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Can the U.S. Afford Economic Rights in an Economic Crisis?

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Can the U.S. afford to recognize economic and social rights in the midst of high unemployment rates at home and an ongoing global economic crisis?

Yes we can.

We can't afford not to respect economic and social rights when millions in our country are struggling to find decent work, to find a stable place to live, to educate their children, to overcome discrimination, and to care for the sick.

How can we fail to protect economic and social rights when banks defraud people out of their homes or when businesses discriminate against or mistreat workers who try to organize?

We can't afford not to promote economic and social rights when constitutional courts, schools, and ordinary people protesting on the streets around the world are beginning to understand and apply them.

We can't afford to ignore our obligation to fulfill economic and social rights with an 8.8% unemployment rate, an astonishing 15.5% rate among African-Americans, the incarceration of 2.3 million people, and with infant mortality rates among some Americans that rival those in poor countries.

The State Department has just announced a new policy embracing human rights ("The Four Freedoms Turn 70.") What's new about that, you say? This time, the rights at stake include the right to health, education, housing, jobs, and fair working conditions, and the right to organize. The rights are to apply at home as well as in far-flung countries around the globe.

For human rights advocates like me, this is a welcome (and long-awaited) turn of events. It is also something of a surprise. For decades, the U.S. official position was that economic and social rights such as those are "pie in the sky" aspirations, and not "real" rights like the right to vote or the prohibition on torture.

The State's new policy position, formally announced by Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, could mean a sea change for human rights protection both in the U.S. and internationally. But only if the rhetoric is accompanied by the serious commitments necessary at all levels of government -- executive, legislative, and in the courts. And only if people throughout the United States -- working people, the unemployed, racial and ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, and academics -- hold our leaders accountable for taking these rights seriously.

One phrase in particular struck me as Posner spoke: "human rights reflect what a person needs in order to live a meaningful and dignified existence." I agree. That is why the historical U.S. ambivalence, even hostility, toward economic, social, and cultural rights has been so counterproductive, both within the U.S. and outside it. We should have understood their importance long ago. The failure to fulfill civil and political rights is equally counter-productive, as certain regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are learning after decades of repression and military and economic support from the U.S.

A commitment to human rights means a commitment to the dignity and worth of each human being, without discrimination. Such a commitment, although daunting, can only work to the benefit of the United States and its people. We spend billions -- trillions -- of dollars each year on wars, anti-terrorism strategies, incarceration, crime control, anti-immigrant anxiety, emergency room care, and disaster response. What if, instead, we were to spend even a reasonable portion of that amount ensuring early education and nutrition, providing access to preventive health care and the social supports for good health (including the food and agricultural, environmental, drug rehabilitation, and anti-smoking policies that contribute to it), and accessible, sturdy housing? What if we reoriented our international trade and aid policies to focus on fairness, equity, self-determination, and sustainability?

It must be the case that such a sea change would be at least as effective as the alternatives.

Economic and social rights are no stranger to U.S. administrations. Posner spoke in recognition of this year's 70th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ground-breaking 1941 "Four Freedoms" speech to the U.S. Congress. In the midst of war, FDR argued that freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom from fear, and freedom from want were all linked in a web of human rights and needs. Not only were they moral imperatives, they were also necessary to achieve and maintain peace and security in the United States and internationally. This insight was to be echoed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the influential statement of human rights and fundamental freedoms drafted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights under the Chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt. The U.S. voted in favor of the Declaration that year and has since signed, or become a party to, several important international human rights treaties that recognize the full range of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights for all.

Sure, implementing economic and social rights costs money. So does establishing courts, building prisons, and funding political campaigns. The recent and upcoming budget and deficit debates continue to be a grand political show. But this country's future depends on recognizing that human rights, including economic and social rights, are nothing less than the most important guide by which we can set pragmatic policies.

After 70 years, it is a good thing to hear the U.S. administration talk as if economic and social human rights can be a reality for poor and marginalized Americans. Now, the talk must be followed by the action it takes to make change. Yes, we can.


Hope Lewis is Professor of International Law at Northeastern University School of Law, a member of the Executive Council of the American Society of International Law, and co-author of Human Rights and the Global Marketplace: Economic, Social, and Cultural Dimensions. The positions expressed here are in her individual capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of organizations with which she is affiliated.