Reclaiming Social Rights: International and Comparative Perspectives
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Reclaiming Social Rights: International and Comparative Perspectives, by Paul Hunt (Aldershot: Dartmouth Publishing Company, Ltd. 1996), 209 pp.

In Reclaiming Social Rights: International and Comparative Perspectives, Paul Hunt, formerly a Visiting Fellow with the Harvard Human Rights Program, now at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, grapples with the historical and political marginalization of social rights, and offers visionary but practical plans for reclaiming them. By “social rights,” Hunt means the rights set out in Articles 11–14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),1 including an adequate standard of living, food, shelter, health, and education. Hunt seeks a broad audience, focusing on the human rights community, which, as he correctly points [End Page 547] out, has neglected social rights for too long. His is a daunting endeavor, especially for a 209-page book, not only because of the surprising wealth and range of the material, but because some may chafe at the charge of “neglect.” Nevertheless, Hunt succeeds brilliantly on all counts.

In the five chapters that make up this book, Hunt engages in what he calls “faltering attempts at an interdisciplinary approach”2—one of the few characterizations of the author with which I would take issue. Rather, it is the surefootedness of his approach, in conjunction with the boldness of its overall structure, that makes Reclaiming Social Rights so effective. Each of the five chapters considers social rights from a completely different perspective. However, it not only holds together, but rather dazzles, like a crystal with five distinct facets.

The Introduction provides those new to social rights with a cogent synopsis of their history, theory, and evolving practice. Hunt describes the social rights’ eighteenth-century origins, establishing their pedigree, and showing their marginalization from the very beginning. He explains how social rights were linked to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, eventually resulting in the bifurcation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.3

In theory, by contrast, Hunt shows that it is well recognized that social rights and civil/political rights are indivisible and interdependent, and that both impose “multi-layered” obligations on the state. For example, he cites Henry Shue’s work to show how the state is required to “respect, protect, and fulfill” social rights as well as civil/political rights.4 Hunt elaborates that, first, the obligation to “respect” requires the state to legally recognize and refrain from violating rights. Thus, the state can no more bar shipments of grain to a particular region than it can bar freedom of expression. Second, the obligation to “protect” entails preventing rights from being infringed upon by third parties. Here, Hunt uses the example of violence against women by non-state actors to illustrate his point. Third, the obligation to “fulfill” rights requires providing the necessary resources for their enjoyment, whether the result is accomplished by an establishment of a judicial system in connection with civil/political rights or a health care system in connection with social rights. Unfortunately, social rights are neglected at each of these levels.

Hunt then describes the UN Committee charged with overseeing the ICESCR (the CESCR), noting its progressive and proactive jurisprudence. He points out that it was one of the first of the UN Committees to accept statements from NGOs. Unfortunately, however, the response to date has been disappointing. He attributes the problem to the gaps between international institutions and those most in need of their protection, and the dearth of NGOs to fill them. He adds that it also reflects the difficulties inherent in holding states accountable to the most vulnerable of their people, those who lack the political clout neccessary to make a difference. For [End Page 548] instance, in the context of the debates over choosing to support either “free trade”—that is, trade unencumbered by labor and environmental regulations—or “fair trade,” even developing states choose “free trade” at the expense of human rights. Nevertheless, Hunt convincingly shows why human rights approaches are so critical to global social policy, leaving his analysis of the extent to which existing approaches can effectively address the problems to the final chapter in his book.

The Introduction concludes with a...