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Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December – marking the day in 1948 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in response to the barbaric acts of the Second World War. This foundational document foresaw a world in which everyone would enjoy “freedom from fear and want”. Accordingly, it encompasses both civil and political rights – such as the protection of life, liberty, free expression and dignity – and socio-economic rights – including the rights to health, an adequate standard of living (including food and housing), social security and education.  

Human Rights Day should be a day of celebration – but in the UK, Human Rights Day 2022 will be marked with a sense of jeopardy surrounding both categories of rights.

Rights under threat

In the UK, civil and political rights are protected through the Human Rights Act (HRA). This Act gave effect in UK law to most of the rights and freedoms in the European Convention on Human Rights. Yet its future remains in peril as long as the Bill of Rights Bill – known by many as the Rights Removal Bill – remains on the table. This proposed bill would repeal and replace the HRA and severely diminish rights protection.

… And key rights unprotected

Perhaps even more shockingly, over 70 years since the UDHR was signed economic and social rights remain largely unprotected in UK law. The UK is obliged to respect, protect and fulfil these rights as a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), but currently individuals cannot enforce their rights to health or housing in the courts. 

This gap in protection is ever more glaring in the context of the cost of living crisis, as millions of households approach winter struggling to eat, stay warm and remain securely housed. The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty has expressed alarm about the prospect of deep real-terms spending cuts in vital services, while the UN Human Rights Council has recently issued dozens of recommendations, including the need to develop a national anti-poverty strategy and confront food insecurity.

Reasons to be hopeful

Against this dismal background, however, there are signs that the ground is shifting in respect of the long overdue need to recognise economic and social rights.

Progress has begun in the devolved nations: the Scottish government is developing a Human Rights Bill that would incorporate ICESCR into Scots law, along with three other UN treaties. A Welsh Human Rights Bill is also under consideration, and children’s rights are already enshrined in Welsh law.

This week, the Labour Party’s Commission on the UK’s Future recommended “extending rights from the civil and political into the social sphere”, with an initial focus on health, education, poverty and housing as areas that form the foundation of the welfare state. The Commission recommends that rights are given concrete legal form, such that they can be enforced by individuals.

Such a move would be the welcome fruit of prolonged campaigning by Just Fair and other civil society organisations. We have long called for economic, social and cultural rights to be enshrined in law. This would provide a coherent, transparent, and internationally agreed framework with which to hold governments to account. Had these rights been in our domestic law in the UK, they would have helped address many of the crises we have seen in recent years – austerity, Covid-19, and the cost-of-living crisis.

Human Rights Day, our annual moment to celebrate the UDHR as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, comes at a time of both risk and opportunity for rights protection in the UK. As we look ahead to the UDHR’s 75th anniversary next year, it is clear that the cost-of-living crisis is a human rights crisis – and that the enshrining of our rights in law is long overdue. These are the rights on which we all depend to allow us not just to survive, but to flourish. 

Alice Donald is a trustee of Just Fair and Associate Professor in the School of Law at Middlesex University 

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