Political rights

Why civil and political rights have been easier to guarantee than social and economic rights

The UK government has stated that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union will not be converted into UK law in the “big repeal bill”. The Labor Party in turn promised replace the major repeal bill with a bill on EU rights and protections. Reports say this it’s keeping the charter.

The charter provides for modest but real social protections. One of them, the right to health, was used last year by a High Court judge in London to counter the private commercial rights of the tobacco industry.

If the government’s intention prevails, removing social and environmental rules – for example, on labor rights, air quality standards or pesticide control – will become easier. It is also in line with successive UK governments’ refusal to grant its citizens social and economic rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, including food and housing, and just and fair working conditions. fair. There is a long history here, which has nothing to do with the EU.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes many rights traditionally described as “civil and political” on the one hand – such as freedom of expression and privacy – and “social and economic” on the other. Subsequent attempts to transform the non-binding declaration into a single, binding international bill of rights were caught in the politics of the Cold War. Western governments argued that economic and social rights were not as applicable as civil and political rights, and were to be gradually implemented rather than being applied immediately.

This is how the UK put it in 1947, when Lord Dukeston (a trade unionist) submitted a project of a single treaty to the drafting committee of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which omitted social and economic rights:


Author provided

In fact, the United Kingdom accepted international legal obligations, but in the form of two separate treaties which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966 – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – and the latter’s second-class status was assured.

The UK has been criticized several times over the past 20 years by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – in 1997, in 2002, in 2009, and more recently in july 2016 – for not having incorporated the ICESCR into British legislation; he urged him to do so and to ensure full access to effective remedies.

At the last opportunity, the committee also:

  • expressed serious concern at the disproportionate and negative impact that the austerity measures introduced in 2010 are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups;

  • reminded the UK of its legal obligation to make maximum use of its available resources to progressively achieve the full realization of these rights;

  • Noted with concern that “the reforms of the legal aid system and the introduction of industrial tribunal costs have restricted access to justice in areas such as employment, housing, education and social Security benefits “.

The European landscape

This contrasts with the position of civil and political rights, where the overlap of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with the European convention of human rights – a non-EU treaty within the framework of the Council of Europe – and its incorporation by the 1998 Human rights law, led to stricter enforcement – hence the Prime Minister’s decision wish to drop that too.

But the convention does not include social and economic rights. They are covered by another Council of Europe agreement, the European social charter. Unlike the convention, this charter has not been incorporated into UK law. This makes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights all the more important for social and economic rights as it has legal effect in the UK – as long as the European Communities Act 1972 remains in force. It is the act of parliament which makes EU law an integral part of UK law, and which the grand repeal bill will get rid of.

But having “legal effect” is not the same as being “incorporated”. The EU Charter is weaker in the UK than the Human Rights Convention because of its “non-justiciability”: can be used as a shield to protect socially beneficial legislation. This is the result of the Blair government, in line with the United Kingdom’s position in 1947, giving the British charter negotiator, the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, a specific file to avoid justiciability.

But Blair went further, and said in the House of Commons that it was “absolutely clear” that the UK had an option to opt out of the charter. This was not true, because the Commons European Review Committee clearly in 2014, and as a judge of the High Court the use of the charter last year in the case of the tobacco industry demonstrates this.

Social rights in legally binding agreements at the UN and in Europe recognize our vulnerability and common needs. It’s a sad accusation of our political process that politicians have been able to push back for so long to give them real legal teeth in the UK.

The future of charter protections is at stake – and depending on the composition of the House of Commons after the election, it may only be a matter of time before the Prime Minister’s wish to exit the Convention European Human Rights Council is back on the agenda. We are backing up.


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