Global Connections Edition
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Labor Article

The Two Covenants of Human Rights

Untitled Document
Civil and Political Rights Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Right to life and liberty
Right to work
Freedom of expression
Right to food
Equality before the law
Right to education
Freedom to elect leaders Right to participate in culture

The issue of human rights stretches back for thousands of years, but a more universal notion of it became codified only when the United Nations General Assembly passed the non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (UDHR). The UDHR, which was written with the input of representatives from all continents and all major religions, includes both civil and political rights (right to life, liberty, freedom of expression and equality before the law), and economic, social and cultural rights (right to work, food, education, and to participate in culture). Over the years, however, these two sets of rights have been split into two different covenants (political-civil rights, and economic-social rights) in the UDHR. Many of today’s arguments about human rights stem from this split.

Civil and Political Rights

Western, more developed states tend to focus on civil and political rights, believing that economic and social rights are more goals than "rights." Viewed through this lens, issues like the lack of a free press, the arrest and incarceration of dissidents and journalists, and the inability of the Chinese to vote for their leaders, for example, have been used by critics of China (including the U.S. State Department, and groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) as examples of how China has not kept its promise to improve its human rights record, which it made in 2001 when bidding for the 2008 Olympic Games. The protests and riots in Tibet in March 2008 have only further ignited the human rights debate.

Economic and Social Rights

On the other side, Asian countries, developing countries, and ex-communist countries, have tended to prioritize economic, social, and cultural rights. Hence the Chinese government rejects criticism of its human rights record, claiming that survival and economic development, as manifested in a higher standard of living, and health and personal security, are just as valid human rights. In China’s view, before a person can cast a ballot, he or she must be able to feed himself first.[1] The idea that "freedom" is first and foremost a “freedom from want” is shared by many in Asia and in poor developing societies.[2] Hence, China cites World Bank figures of having lifted 400 million people out of poverty in the last few decades as a human rights achievement. China, which adopted a constitutional amendment in 2004 to recognize and protect human rights, also believes that progress should be judged relative to its own past, and not according to other countries’ standards.[3] Supporters also point to the Chinese government’s recent rapid response and mobilization to rescue and shelter the millions of Chinese affected by the Sichuan earthquake, as a fundamental protection of Chinese human rights.

1 “Human Rights Can be Manifested Differently,” China View,December 12, 2005, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2005-12/12/content_3908887.htm (accessed 7/26/08).

2 Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power To The East (New York: PublicAffairs™, 2008), 144.

3 Jill Drew and Maureen Fan, “China Falls Short on Vows for Olympics; ‘Long Way to Go’ On Rights, Pollution And Press Freedom,” The Washington Post, April 21, 2008, p.A1.