern Nigeria, New York, July 1995.

4. Example of intergovernmental bodies are the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultrual Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Internaional NOs working in this area include the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), FoofFirst International Action Network (FIAN), and the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR).

5. The workshop was hosted by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia). A list of workshop participants is located in Appendix I.



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