Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

Human Rights: A Bread and Butter Issue?

Human Rights: A Bread and Butter Issue?

Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (widely known as the Banjul Charter), states: "Human beings are inviolable. Every human being shall be entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person. No one may be arbitrarily deprived of this right."

Is this guarantee meaningful to a person lacking access to adequate healthcare and a legitimate livelihood? Does the right to free speech mean much to somebody who is too hungry and weak to speak? And what use is the right to privacy and human dignity to a homeless slum dweller who is repeatedly evicted from his shack without being provided alternative shelter? These are the sort of questions Spaces for Change|S4C often contends with at the community outreaches, town halls, and legal clinics it organizes in rural communities and urban slums across Nigeria.

According to World Bank and UN estimates, more than 700 million people live below the international poverty line of $1.90. The majority of these people live in rural areas, are poorly educated, and are under 18 years of age. Both the rural localities and urban slums where they live are characterized by squalid living conditions and other forms of deprivations caused by decades of governmental failure to provide basic amenities. The people who live in such conditions are not oblivious to their human rights. To them, nothing is more bewildering than the huge disconnect between the constitutional bestowal of human rights and the realities of their want, disease, and suffering. "What do we do with these human rights without bread and butter? What will human rights do for an empty stomach?" they often ask.

Civil and political rights take priority

In principle, all human rights, civil and political (C&P), economic, social and cultural (ESC), are indivisible and interdependent. In practice, however, the relationship between the two sets of rights is lopsided, with C&P rights taking precedence. Fueling this imbalance is the segregation of C&P rights and ESC rights into two separate international covenants based on Cold War-related ideological wrangles. The partitioning of C&P and ESC rights at the international level has trickled down to national constitutions where C&P rights are recognized as fundamental rights, with special procedures laid out for their enforcement.

In contrast, ESC rights are to be progressively realized and, as such, construed as fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy. Their potency is further undermined by certain clauses precluding national courts from determining legal claims arising from the state's inability to meet its social and economic obligations, and the absence of a dedicated enforcement procedure. These factors have prevented many rights-based platforms from challenging and demanding justice for the worsening social and economic conditions to which they are subject.

Moreover, human rights have been too narrowly and conservatively interpreted across jurisdictions, including Nigeria, with courts often refraining from extending the scope of human rights so that social and economic violations resulting from disease, poverty, or malnutrition constitute actionable claims. Concerns also have been raised about the ability of the courts to enforce ESC rights without breaching the doctrine of separation of powers. The argument is that this would allow courts to determine matters with budget and policy implications that are the purview of the executive.

As the disparity between ESC rights policy and practice persists, the gap between rich and poor communities increases. States are brazenly avoiding accountability despite their glaring failure to establish support-based programs, processes, and mechanisms for enhancing the access of poor and low-income groups to social and economic opportunities or enabling such groups to secure legal remedies to their deprivations. For instance, a recent report found that between 2010 to 2016, more than three million people were affected by some element of forced displacement in Nigeria. In addition, sixteen people were reported dead and up to 323,031 properties (houses, stalls/stores, land, etc) were either demolished or confiscated. In most cases, the dwellings of the poor were flattened in the name of urban development and livelihoods were swept away overnight without compensation by the authorities. Access to quality legal representation to challenge such human rights violations remains beyond the reach of the affected populations.

Donors reinforcing an unhelpful dichotomy

Donors and charities across the world have taken bold steps to fill this accountability gap through their support for various initiatives that tackle homelessness, illiteracy, infant and maternal mortality, hunger, poverty, access to justice, and so on. However, gaps remain. Donor-led initiatives have predominantly followed the longstanding tradition of separating human rights into two categories and prioritizing C&P rights.

Other initiatives specifically targeting socially vulnerable groups overlook the human rights paradigm. Instead, they frame their interventions around the objectives of "compassion," "development," and "service delivery." For many, this signals that ESC rights may remain subordinate for a long time. Concentrating resources on C&P rights not only reinforces the perception that social and economic deprivations are not actionable human rights violations, but also explains why millions of dollars' worth of investments and development aid have not produced a significant reduction in poverty levels.

In spite of the numerous setbacks, human rights advocates and organizations are not relenting in the fight for greater legal recognition and protection of ESC rights. At Spaces for Change, we use strategic litigation to influence the development of progressive jurisprudence with respect to socioeconomic rights. The litigation strategy is supported by sustained advocacy for legal reform, with the aim of bringing about the policy and legislative changes needed to accelerate the implementation of ESC rights in Nigeria.

Our push for greater judicial recognition of ESC rights and legal reform is based on the premise that it is not enough for social and economic rights provisions to be articulated in constitutional documents and nothing more. Rather, human rights only mean something to citizens when they are asserted, claimed, and enforced under both municipal and international law. The result of a seven year-long effort to do so in Nigeria is the growing willingness of  courts and judges to depart from rigid and conservative notions that ESC rights are not enforceable. This shift is in line with an evolving legal and human rights culture that sees these rights being enforced even in jurisdictions where they are weakly protected.

Human rights lose meaning for rights-holders dwelling in conditions of poverty, want, and inequality. It is not too late, however, to eliminate barriers to their enforcement and to shift the narrative from gloom to bloom. Change beckons when human rights rhetoric is matched with effective solutions to human needs. Change beckons when governments adopt deliberate and concrete steps, including legislative measures to recognize ESC rights as actionable rights that require serious and responsible enforcement. Change beckons when funders and donor bodies redirect and target their support to initiatives at the intersection of C&P and ESC rights.

With the cooperation and support of both governments and funders, human rights advocates and organizations will have the means and resources they desperately need to access national, regional, and international accountability mechanisms through which they can seek redress for social and economic transgressions. As the journey to human rights and freedom continues, we need all hands on deck.

Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri (@VictoriaOhaeri) is executive director of Spaces for Change.