Long before human rights were written down in international documents and national constitutions, people revealed their commitment to principles of propriety, justice, and caring through cultural practices and oral traditions. Basic rights and responsibilities, such as the right to food and the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” revolved around family, tribe, religion, class, community, or state.

The earliest attempts of literate societies to write about rights and responsibilities date back more than 4,000 years to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. This Code, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the Analects of Confucius, the Koran, and the Hindu Vedas are five of the oldest written sources which address questions of people’s duties, rights, and responsibilities. In addition, the Inca and Aztec codes of conduct and justice and the Iroquois Constitution are Native American sources dating back well before the eighteenth century. Other pre-World War II documents, such as the English Bill of Rights, the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, focused on civil and political rights. They concentrated on the rights of citizens to equality, liberty, and due process and of participation in the political life of their community and society through activities such as voting.

At the end of World War II, citizens working through nongovernmental organizations urged the creators of the United Nations system to include the promotion of a spectrum of human rights in the UN Charter. These are rights to which all people are entitled, regardless of who they are or where they live. The United Nations created a Com mission on Human Rights in 1946. Forcefully led by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Commission drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It includes fundamental rights to life, liberty, and security as well as a broad range of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.

On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted unanimously by 48 members of the United Nations, with eight countries abstaining.

Today, the promotion of human rights is guided by what is referred to as the Inter national Bill of Rights. It includes the UDHR and two treaties—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These treaties elaborate on rights identified in the UDHR and, when adopted by individual states, have the force of law. Each treaty provides for independent experts who monitor governments and requires periodic reporting by governments to ensure that they are following treaty provisions.

Economic, social, and cultural rights, are specified in Articles 16 and 22-29 of the UDHR. They identify an impressive list of human rights concerns and refer to:

  • marriage and family;
  • work and leisure (free choice of employment, just conditions of work, equal pay for equal work, just remuneration, freedom to form and join trade unions, and rest);
  • a standard of living adequate for food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and social services;
  • security in case of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, and old age;
  • special care and assistance in motherhood and childhood;
  • education (free and compulsory elementary education, equal access based on merit, parental choice, and full development of the human personality);
  • participation in the cultural life of one’s community;
  • protection of one’s own literary, scientific, and artistic productions;
  • social and international order that enables these human rights to be realized; and
  • one’s duties to one’s community.

The United States has long attended to some of these economic, social, and cultural rights. For example, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) sought to save our struggling economic system and implement his vision of economic and social justice. In a 1937 speech in Chicago, FDR declared, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished... The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Four years later, in his State of the Union Address, FDR spoke inspiringly of a world with four major freedoms—freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear (See p. vi).

During Roosevelt’s presidency and in the years since, the United States has sought to respond to these economic and social needs with new policies. These have included health insurance programs, social security insurance, unemployment insurance, public works projects, farm supports, expanded educational opportunities, and laws supporting worker rights to organize and strike. However, US government leaders have never presented these to the American people as human rights to which everyone is entitled.

During the years after World War II, the Cold War polarized capitalist and communist countries into East and West, with each emphasizing different types of rights. The United States, proud of its achievements in the areas of civil and political rights, criticized its communist rivals, particularly the Soviet Union, for denying these to their citizens. On its part, the USSR asserted the importance of government in ensuring that all citizens have adequate food, health care, employment, social insurance, and education. Members of the Soviet Union accused the USA of refusing to guarantee these economic and social rights to its citizens. These political stances, however, did not adequately capture the reality that both sides of the East-West conflict were struggling with issues related to the full range of rights.

Other nations, such as Sweden and Denmark, sought to promote both clusters of rights through the establishment of social welfare states. And many of the new nations in Africa and Asia, created since the end of World War II, such as Egypt, the Philippines, South Africa, and Tanzania, wrote constitutions embodying the wide range of principles found in the UDHR. They have sought to establish development strategies reflecting a commitment to these rights.

However, as we look across the globe, it is evident that we are far from achieving the goals of justice and human dignity for all. Yes, there have been popular movements towards democratization in many parts of the world, with elected leaders replacing dictators. Yes, there have been advances in education, health care, and sanitation. Nevertheless, among the 4.4 billion people who live in developing countries, three-fifths still have no access to basic sanitation, almost one-third are without safe drinking water, one-quarter lack adequate housing, one-fifth live beyond reach of modern health services, one-fifth of the children do not reach grade five in school, and one-fifth are undernourished.

Almost all of the world’s nations have indicated a commitment to achieving full economic, social, and cultural rights by agreeing to the United Nations’ international covenant on these rights. The United States has not; it appears unwilling to conduct the self-scrutiny that would be required.

The results of this lack of commitment leave the United States with much to do. One US child in five lives in official poverty, between 1.2 and 2 million people are homeless during any year, 40 million are without health insurance, and the number of people turning to emergency food shelves and soup kitchens for their meals is rapidly growing.

Human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and inalienable. Therefore, the enhancement of all rights—civil, political, economic, social, and cultural—must be our goal.

SOURCE: Written by Gwen Willems, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, and David Shiman, Center for World Education, University of Vermont.


Next Section: Economic and Social Justice: Questions and Answers