Tag Archives: ICESCR

Immeasurably important? The development discourse eyes the rule of law

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its been a busy 18 months in my new rule of law gig, and an eye-opening time to boot. While the range of issues falling under the rule of law umbrella is impressive in principle, I have found myself inevitably stove-piped in practice, with my housing, land and property (HLP) interests finding expression mainly in sporadic consultancies, and justice sector reform issues suddenly front and center in my professional life. Not that I am complaining, mind you.

Judicial reform is just another lens on the whole muddle of good intentions and mixed results I was approaching earlier mainly from a humanitarian perspective, and a change of perspective can be refreshing. I also expect that as I proceed down the rule of law road, I will have opportunities to unpack more and more of my HLP baggage along the way. But for now, it is very interesting to have at least a back row seat on the evolving definition of rule of law and how it relates to broader development assistance efforts.

Recently, a colleague (who I will hat-tip if she likes this post) sent me links to a pair of pieces that helped to crystallize some of the recent debates in this area in my own mind. The first was to a recent Washington Post op-ed by Gary A. Haugen of the International Justice Mission. Haugen describes the explosion of private security companies in the developing world and the extent to which this has resulted in a monopoly on protection from violence for the rich:

As elites abandon the public security system, their impoverished neighbors, especially women and girls, are left relying on underpaid, under-trained, undisciplined and frequently corrupt police forces for protection and all-but-paralyzed courts for justice. ….

When a justice system descends into utter dysfunction, those who exploit and abuse vulnerable people may do so without fear of apprehension or prosecution. As a result, violence is an everyday threat, as much a part of what it means to be poor as being hungry, sick, homeless or jobless.

Interestingly, this piece also exposes the great home truth about the ‘civil and political’ rights traditionally protected by judiciaries. Exclusive proponents of such rights (in countries ranging from the US to Sweden) have often lauded them for being ‘negative’ (in the sense that they involve government duties to refrain from taking actions), and therefore ostensibly cost-free to taxpayers.

This in contrast to social and economic rights, which are ‘positive’, entailing affirmative government actions (and expenditures), and therefore often decried as an unwarranted intrusion in the inherent right of governments to roll the pork barrels toward whichever constituency they choose. In the present case, the lurch toward private security has at least laid bare the extent to which courts actually represent a highly expensive ‘positive’ guarantee necessary for the equitable protection of any kind of rights.

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COHRE archive back online

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its been some time since the mysterious demise of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), the protean Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights NGO that inspired and spun off so many others. One of the most direct successors to COHRE, the Global Initiative for Economic Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR) was early out in placing a selection of COHRE reports and manuals in their resource library. However, COHRE itself, evicted from the web, had ceased to exist as completely as if it had never existed.

Having stumbled across a fully functioning COHRE website this morning on precisely its old, familiar URL, I am happy to announce that the org is back as a resource, even if it is no longer an active force. The site itself is frozen in time in Summer 2011 (when one might wish all of time had frozen), complete with welcomes from its then-Chairperson and Director, and a seemingly complete archive of reports and resources, including my original 2008 salvo on housing rights in Cambodia (here in pdf).

I should note that I have heard more about the demise of COHRE since I blogged on it two years ago, but have been told these things in confidence, which I do not intend to breach. Whatever the circumstances that brought COHRE down, all the involved parties appear united by a desire to focus on the positive aspects of their experience, which is itself quite a legacy. That said, if the mysterious benefactors who brought COHRE back online want to come forward, they are welcome to do so here.

A roundup of international law debates

by Rhodri C. Williams

For the international lawyers and those who take an anthropological interest in their doctrinal debates, there have been a few interesting iterations on old themes recently. They fall into three categories, namely the ‘law of peace’ debate, the ‘justiciability’ debate, and the debate over whether UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s international law advisor is a crank or a mad genius. Lets take them in that order.

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Sweden versus social and economic human rights? Part 2: The right to water

by Rhodri C. Williams

In 2006, when I was still relatively new to this part of the world, I started participating in a working group run by Swedish Water House on water as a human right. At the time, only four years had passed since the UN Committee on Social and Economic Rights had read a right to water into the right to an adequate standard of living in their groundbreaking General Comment 15. The UNDP had just released its 2006 human development report on the global water crisis, which pinned blame firmly on misguided policies, not absolute scarcity or technical issues. DFID had just officially notified the world that water was a human right. The wind was at our backs. But not the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

In effect, what I had assumed would be an exercise in enlightened Swedes lecturing the world on the importance of recognizing the right to water turned out to be an exercise in enlightened Swedes lecturing official Sweden on this point. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) had recognized the right to water, nor did they evince much enthusiasm. After a year of prodding, a pleasant but slightly beleaguered Foreign Ministry official attended an October 2007  seminar and conceded that “the government recognizes the right to water as emanating from the right to an adequate standard of living in article 11, paragraph 1 of the ICESCR” (seminar report, 12).

However, the lawyers had clearly been at work, and the “emanating” formulation (as opposed to recognition as a “free-standing right”) became a means of maintaining opposition to normative developments then underway in Geneva:

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Sweden versus social and economic human rights … what gives?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I think it is fair to say that most of us non-Swedes view Sweden as an incredibly seductive place. Mind you, I refer not so much to sheer pulchritude (though any readers out there who think Swedes are past the beauty myth should check out this nonsense) as to social policy. In American terms, right-wingers view Sweden’s allure as dangerous and misleading, with wretched proletarian drones somehow managing to masquerade, year after year, as happy, well adjusted social democrats. Left-wingers, by contrast, drool unabashedly.

And what’s not to like, one might ask? Look around and you will observe a generous and well-funded welfare state balanced by privatization in all kinds of unexpected places, impressive gender equality, rule of law, one of Europe’s more frivolous right wing populist parties, the ability to power through global economic meltdowns without even getting your ponytail mussed, and social capital to burn.

Sweden also occupies a special place in the human rights pantheon. If Americans assume that their human rights record is beyond question because they wrote them, Swedes do the same because they embody them. Where other countries fuss endlessly over balancing public interests and individual rights, Swedes often seem to assume they are the same thing.  Swedes love human rights. At least, fifty percent of human rights. Curiously, in a country shaped by the labor movement, infatuated with solidarity and social justice, and punching well above its weight in development cooperation, economic and social rights seem not to be a polite topic for dinnertime conversation.

This realization has dawned on me gradually during my time here, but I was recently given a reminder by a proposal related to ‘grading’ countries on their human rights performance published in a leading Swedish newspaper (Dagens Nyheter) by a leading Swedish jurist (and former Bosnia colleague, Krister Thelin). My proposal to respond directly to Krister’s article was turned down by the DN editors on the unreassuring grounds of “insufficient space, among other things” (it seems that I have yet to stamp my authority on the world of Swedish punditry). Happily though, this gives me the opportunity to finally blog a bit more on local issues of relevance to TN.

All this by way of announcing two forthcoming posts on ‘Sweden versus social and economic human rights’, the first responding to Krister’s grading system proposal and the second focusing on Sweden’s approach to the right to water. Both are indicative of an apparent unease with this category of rights in a country that has absolutely nothing to lose from embracing them.  Sweden probably outperforms most other countries in the world in implementing these rights in practice, but eschews them in principle. Is it a question of local political culture, a hangover from the Cold War, both or neither? And what broader significance might it have in a world where social and economic justice claims remain both burningly relevant and persistently controversial? All this and more to come. Hej så länge!

Part 1: Benchmarking human rights (o9 September 2011)

Part 2: The right to water (15 September 2011)