“Full-spectrum” human rights

Re-Published on Open Democracy: Amnesty International rethinks, by Stephen Bowen ,3 – 6 – 2005 – The interdependence of the modern world is leading the human rights organisation Amnesty International towards a fresh conception of its work, explains its UK campaigns director, Stephen Bowen.

Amnesty International recently highlighted a case concerning water protestors in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. On 17 May a large group of men, women and children went to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation office in Bhopal to complain that clean water had been denied them, despite a Supreme Court of India ruling in 2004. Ground-water had been contaminated after the infamous 1984 explosion at the former Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Clean water, the protestors claimed, was their due.

The authorities’ reaction was heavy-handed. Riot police allegedly beat the protestors with sticks, arresting, detaining and even charging some. Had the police overreacted, acting excessively? Worse, had they acted politically, whether directed to or not, suppressing legitimate free expression, not least of those with a serious grievance? Both scenarios bring with them classic human-rights concerns. Those familiar with the organisation’s work would expect Amnesty International to step in. Indeed some would be disappointed if it did not.

However, what if the protestors had merely arrived, voiced their concerns and then gone home again, without police intervention? While less glaringly a case of human-rights abuse, informed commentators could still have said that this was a human-rights matter. After all, the 17 May protestors were seeking partial redress for wrongs done to them in 1984, when the Union Carbide pesticide factory exploded. The disaster left a deadly legacy; toxic gases caused the death of 7,000 people within days, at least another 15,000 in the following years, and some 100,000 people have since been struck down with chronic diseases.

In addition, 500,000 people were exposed to deadly chemicals and the environment was profoundly contaminated, remaining so twenty years on despite Union Carbide’s claims to the contrary. The Bhopal water protestors were effectively already people living in the shadow of human-rights crimes.

But what if protestors had mounted a peaceful water protest anywhere else? Should Amnesty International and other human-rights groups support all those seeking their “right to water”? Or equally to other natural resources, to education, housing, a family life, the right to work, to speak a language of one’s choice?

“Full-spectrum” human rights:

Bundled together as economic, social and cultural rights (ESC), the classic division is between these “soft” rights and the “hard” rights of civil and political liberties – the right to life, to be free from torture, arbitrary imprisonment and cruel punishments; combating political persecution versus the raising of living standards.

Like twins separated at birth, the human rights and development agendas have trod largely separate paths in the last fifty years. But now increasingly the paths are converging. Amnesty International is known for its work supporting civil and political liberties, but has been producing new work on ESC rights as well.

Amongst much else, this relatively recent work has focused on:

(Read the whole long article on Amnesty International).

Some more links about op-icescr

op-icescr & Economy & Society;
op-icescr & IWRAW;
op-icescr & cidesc;
op-icescr & Franciscans International;
op-icescr & Hurights Osaka;
op-icescr & our NGO Blog,  and here, and here.
op-icescr & choike.org;
op-icescr & our Humanitarian Blog.

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