Ignoring Social Rights Results in Human Tragedies – Paul Hunt

Carmel Williams

The first UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health has published a report on ‘social rights’ and the need to frame social issues in human rights language.

Professor Paul Hunt says the cost of ignoring social rights is having tragic outcomes. Focusing on the United Kingdom, these outcomes include “vicious austerity programmes” targeting vulnerable groups, increased suicides and deaths associated with welfare reforms, increased mortality rates, and even disasters like the London Grenfell Tower fire in June this year which killed at least 80 people and left hundreds homeless.

Hunt includes the rights to healthcare, education, housing, and a reasonable income amongst social rights. “They are fundamental human rights, which are included in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international treaties”, to which the UK and most other countries are signatories. However, he argues that in the UK, these rights are not taken seriously. “These basic social rights are not built into our legal system nor are there effective democratic or constitutional protections in place to define and defend these rights.”
 He is concerned that Brexit will likely lead to a further deterioration in constitutional protections for social rights.

In the report “Social Rights are Human Rights – but the UK System is Rigged” Hunt writes, “Explicit social rights have the power to dignify and emancipate individuals and communities. They can shape policies and practice. There is evidence of their positive impact. Why not use them?” Drawing examples from around the world, he illustrates the power of turning social issues into human rights entitlements. He refers to the Italian health system where the right to health is included in the country’s constitution. It has explicitly shaped Italy’s national health service, national health plans, and community health schemes, such as the initiative that delivers women’s health information and services.

Hunt was a Guest Editor of the Health and Human Rights Special Issue in December 2015 which focused on the Evidence of Impact of Human Rights-Based Approaches to Health. In the editorial, Hunt, Bustreo, and Yamin wrote that the impact of human rights-based approaches to health cannot simply be measured using conventional health indicators. There will also be positive changes in legal and policy frameworks, transformations in public attitudes and perceptions, and the appropriation of a sense of entitlement.

It is for these kinds of reasons that Hunt calls on the UK Labour Party, and other progressives, to make a firm commitment to start using the language and power of social rights.