Thematic Program: Economic, Social and Political Rights

by Andrea Holley


For those who want to address human rights issues in the context of economic, social and political rights in their communities and globally, the following films are suggested:

Life and Debt (2001, 86 min., closed captioned)
How globalization and IMF policies impoverish the third world, as revealed through the case study of Jamaica.

Going to School (2001, 64 min., closed captioned)
Parents seek education rights for disabled children in Los Angeles; integration, special education and support services are explored.

Long Night's Journey into Day (2000, 94 min., written transcript available)
Truth, reconciliation and justice in post-apartheid South Africa; healing after violent conflict and war.

State of Denial (2003, 86 min., closed captioned)
The failure of the South African government to address the AIDS crisis and the organizers who do address it.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Discussion Program

Economic, social, and cultural rights are specified in Articles 16 and 22-29 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR.) They are further elaborated and codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They include an impressive list of human rights concerns and refer to:

  • marriage and family;
  • work and leisure (free choice of employment, just conditions of work, equal pay for equal work, just remuneration, freedom to form and join trade unions, and rest);
  • a standard of living adequate for food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and social services;
  • security in case of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, and old age;
  • special care and assistance in motherhood and childhood;
  • education (free and compulsory elementary education, equal access based on merit, parental choice, and full development of the human personality);
  • participation in the cultural life of one's community;
  • protection of one's own literary, scientific, and artistic productions;
  • social and international order that enables these human rights to be realized; and
  • one's duties to one's community.

Life and Debt
The film Life and Debt looks at a variety of economic rights through the case study of Jamaica's relationship with global financial institutions and developed countries such as the U.S. Articles 7, 8 and 11 of the ICESCR discuss the right to fair wages, safe and healthy working conditions, and the right to join trade unions and organize. Behind the Labels examines many of these issues in a specific setting – that of U.S. garment manufacturers operating factories outside the U.S., making goods to import.

Two aspects of the situations documented in these films are important to consider in a human rights context. First, there is the idea that people have a basic right to proper wages and working conditions. With the concept of economic rights, it is not at the discretion of large corporations to treat their employees with dignity and respect; it is the employees right to demand those things. Second, corporations who operate transnationally often do so in order to avoid certain labor laws and employment regulations in their own country. The existence of international laws and norms directly offsets this motive. Rights advocates maintain that individuals are entitled to the rights set forth in the various articles of the ICESCR everywhere in the world.

Going to School - Richard Martinez first included student to graduates seventh grade at his chool
In the film Going to School, we see children with disabilities pursuing their right to an education (Article 13) within the U.S. educational system. Before congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, millions of children received inadequate special education services, and at least one million children were prevented from attending public schools altogether. A system of laws and services for people with disabilities has continued to evolve in the United States, but as Going to School illustrates, establishing compliance and access to services is not always easy. The laws for children with disabilities came into existence as a result of a rights-based disability movement that lobbied Congress and assisted in the creation of legislation that guarantees things such as access to education and employment for people with disabilities. In the domain of disability, we see people demanding their rights, eschewing a charity- or discretionary delivery of services-based approach to accommodating people with disabilities by the public school system.

State of Denial - After Chipho has gone on treatment, she has gained weight and is back at school.
State of Denial chronicles the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, which has 4.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS – the largest such population in any one country worldwide. The film deals with the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Article 12). Confusion about the right to health hinges on the concept of the "highest attainable standard." This phrase is meant to indicate that a state has an obligation to provide health care and related services for its citizens within the means it has available. In the case of South Africa, there are significant resources available to the state. The fact that certain sections of the population cannot afford treatment for HIV/AIDS or cannot access health care services because they live too far away from a clinic is a human rights issue. The government, and most notably President Thabo Mbeki, has refused to accept that HIV causes AIDS, and maintains that poverty is causing the deaths of so many people. Through personal portrayals of people living with AIDS, and those fighting to curb the epidemic, this documentary effectively addresses a global problem that can only perilously be ignored.

Long Night's Journey into Day: South Africa's Search for Truth & Reconciliation - Cynthia Ngewu (one of the Guguletu 7 mothers) testifying at the TRC hearing. Photo: IRIS FILMS
Looking more broadly at South Africa, we have the film Long Night's Journey Into Day. The film focuses on the issue of reconciliation after a long history of apartheid and human rights abuses. Despite the fact that most of the cases discussed revolve around distinct civil and political rights abuses, we observe something interesting about the individuals in the film and their lives today in South Africa. Many people who now have the freedom to move and speak freely as black South Africans do not have clean water, proper housing, or a job. In a country where one of the most famous struggles for political freedom and civil rights occurred, it is striking that many of those who fought so hard for freedom now live in poverty without access to the basic necessities that a relatively rich country like South Africa has to offer. The disconnection between civil/political rights and economic/social rights in South Africa is one of its greatest challenges.



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