Bringing Social and Economic Rights Home

Apr 25, 2011 No Comments

By Jonathan Uriarte

March 23rd marks the one-year anniversary of healthcare reform, a significant step forward for the American middle class and a monumental achievement for the Democratic leadership of our time. However, a year later we still feel the sting of the bitter political battles—the most notable casualties being the loss of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the lack of a public option. At the time the bill passed, I distinctly remember asking myself, “Why wasn’t the debate framed as a human rights issue?” Instead, we heard the arguments of the insurance companies, the rising premiums, and the socialist takeover of health coverage.

The American system of government holds civil and political liberties as fundamental rights to be protected by government and guaranteed by the executive, legislative and judicial branches. America portrays itself as a world leader of democracy and as an advocate for the adoption of civil liberties in other countries. Our approach to protecting the First Amendment guarantees the right of a free and autonomous press, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  However, we push social and economic rights aside as constitutionally unrecognizable or judicially unenforceable entitlements.

By contrast, many European countries and Canada recognize these rights as fundamental needs, not just as entitlements. Thus, many Americans see last year’s expansion of healthcare as un-American. This difference between the United States and other developed nations comes to light when discussing other human rights issues.  The United States stands alone in refusing to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966) (except for South Africa and Cuba). The treaty includes several provisions that recognize the right to non-discrimination at work, to just and favorable conditions of work, trade union rights, the right to social security, protection of the family, the right to an adequate standard of living, the rights to health and education, and the right to participate in cultural life.

The belief that social and economic rights are un-American goes against the evidence. Some states already provide social and economic rights to their citizens, such as Massachusetts with its statewide healthcare system. What about the nature of our institutions keeps the federal government from making health a universal right across the whole country? At the time of the formation of the international system, the United States government considered human rights as established by the United Nations as a measure of progress on our own shores. However, McCarthyism and American exceptionalism reversed the use of human rights as a gold standard. In the 1960’s, groups such as the NAACP demanded that the newly formed UN Commission on Human Rights look for human rights abuses within the borders of the United States. Our leadership refused. As the Cold War escalated, our changing culture and politics deemed any person who advocated for a high living wage and more robust safety nets a communist sympathizer and a traitor. Additionally, racial tensions arising from a reactionary group of Southern Democrats who controlled a powerful minority in the Senate refused to allow African Americans access to a right to socio-economic conditions and vetoed any piece of legislation including these rights.

During the fight over the new healthcare bill, the Tea Party and its sympathizers made their message very clear: no socialism in America! In contrast, healthcare supporters had a difficult time making our points heard without being called un-American. Going into the healthcare bill debate, I assumed the conversation would center around medicine, doctors, and patients, but I learned that legislation and people’s reactions to politics revolve around a person’s interpretation of our institutions. The very structure of our institutions and what our Constitution and history mean to each person makes the incorporation of new laws difficult for us to agree on across the whole country—making human rights as a national standard nearly impossible. Fortunately, the United States Constitution’s flexibility makes it open to reinterpretation over and over again in the civil court system. I see my job as a young activist as helping to reframe the debate and to steer public opinion into thinking in terms of human rights.

Spring 2011, Final
Zoe

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