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How Economic and Social Rights Disappeared

Several years ago the Occupy movement captured the imagination an American public disillusioned with the country’s socioeconomic system, which had failed to provide them with a standard of living commensurate with wealth of the richest country in the history of the world. Occupy provided a forum for average citizens to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and created a framework to view what was happening in society as a class war waged by the 1% against the 99%.

Many economic and social goals were proposed such as a living wage, free higher education, and single-payer healthcare system, to name a few. While many would consider those all worthy goals in the public interest, none have been implemented by the federal government.  It is striking that in the 21st century it is even necessary to have this debate in the United States. All of these things and more are birth rights for all U.S. citizens as much as free speech and the right to vote.

For the last 65 years, economic and social rights have been systematically denied to U.S. citizens, who have been led to believe these things are not even rights at all. While Occupy started to remove the wool from our eyes, it was quickly pulled back down.

Human rights are not abstract principles; they are specific privileges listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This monumental accord was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly by a vote of 48-0. It served as the basis for a series of international human rights treaties that followed it, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).

The United States signed both Covenants more than a decade later under Jimmy Carter, but only ratified the first. The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has never been ratified, and with good reason: powerful elite interest groups refuse to recognize that economic and social rights exist.

“Signing a treaty laden with economic rights is foolish,” writes the Heritage Foundation in a piece laughably titled “Human Rights Treaty Poses Dangers for America”. “It accepts as a premise that government can create wealth. If the 75-year communist experiment proved anything, it is that government gets in the way of producing goods and services. Abundant health care, housing, and food are byproducts of wealth created by private individuals pursuing a profit. Even the most hard-core former communists in Russia and China have come to understand this.”

The Heritage Foundation fails to recognize that the greatest economic gains in the history of the United States came at a time of state planning during and after WWI, or that there would be no Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon or Facebook without decades of government funding to develop the technologies and infrastructure for the Internet. But that is beside the point. The Heritage Foundation argument is simple: economic rights don’t exist. They are a violation of “the intellectual spirit of freedom and individual liberties that has characterized America since its founding.”

The Universal Declaration overtly asserts a series of economic rights, such as article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Other rights include “social security”; “the right to work”; “the right to rest and leisure”; “special care and assistance for motherhood and childhood”; and “the right to education,” which “shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.” These economic rights are reiterated in The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Human rights treaties are ignored and banished from public consciousness, lest they give people any crazy ideas about actually being entitled things that would require private wealth to be taxed and redistributed.

Neoliberal policies – privatizing government assets and services, liberalizing trade, deregulating industry, lowering taxes, and aggressively cutting social services – long ago became the only economic policies that any candidate of either major U.S. political party would ever conceivably support.

The completely disastrous and completely predictable consequences of neoliberalism like soaring inequality, outsourcing of labor, undercutting of locally produced products, and the exacerbation of fossil fuel extraction and burning have all occurred. Yet the public is indoctrinated with the idea that there does not even exist an alternative to the status quo. Countries that refuse to accept the Washington Consensus – Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia or Brazil, like the USSR, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Angola before them – are viciously smeared as an authoritarian tyrannies and serial violators of human rights. Their governments are subjected to relentless destabilization, subversion and economic sabotage.

The ability of global capital and its institutions to maintain this illusion of neoliberal inevitability is dependent on their appropriation of human rights. The perversion of human rights literally erases the existence of economic and social rights, creating a new definition that excludes them altogether.

The understanding of human rights in the United States has long been of “negative” rights, or rights that prevent the government from interfering with you. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, habeas corpus, are all examples of negative rights. However, human rights law is also explicit about positive rights. These are rights like education, health care, food and housing that require physical entitlements.

n his book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, James Peck explains that there are two “currents” of human rights.

“The first current largely embodies the popular American view, which emphasizes civil and political rights and embraces a moderate, democratic, step-by-step incorporation of human needs into a kind of rights-based legalism,” writes Peck. ““The second current has less to do with individual freedom and more to do with basic needs. It is associated with popular mass movements, revolution by populations in desperate straits, and resistance. From this perspective, the human rights movement emerged … out of the movements for independence that broke the grip of European colonialism.”

As examples of the second current of human rights, Peck lists “challenges to corporate power, state repression, foreign occupation, and global economic inequality, as well as the protection of collective means of struggle, from labor unions to revolution.” He states that this type of human rights is “far more prevalent outside the dominant Western spheres of power.”

In a 2009 report, Human Rights Watch explains that the U.S. has been left behind as they have long ignored human rights treaties and put vulnerable populations such as children, women and people with disabilities at risk.

“The US has not ratified any international human rights treaties since December 2002, when it ratified two optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” HRW writes. “Since that time, important new treaties have been adopted and other long-standing treaties have gained new member states. Unfortunately, the US has too often remained outside these efforts.”

Even when it does approve human rights treaties, the Senate adds qualifications that virtually eliminate their teeth.

“For example, when the Senate approved the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (in 1992) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (in 1994), it did so only after securing reservations that stipulated that the treaties would have no legal force in U.S. courts absent further congressional or state action,” writes David Kaye in Foreign Affairs. “As a result, when it comes to a wide range of human rights issues covered by these treaties — such as protections against torture, the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, religious liberty, the right to political participation, and so on — the United States lacks a formal mechanism to affect how other states and international courts interpret the evolving norms.”

The result has been a drastic deterioration in social justice within the United States. In a 2011 SGI study, the United States “with its alarming poverty levels” was ranked 27 out of 31 among OECD states. This study considered various factors such as poverty prevention, access to education, labor market inclusion, health and intergenerational justice.

U.S. social and economic policies are so extremist that government safety net programs are on the level with poor, undeveloped nations ravaged by centuries of colonialism rather than other nations with advanced, developed economies.

For example, the United States is one of three of the 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that does not offer universal health insurance. It is the only OECD country with any significant privatized health insurance (53%).

The United States is the only country in the OECD that does not require employers to offer paid vacation time.

The Unites States is one of only four countries in the world not to offer paid parental leave. The other three countries are Papa New Guinea, Suriname and Liberia.

Historically it was understood that economic and social rights were necessary to ensure a democratic society. In 350 B.C., Aristotle wrote: “The true friend of the people should see that they be not too poor, for extreme poverty lowers the character of democracy; measures therefore should be taken which will give them lasting prosperity; and as this is equally the interest of all classes, the proceeds of the public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor.”

Every single American is legally and morally entitled to a decent standard of living, affordable health care, economic security regardless of whether they work, and much more. It is only through neglect of human rights obligations and unrelenting propaganda that the government and elite interests have managed to hide this. The fact that a movement like Occupy is even necessary in the 21st century to seek rights that should have been guaranteed to every citizen decades ago is indicative of just how cruel U.S. policy makers and the programs they carry out are.

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. His writing has appeared in CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, Latino Rebels and other outlets. You can follow him on twitter.

More articles by:

Matt Peppe writes about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. You can follow him on twitter.

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