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International human rights law encompasses two sets of rights – the traditional civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. The latter group include the rights to food, health, housing and education, as well as labour rights. It is commonly suggested that widespread governmental neglect of these rights in many states has contributed significantly to the rise of populist politicians promising to upend the existing order and revive the fortunes of the increasingly marginalised middle class. Social rights might thus represent a crucial new frontier for mainstream human rights advocacy, as an antidote to neoliberalism and a response to the demand, including in the global South, for an approach to human rights that meaningfully addresses the most pressing needs of the majority.
In practice, however, the status of social rights, as human rights, is deeply confusing. China and many of its allies claim that these are by far the most important human rights, but their policy prescriptions focus largely on economic growth. In many other countries, social rights have achieved broad constitutional recognition and are considered justiciable, but judicial enforcement is limited and problematic. Social rights are prominent on the international human rights agenda, but with little to show for it, and they remain conspicuously marginal in the activities of the world’s leading human rights NGOs.
Principal topics include:
- The need to reconceptualise social rights
- A focus on the necessary economic, fiscal, and financial policies
- A review of attitudes to social rights in Australia and of their relevance in light of a longstanding antipathy to the acceptance of international human rights obligations in domestic law
- The future of the welfare state
- The UN Sustainable Development Goals
- Proposals for a universal basic income, and for social protection floors.
Intended learning outcomes
A student who has successfully completed this subject will:
- Have a sophisticated understanding of some of the main challenges facing the international human rights regime
- Understand the legal nature of international social rights obligations
- Understand where social rights fit into both welfare states and states with very low levels of social protection
- Appreciate the integral relationships between social rights on the one hand and civil and political rights on the other
- Understand how poverty undermines the enjoyment of all rights
- Understand better the relationship between extremes of inequality and human rights
- Gain insight into the relevance for human rights of major developments in relation to taxation and fiscal policy
- Understand where the debates over universal basic income and social protection floors fit into the broader picture of human rights protection
- Gain insights into aspects of international development policy and the relevance of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Last updated: 10 November 2023