Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: China Attacks Western Norms as a Cold War Debate Re-ignites in Geneva

Beyond geopolitical and material confrontations, an ideological battle dating back to the Cold War is being re-ignited over the universality of human rights and their implementation.

If you think China is only competing with the West geopolitically, in the South China Sea, and materially, in advanced technology, you are partially mistaken. As we revealed in last week's Briefing, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Chinese are proposing a resolution to prioritize economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights ahead of the traditional Western concerns of civil and political rights. Beyond geopolitical and material confrontations, an ideological battle dating back to the Cold War is being re-ignited over the universality of human rights and their implementation.

Western countries concerned about what they see as Beijing’s renewed attempt to curtail the independence of the Office of the UN Human Rights Chief
Our exclusive story today reveals how China is using the moment to try to restrict both the independence and the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, de facto using the multilateral system itself to hollow it out from within.

For the uninitiated in the history of human rights, this may seem like a typical United Nations debate; lots of words with little substance. But as the Canadian scholar and former UN official Robert Cox wrote, “Theory is always for someone and for some purpose.” The Chinese attempt to prioritize ESC rights over civil and political rights is similar to the debates surrounding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the two human rights covenants written at the height of the Cold War. This is as pertinent now as it was then.

The Chinese proposal highlights deep philosophical and cultural biases with political ramifications. If Beijing’s resolution is accepted, it could indicate a re-alignment in priorities around human rights—and also a marker of shifting power relations in the multilateral system.

To set the context of today’s tensions at the Human Rights Council: Following 1945, the ideological struggle between Western liberalism and Soviet communism was simmering. The UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 (making this year the 75th anniversary). Created under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairperson of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, the final document has a preamble and thirty articles, much of it containing the language of Western liberalism and America’s conception of inalienable rights. However, clear differences between East and West developed during its conception.

The preamble begins: “Whereas the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world […].” Article 3 states its major premise: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.” Articles 1-21 describe political rights, primarily for individuals, Articles 22 to 27 involve economic, social, and cultural rights: In other words, the first set of rights deal with individuals, the second set of rights concern individuals as social beings

The Soviet Union and seven other countries abstained from supporting the UDHR, although it was non-binding and contained no legal obligations. For Soviet legal theory, the UDHR was “too judicial,” and could infringe on national sovereignty. For the Soviets and their allies, governments were more important than individuals.

The General Assembly asked the Human Rights Commission to prepare a draft covenant on human rights that was to have legal obligations. A single covenant was envisioned, the General Assembly affirming that the two sets of rights were “interconnected and interdependent.” The debate surrounding the inclusion of both sets of rights in one covenant was highly contentious—in an early draft, economic, social, and cultural rights came after political rights, similar to what was in the UDHR.

Finally, after 18 years, two covenants were adopted. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976 after being ratified by a sufficient number of countries. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was also adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. However, although the two covenants were adopted by the same General Assembly Resolution, the division between them has affected human rights activities ever since. Significantly, the United States signed the Covenant on ESC rights in 1977 but has not ratified it; China signed the Covenant on Civil and Political rights in 1998 but has not ratified it.

Although officially “interconnected and interdependent,” the two sets of rights can be presented as follows: ESC rights require government action; they are resource-intensive, progressive, social, ideologically divisive, non-justiciable, aspirational. Civil and political rights require no government interference; they are cost-free, precise, justiciable, non-ideological, measurable, manageable.

While many scholars have demonstrated the close relationship between the two sets of rights, ESC rights remain essentially secondary in the West and a vestige of the East-West confrontation. They are sometimes called “red” rights.

One outlier in the West’s prioritization of civil and political rights has been Australian Philip Alston, Professor of Law at New York University. The recent UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in 2020 Alston started his final report with a damning critique of the failure to eliminate extreme poverty: “The world is at an existential crossroads involving a pandemic, a deep economic recession, devastating climate change, extreme inequality, and a movement challenging the prevalence of racism in many countries,” he wrote. “A common thread running through all these challenges and exacerbating their consequences is the dramatic and longstanding neglect of extreme poverty and the systemic downplaying of the problem by many governments, economists, and human rights advocates,” he noted. Long a champion of ESC rights, Alston visited the United States and the United Kingdom during his tenure, harshly criticizing both countries for their inaction to eradicate extreme poverty.

But Alston is an exception that proves the rule when it comes to the West’s prioritizing civil and political rights while de-emphasizing ESC rights. The philosophical and cultural biases between the two sets of rights have remained politically charged since the 1948 debate over the issue of whether there should be one or two covenants. And this is what has come to the fore in the current meeting of the Human Rights Council.

China and Pakistan presented Beijing’s draft resolution to the Council, including a demand that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “enhance” its work in the field of economic, social, and cultural rights and calling on the High Commissioner to “set his priorities” on this issue. The draft resolution goes beyond Geneva. It calls on all pertinent UN agencies and regional organizations, as well as civil society, to make the necessary resources available to prioritize ESC rights.

China may get sufficient support among the Council members for its resolution. If they do, it would show a significant change in human rights priorities. Beyond that, it would also show a significant power shift in international relations.