Five Ways Human Rights Help The Fight For Social Justice

By Sian Lea, Managing Director, Shiva Foundation 19 Feb 2017

The 20th of February is World Day of Social Justice and in honour of this day, we look at five ways human rights can help to achieve social justice.

What is social justice?

Social justice is defined as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” Often this is achieved through institutions or services that work to make sure people can equally access the benefits of social cooperation and guard against socio-economic inequality.

While social justice and human rights are two different concepts, they are closely linked. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to health, security in the event of unemployment, and education. In 1966, these rights were brought into the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), part of the International Bill of Human Rights. The UK is a signatory to the ICESCR. In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action highlighted that extreme “poverty inhibits the full and effective enjoyment of human rights.”

In the UK, there are various domestic laws which aim to ensure that people enjoy equal opportunities and privileges within society, including the Human Rights Act 1998, which gives effect to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

How can human rights achieve social justice?

  1. Promotion of Equality

Social justice and human rights have a shared goal: human dignity, equally for all. The issues that make social justice difficult to achieve, such as poverty, exclusion and discrimination are in direct contradiction with human rights, which apply to all individuals indiscriminately.

Human rights can help to fight indignity. For example, the right to health should be secured for all as part of respecting human dignity. When a prisoner died from heroin withdrawal after being denied adequate health care, the European Court found that she had suffered degrading treatment in breach of her human rights.

Similarly, Protocol 2 to the ECHR says that no person shall be denied the right to education. The European Court of Human Rights has found that a child’s rights were breached when he was suspended from school for refusing to accept corporal punishment.

  1. Anti-discrimination

In addition to promoting equality generally, human rights protect against direct and indirect discrimination based on certain characteristics. Article 14 of the ECHR ensures that no one may be discriminated against because of their sex, race, religion, political opinion, sexual orientation or nationality in exercising their rights.

In 1994, two members of the Royal Air Force were dismissed from their jobs for being gay. The European Court of Human Rights found that the armed forces’ policy of excluding homosexuals could not be justified and the individuals’ human rights had been violated.

  1. Welfare systems

The UK has a long and proud tradition of providing social support (a ‘safety net’) when citizens are unable to meet their basic needs by themselves. These systems include the NHS, housing support, and disability allowances. Maternity provisions are a clear example; if a woman becomes pregnant, which only women can do, would it be compatible with social justice for her to lose her job and income? No. And there are systems to protect mothers’ employment rights in the UK.

Human rights are part of this safety net. When a family were re-housed, the accommodation which the state provided was not adapted for the needs of a disabled member of the family. This was a violation of her human right to family and private life.

Just last year, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the body which tracks how states are putting the ICESCR into effect) criticised the UK’s policy of using austerity measures that negatively impact the rights of disadvantaged and marginalised people.

  1. Employment rights

Equal distribution of wealth is a cornerstone of social justice. RightsInfo has previously explored Why Human Rights Are Essential For Tackling Poverty. Equal sharing of wealth is enhanced through equal opportunity for employment.

Many laws protect workers. Health and safety standards, equal pay, working hour limitations, and the freedom to form and join trade unions are examples. With more people today living in conditions of slavery than ever before, laws protecting against labour exploitation, like the Modern Slavery Act 2015, are vital to achieve social justice.

  1. Government accountability

Earlier this year, at the World Economic Forum, Prime Minister Theresa May recognised government’s role in ensuring social justice:

[I]f you are someone who is just managing, just getting by, you don’t need a government that will get out of the way. You need an active government that will step up and champion the things that matter to you.

Human rights provide a legal framework that allows individuals to hold government to account and requires the state to create conditions necessary for the achievement of social justice.

For more information:

United Nations World Day of Social Justice banner image: http://www.un.org/en/events/socialjusticeday/ (UN image guidelines). Justice sign image © Jason Taellious / CC BY-SA 2.0Exclusion Zone image © David Marsh / CC BY 2.0Sorry We’re Closed image © Marco Derksen / CC BY-NC 2.0Work image © Igor Trepeshchenok at Barn Images (Barnes licence).

About The Author

Sian Lea Managing Director, Shiva Foundation

Sian is currently the managing director of Shiva Foundation, an anti-trafficking organisation. She has an MA in Human Rights from UCL and Graduate Diploma in Law. Previously she worked in anti-trafficking in Cambodia.

Sian is currently the managing director of Shiva Foundation, an anti-trafficking organisation. She has an MA in Human Rights from UCL and Graduate Diploma in Law. Previously she worked in anti-trafficking in Cambodia.