During last year's U.S. presidential election, debate moderator Tom Brokaw plied Barack Obama and John McCain for what was, in all the press dissections the next day, a little-remarked-upon distinction: Should health care in America be considered a privilege, a right or a responsibility?
McCain went with the latter option and Obama the middle one, although he has seldom since becoming president referred to his health care push using such sensitive language.
William Schulz, longtime executive director of Amnesty International USA until 2006, recalled the moment as a significant one in a growing tactical shift among western human rights champions — a shift made more apparent by the first truly global economic crisis.
"The fact is, the economic recession itself will cause and is causing enormous human rights violations," Schulz said. "They simply happen to be of an economic nature and not necessarily a civil or political nature."
Human rights scholars recognize five broad categories of rights — civil, political, social, economic and cultural — outlined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights but rarely embraced in their totality in practice. The West, and the U.S. in particular, has long focused on the first two categories, on abuses of the right to free speech or to due process.
Too Hungry to Opine
But for many human rights advocates and legal scholars, the recession lays bare that those kinds of rights do the world's poorest little good without basic needs such as food, shelter and literacy.
What good is the right to vote, they ask, if you starve on the way to the ballot box? Or the right to an independent media if you can't read what it's printing?
Human rights advocates in the U.S. have for the last 15 years been coming around to a broader definition of the term, elevating economic and social rights that had been treated as a sort of second-class set of protections, said Jim Cavallaro, a law professor and executive director of the Harvard Human Rights Program.
The Chinese government has asked a similar set of questions, although to a decidedly different end, presenting economic development and political and civil rights as sequential goals — the one a luxury dependent upon the establishment of the other — rather than equally necessary tenets of society.
"It's a variant of the argument that first people have to eat, and then we can worry about human rights," said law professor David Weissbrodt, who co-directs the University of Minnesota's Human Rights Center. "I don't agree with that argument, for a number of reasons, the most important is that people who are having serious economic problems, like they can't find food to eat, need other human rights, like, for example, the right to freedom of expression. If you're not getting enough food, and you also don't have the right to complain about it, it's a lot worse."
Both kinds of rights are inseparable, Weissbrodt and Schulz argue, just as bolstering the economy and protecting political rights are, too.
Schulz was one of few prominent human rights advocates who in February defended Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, instead of eviscerating her, for saying that pressing the Chinese on human rights violations "can't interfere" with other discussions between the two countries on the economic crisis, security issues and climate change.
Critics charged that the U.S. was abandoning its morals at the feet of its banker.
Schulz, however, argued that addressing the recession is addressing human rights — particularly considering the recession's toll on the weakest rights-holders in the world, those who are already poor.
Schulz hopes that the public will now follow in its understanding of economic rights as the downturn causes Americans to rethink everything from how they use their credit cards to how they expect the government to pad their fall in tough times. The question is: Will Americans draw a correlation between the right of the world's poor to find food in tough times and the right —in Obama's words — of its better-off to have basic health care as well?
"As people see that their own economic security is threatened, as the lack of access to health care is underscored by the recession, I think that there will be a growing understanding that various elements of social and economic rights are essential to human well-being," Schulz said. "Now, people may not put those sentiments in rights language simply because there's such resistance to that traditionally within the U.S., but they certainly will understand it in basic human needs."
Your Rights, My Socialism
Much of Europe already embraces economic rights, as Obama has found in resistance across the Atlantic to his pleas for greater stimulus spending. Europe, EU leaders have argued, already has a strong social safety net, simply another way of describing the minimal economic needs of individuals ensured by society.
Americans have long had a different frame of reference for rights provided for under Article 25 of the UDHR — "the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being" of each person and their family, including basic food, medical care, social services and security in the event of unemployment or disability.
"Economic rights — the U.S. called them 'socialism,'" said Bruce Kochis, director of the Human Rights Education and Research Network at the University of Washington.
The UDHR was drafted at the onset of the Cold War, and on opposing sides, the U.S. favored emphasizing political and civil rights, and the Soviet Union the remaining economic, social and cultural rights. The difference was as much philosophical as practical; the UDHR is not a binding treaty but a declaration of shared values (and, at the time of its creation, an explicit reaction to World War II), with no mechanism attached to prosecute countries that violate them.
The West was, at the time, angling to monitor abuses of free speech and freedom from detention in Soviet countries.
To this day communist China insists that it gets little credit among Western officials and advocates for dramatic advances in the economic quality of life of its citizens — a legitimate argument but one dampened by China's focus on economic rights to the exclusion of others, often using the cultural justification that Asians value group prosperity over individual freedom.
The division of rights, then, is weighted with heavy historical associations: communism on one side, capitalism on the other. Some economic and social rights are also viewed in the U.S. as not minimum requirements but impractical goals; the UDHR outlines protections for equal pay, trade unions and public education, all of which aren't universally agreed-upon in the U.S.
Even as more Americans must go without health care in the recession and begin thinking of it as an essential need, and the lack thereof as a kind of indignity, Schulz predicts Obama may have a hard time further discussing the question as a matter of rights. The very word itself suggests a fundamental consensus.
"Politically," Schulz said, "that might well be unpalatable."
But an earlier American president drew the connection without so many words.
"As FDR said, 'One of the freedoms is freedom from want,'" Kochis said. "This will be an interesting parallel with all of the talk of FDR right now and the New Deal. The New Deal was essentially a human rights movement before its time."
The original New Deal provided work for the unemployed during the Depression through the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration. It ensured basic financial stability for the elderly and disabled through the creation of the Social Security system. It also established a minimum wage, eliminated child labor and insured the income of farmers — all policy prescriptions that had, at their core, the goal of providing for certain minimum needs.
"And what are human rights?" Schulz asked. "They're a means of articulating and fulfilling basic human needs."
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