As The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights Turns 70, It’s Time To Resurrect Its Vision Of Global Sharing And Justice

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What are the political implications of meeting the established human right for everyone to enjoy an adequate standard of living? In short, it necessitates a redistribution of wealth and resources on an unprecedented scale across the world, which is why activists should resurrect the United Nations’ radical vision for achieving Article 25.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the most translated and celebrated documents in the world, marking its 70th anniversary this year. But relatively few people are aware of the significance of its 25th Article, which proclaims the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living—including food, housing, healthcare, social services and basic financial security.[1] As our campaign group Share The World’s Resources (STWR) has long proposed, it is high time that activists for global justice reclaim the vision that is spelled out in those few simple sentences. For in order to implement Article 25 into a set of binding, enforceable obligations through domestic and international laws, the implications are potentially revolutionary.

To appreciate the truth of this assertion, it is necessary to outline some brief history. Since the Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, the United Nations never promised to do anything more than “promote” and “encourage respect for” human rights, without explicit legal force. The Universal Declaration may form part of so-called binding customary international law, laying out a value-based framework that can be used to exert moral pressure on governments who violate any of its articles. But in the past 70 years, no government has seriously attempted to adapt its behaviour in line with the Declaration’s far-reaching requirements.

An International Bill of Human Rights was eventually agreed by the General Assembly in 1966,[2] which comprised the Universal Declaration and its two main “implementing” treaties—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The latter Covenant elaborated in greater detail the economic and social rights previously laid out in the Universal Declaration (as largely reflected in Articles 22 to 26, especially Article 25), and it was intended to form the basis of a binding legal obligation under international law. Still, both Covenants lacked any serious enforcement machinery, and were ratified by States parties under the sole proviso that they would submit periodic reports on steps taken and “progress achieved”.[3]

Marginalising economic and social rights 

While civil and political rights have enjoyed an increasing degree of implementation throughout the world (albeit partially and fitfully), the historical record on economic and social rights is far less sanguine. This is forcefully illustrated by the UN’s current Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston. In his first report submitted to the Human Rights Council, he argues that economic and social rights are marginalised in most contexts, without proper legal recognition and accountability mechanisms in place.[4] Indeed, he even questions the extent to which States treat them as human rights at all, and not just desirable long-term goals.

Despite the widespread constitutional recognition of economic and social rights, as well as an abundant scholarship on their fundamental importance, they nevertheless “remain largely invisible in the law of and institutions of the great majority of States”, according to Alston. Even many of the States that enjoy the world’s highest living standards have disregarded proposals to recognise these rights in legislative or constitutional form.[5]

Most of all, the United States has persistently rejected the idea that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights,[6] in the sense of “rights” that might be amenable to any method of enforcement. Some of its past administrations have notoriously even challenged the “soft law” status of the ICESCR treaty, regardless that it was signed (yet not ratified) by Jimmy Carter in 1977.[7] Although the United States has ratified other treaties that clearly recognise economic and social rights,[8]it is the only developed country to insist that, in effect, its government has no obligation to safeguard the rights of citizens to jobs, housing, education and an adequate standard of living.

In their defence, governments may point out the historical progress made in reducing extreme poverty across the world, which has generally been achieved without adopting a strategy based on the full recognition of economic and social rights. But the extent to which these rights remain unmet for millions of people today is unconscionable from any kind of moral perspective. Consider that more than 60 percent of the world population struggles to live on less than $5 per day, an amount which the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has considered the minimum daily income which could reasonably be regarded as fulfilling the right to “a standard of living adequate for… health and well-being” (as stipulated in Article 25).[9]

The International Labour Organisation of the United Nations also estimates that only 27 percent of people worldwide have access to comprehensive social security systems, notwithstanding the fact that virtually every government recognises the fundamental right to social security, as also enshrined in Article 25.[10] The fact that many thousands of people continue to die each day from poverty-related causes,[11]while the number of chronically undernourished people increases once again,[12] is an affront to the very idea that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living.

Even in the most affluent nations, millions of people struggle to pay for food or utilities, lack access to the financial system and die prematurely. In Europe, for example, one in four people are experiencing income poverty, severe material deprivation and/or social exclusion.[13] There is no country which has achieved basic socioeconomic rights for the entire population, including the generous welfare states of Scandinavia that are also being gradually eroded by market-driven policies.

Such facts demonstrate how far we have strayed from realising the modest aspiration expressed in Article 25. Gross inequalities of wealth and power are seemingly built into the structures and operations of the world economy, which gives the least priority and concern to the world’s majority poor. Its design is determined in international negotiations which are dominated by rich industrialised nations, who ensure that the major beneficiaries of global economic growth are the powerful corporate and elite interests that they basically function on behalf of.[14] Consequently, the number of billionaires continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, with combined annual increases in wealth that would be enough to end extreme poverty many times over.[15]

The duty of States to respect and support the achievement of socioeconomic rights outside of their borders may be anchored in international law, but the most influential multilateral organisations are not challenged to adhere to these agreed norms and standards. A rich literature examines the impact on less developed countries of this virtual system of global economic governance,[16] as principally upheld by the Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Trade Organisation and the Group of 7 nations. For example, most countries of the global South have been pressured to service their debt burdens by making structural adjustments at the expense of the most disadvantaged segments of society. Through such policies as privatisation, deregulation of markets and cutbacks in social services, the harsh conditionalities of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s lending programmes have widely hindered the ability of State’s to fulfil their human rights obligations.[17]

At the same time, many of the thousands of bilateral international treaties and free trade agreements of recent decades are incompatible with basic human rights standards in some fundamental respects.[18] In particular, the current international investment system creates rights to multinational corporations to challenge the legal and policy decisions of governments through “investor-state dispute settlement”,[19]even when those decisions are taken to meet social needs and pursue sustainable development objectives, such as reducing inequality.

Formidable obstacles  

All of this points to the formidable political obstacles to implementing Article 25 through an enforceable system of international law that can offset the damaging social effects of deregulated, market-led globalisation. The challenge is well recognised by civil society groups that advocate for a new direction in economic policymaking, beginning with a reversal of the austerity measures that are now expected to affect nearly 80 percent of the global population within a couple of years.[20]

Rendering Article 25 into a truly “indivisible”, “inalienable” and “universal” human right would therefore mean, for example, reforming unfair tax policies that undermine the capacity of countries to invest in universal social protection systems.[21] It would mean rolling back the wave of commercialisation that is increasingly entering the health sector and other essential public services, with extremely negative consequences for human wellbeing.[22] It would also demand regulatory oversight to hold the out-of-control finance sector to account,[23] as well as domestic legislative action in support of a living wage and core labour rights.

In short, implementing Article 25 would call for a redistribution of wealth, power and income on an unprecedented scale within every society, in contradistinction to the prevailing economic ideology of our time—an ideology that falsely views economic and social rights as inimical to “wealth creation”, “economic growth” and “international competitiveness”.

But the scale of that redistribution must extend beyond national borders alone, considering the reality that developing nations are unable to fulfil the socioeconomic rights of their citizens without greater access to wealth and resources. That depends on substantial coordination and assistance from the international community, which must come in the form of bilateral aid that is no longer disbursed on the basis of geo-strategic considerations, or with a preference for privatisation and “free market” models of development.[24] At present, low-income countries are able to devote, at most, only 15 percent of gross domestic product towards meeting the basic needs of their citizenry.[25] Yet donor governments are far from helping to bridge the gap in public finances through more effective aid, despite the agreed global target of achieving “zero” extreme poverty by 2030.[26]

This only serves to underline the enormous political implications of achieving Article 25. For it is clear that rich countries prefer to extract wealth from the global South, rather than share their wealth in any meaningful way through a redistribution of resources. Yet we know the resources are available, if government priorities are fundamentally reoriented towards safeguarding the minimal guarantees of Article 25 for all peoples everywhere.[27]

To be sure, just a fraction of the amount spent on a recent US arms deal with Saudi Arabia, estimated at over $110 billion, would be enough to lift everyone above the extreme poverty line as defined by the World Bank.[28] If concerted action was taken by the international community to phase out tax havens and prevent tax dodging by large corporations, then developing countries could recover trillions of dollars each year for human rights protection and spending on public services.[29] Achieving Article 25, therefore, is not about merely upscaling aid as a form of charity; it is about the kind of structural transformations that are necessary for everyone to enjoy dignified lives in more equal societies with economic justice.

Towards a people’s strategy

The most radical article of the Universal Declaration, in this respect, is not only Article 25 but also Article 28, which refers to the necessary arrangements of the “social and international order” wherein all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration “can be fully realised”. In other words, it is impossible to achieve a more social regulation of the world economy without dramatic adjustments in the relations between States and regions, which also needs to be reflected in more democratic structures of global governance.

For how can States implement a new global social contract, rooted in a respect for socioeconomic rights and the imperative role of international law, unless normative considerations of justice and human rights are given precedence over strategic alignments in foreign policy affairs?[30] And how can global public goods be made equitably accessible to all citizens of the world, unless the United Nations is significantly reformed and empowered to fulfil its original mandate?

As spelled out in the preamble of its Charter, the UN was always intended “to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.” However, its role in that regard has been severely curtailed by the Permanent Five and other major powers, who mainly use the United Nations as a “vehicle for the aggregation of national interests”, while constantly preventing significant reform within the Organisation.[31]

Its role in global economic governance was purposefully weakened from the outset; all the important financial and trade negotiations take place outside the UN system. And as we have seen, the policy priorities of the Bretton Woods Institutions and World Trade Organisation have grown increasingly distinct from the basic human values of the UN’s economic and social programs.[32] At the same time, the UN’s ability to hold States accountable for human rights and international law standards is severely limited by a lack of financial independence, with a budget too small to enable it to be truly effective.[33]

These are just some of the reasons why the human rights of Article 25, however simply worded and unassuming, hold the potential to revolutionise the unfair structures and rules of our unequal world. Because if those rights are vociferously advocated by enough of the world’s people, there is no gainsaying the political transformations that will unfold. That is why STWR calls on global activists to jointly herald Article 25 through massive and continual demonstrations in all countries, as set out in our flagship publication.[34]

At the least, it behoves us to contemplate the urgent necessity of achieving Article 25 as the highest international priority, which is a responsibility that obviously cannot be left to individual governments. The UN Charter famously invokes “We the Peoples”, but it is now up to us to resurrect the UN’s foundational ideal to promote social progress and better standards of life for everyone in the world. It is high time we seized upon Article 25 and reclaimed its stipulations as “a law of the will of the people”,[35] until governments finally begin to take seriously the full realisation of their pledge set forth in the Universal Declaration.


[1] 70 Years: Universal Declaration of Human Rights #StandUp4HumanRights, www.standup4humanrights.org

[2] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR), Fact Sheet No.2 (Rev.1), The International Bill of Human Rights.

[3] ECOSOC (the UN’s Economic and Social Council) was given a role in making recommendations to the General Assembly with respect to the implementation of economic and social rights. But there has been no real “progress achieved” in making these rights legally enforceable, beyond the gathering of information and identification of non-compliant behaviour by States parties. While some standards have been incorporated into domestic legal systems, most States are far from translating those standards into a human rights-based legislative framework with accountability mechanisms.

[4] OHCHR, Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, 28th April 2016, A/HRC/32/31.

[5] Ibid.

[7] The US is one of only four nations that have “signed not ratified” the ICESCR, the others being Cuba and the small islands of Palau and the Comoros.

[8] For example, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Many commentators note the double standards of the United States in relation to economic and social rights: on the one hand, it officially recognises their fundamental importance, and it has long insisted that other countries must respect the human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration. On the other hand, it fails to promote these basic rights of its own citizenry through national-level institutional and accountability mechanisms, in spite of the high levels of material affluence and waste that define the US lifestyle.

[9] Using the poverty threshold of $5-a-day, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) calculates that almost a third of all people in East Asia and the Pacific live in severe poverty, while in the Middle East and North Africa the figure is around 50%. Most disturbingly, some 90% of the population in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa still live on less than $5 a day. See: UNCTAD, Growth and Poverty Eradication: Why Addressing Inequality Matters, Post-2015 Policy Brief No. 2, November 2013. Also note that, according to World Bank statistics, poverty at the $5-a-day level of income has consistently increased between 1981 and 2010, rising from approximately 3.3 billion to almost 4.2 billion over that period. See the PovcalNet website, data retrieved from http://iresearch.worldbank.org/PovcalNet/index.htm?1,0[accessed 23 September 2015].

[10] ILO, World Social Protection Report 2014/15, Geneva, ILO, 2014, p. xix.

[12] The Wire, World hunger is on the rise again, 18 September 2017.

[13] Euronews, Poverty in the EU, 28th July 2017 (quoting the latest Eurostat data).

[14] For a good description, see Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, Polity Press, 2008, pp. 26-32.

[16] This theme is often elaborated by Noam Chomksy, for example see: The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, Odonian Press, 1993, chapter 1.

[17] Kanaga Raja, IMF should abandon “failed policies”, says human rights reporteur, South-North Development Monitor SUNS #8557, 20 October 2017.

[18] Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, “Statement by Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order at the 70th session of the General Assembly,” New York, October 26, 2015.

[20] Isabel Ortiz et al, The Decade of Adjustment: A Review of Austerity Trends 2010-2020 in 187 Countries, ESS Working Paper No. 53, International Labour Office Social protection Department, Switzerland, 2015.

[21] Asia-Europe People’s Forum, Global Social Protection Charter, July 2016.

[22] European Health Network, European action day against the commodification of health, 7 April 2018.

[23] Ann Pettifor, ‘The economic crash, ten years on’, Red Pepper, 8 August 2017.

[25] John McArthur, How Much Aid for Basic Needs to 2030? Some Very Coarse Numbers, The Brookings Institution, 6 February 2014.

[26] Romilly Greenhill et al, Financing the future: How international public finance should fund a global social compact to eradicate poverty, Overseas Development Institute, April 2015.

[27] STWR, Financing the global sharing economy, October 2012, www.sharing.org/financing

[28] The World Bank estimated the “poverty gap” at 66 billion dollars a year in 2017, which is the amount of money needed to provide developing countries with enough financial resources to ensure that no-one lives with less than $1.90 a day. However, such a poverty benchmark is notoriously low and does not account for the fact that ending poverty is not just about money, but also rights i.e. access to essential services like healthcare and utilities, as well as universal social protection. See: Global Policy Watch, Poverty eradication is possible with existing resources, but not with present policies, argues civil society at the UN, 11 July 2017; Shanta Rao, Funding Needs for UN’s 2030 Development Agenda, IDN-InDepthNews, 28 May 2017.

[29] Tharanga Yakupitiyage, ‘UN Must Fight Tax Evasion, Says UN Expert’, Inter Press Service, 25 October 2016.

[30] Richard Falk, The power of rights and the rights of power: what future for human rights?, Ethics & Global Politics, Volume 1, 2008.

[31] Hans-C. von Sponeck, Richard Falk & Denis Halliday, ‘How the United Nations should respond in the age of global dissent’, New Statesman, 15 March 2017.

[32] See the Bretton Woods Project, issues, human rights: http://www.brettonwoodsproject.org/issues/human-rights

[33] See Global Policy Forum: Background and General Analysis on UN Finance, https://www.globalpolicy.org/un-finance/general-articles.html

[35] Mohammed Mesbahi, ‘Uniting the people of the world‘, STWR, 7 May 2014.