Geraldine Van Bueren: Economic rights are also human rights

From the inaugural lecture of the professor of International Human Rights Law at Queen Mary College, London
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President Kennedy was wrong. You can ask what you can do for your country, but you should also ask what your country can do for you. In celebrating the welcome Human Rights Act, one factor has been overlooked: we are not entitled to expect from the state basic economic and social rights. Rather it is left to the cold winds of political discretion. The Human Rights Act is strangely silent over the rights of the poorer and more vulnerable sections of our community. Some of our rights are missing.

The basic philosophy underpinning human rights is that human rights are universal and indivisible. The Human Rights Act seeks to sever this unity by incorporating only some of our civil and political rights. This means that we are free to protest and hold placards criticising the National Health Service, but we do not have a legally enforceable right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Civil and political rights can be described as blue rights and economic and social rights as red rights. Blue rights demand in general that states refrain from action. Red rights demand that a state delivers benefits and services. How ironic then that the Labour government, the party of the red rose and flag, ignores the red rights, particularly as economic, social and cultural rights increase state wealth. Even if we accept a narrow cost-benefits analysis, the right to education is an investment in human capital; the right to social security helps sustain consumer demand; and the right to the highest attainable standard of health ensures a more efficient workforce.

Economic and social rights include the right of everyone, refugees and citizens, to an adequate standard of living. They include the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of health and the right to just and favourable conditions of work. The Government has promised us these rights because they are enshrined in the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which is binding upon the United Kingdom. So, ironically, the Government can be questioned by an international human rights body sitting in Switzerland about the enforcement of red rights, but here in the UK our courts have no jurisdiction. An elderly person who lacks adequate nutrition or health services cannot seek an effective remedy in the British courts under the Human Rights Act.

Blue rights are not superseded by red rights, rather they complement each other. Economic and social rights will also help correct the impression held by some, although wrongly, that human rights are only for the protection of criminals. Together blue and red rights affirm and legitimise a society and government actions.

As individuals we are defined by our relationship to each other. In human rights it is not simply a question of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am", but "I am because you are." We are all social beings, and our constitutional structure in the 21st century ought to reflect these social relationships.

Law should be enabling as well as restrictive. It should support as well as penalise. Yet in the United Kingdom we have 12 million children living under the poverty line and two out of five children are born into poverty. The gap has grown between the rich and the poor. It is only the most myopic who believe that the poorest is made equal to the richest by granting to both the right to free speech.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has called for social justice to be at the heart of our society. But the redress of structural inequality is a constitutional, legal question as well as an electoral, political one.

It is not a question of dreaming of utopia. To ignore the potential of a Bill of Rights to alleviate poverty is to hide from the challenge. The promotion and protection of human rights is not a one-time undertaking. The inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights into our Human Rights Act should be part of the agenda for the 21st century.