Human Rights and Social Justice Reviewed Globally - and What We Make of It

With our blog we want to shed some light on the differences and similarities between human rights and social justice and their implementation in national, as well as international contexts. We base our thoughts and proposals on current debates and happenings in the U.S., Europe, and China.

What are we talking about? Definitions

First of all, a definition of the two concepts is needed. Matthew Robinson from the “Department of Government and Justice Studies” of the Appalachian State University defines social justice as a concept that promotes “[…] a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity.”[1] Social justice implies that all human beings share a common humanity and have the right to equitable treatment. “In conditions of social justice, people are not to be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.”[2] One tends to think that equality and social justice are the same, but they are not. Equality is undeniably part of social justice, but “[…] the meaning of social justice is actually much broader […].”[3]

Human rights, then, are rights which make sure that social justice exists. Among others human rights are “[…] general freedom; dignity; life; liberty; security; equality before the law; fair and public hearings by independent and impartial tribunals; presumption of innocence until proven guilty; freedom of movement and residence; [the] right to seek and gain asylum from persecution; [the] right to nationality; the right to marry and have a family; [the] right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; the right to participate in government; the right to social security; the right to work by free choice and to have protection against unemployment; the right to equal pay for equal work; the right to rest and leisure; the right to an adequate standard of living, including ´food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age[...]´; the right to education; the right to participate in the community and ´to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits´; the right to the ´protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which [one] is the author.´ Additionally, people enjoy freedom from slavery or servitude; torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; discrimination; arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; arbitrary interference with privacy […].”[4]

Human rights and social justice, as we have seen, are not synonymous - though there is definitely some overlap between the two. Aryeh Neier argues that “ […] human rights is concerned with restraints on the exercise of power whereas social justice is concerned with the redistribution of wealth and resources.”[5] We align with this straightforward distinction to stress the importance of both human rights and social justice and their co-existence.

A Future to Believe in?

With the upcoming 2016 U.S. elections on November 8th and the primaries already being in full swing, there is a chance for human rights and social justice issues in the U.S. to be discussed anew. Let us first focus on how the democrats and one of their candidates, Bernie Sanders, are dealing with these topics.

Ta Nehisi Coates talks about why Bernie Sanders is against reparations in an interview[6]. He argues against Sanders argument and for reparations: “Because the issue of class does not break out in the same way as it does with white and black/brown communities, you cannot make a direct comparison.”[7] You can ask questions causing, with high certainty, some controversy:  Should past (and to-date) racialized policies be fought with anti-racialized or with universalist policies? Should black communities be addressed differently than white communities or should everybody be treated just the same? Does Sanders, but also do Clinton and Obama, avoid the issue of white supremacy, of systemic racism?

As a socialist, Sanders stands for the implementation of social justice more than any other candidate. In his opinion, this does not contradict with countering human rights issues. Sanders follows the more conventional Democratic philosophy of “a rising tide lifts all boats[8], as Ta Nehisi Coates notes. But he fails to address black issues accurately. Are the Democrats failing to address human rights issues while focusing on social justice within their country?

Aligning with the definition of human rights as “ […] restraints on the exercise of power […]”[9], we may imagine human rights as an all-encompassing protective umbrella for social justice to be fully implemented. On this basis we argue all presidential candidates are lacking behind in recognizing the importance of human rights as its own category. America's unique history of disadvantaging ethnic minorities, requires unique policy based on a further approximation to the fulfilment of human rights. Neier reminds us why the human rights framework is never indispensable: “Achieving social justice often involves the exercise of power and not merely placing restraints on power.”[10]

Solidarity and Europe - A tempestuous relationship

The refugee crisis is, without doubt, one of the greatest challenges for the European countries in history. Why might arguments based on social justice be not far-reaching enough in this case? Let us look at how the human rights framework can or cannot be helpful to achieve economic and social justice within a country.

Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in a TV-debate in February 25th:” ’For them you do everything, for us you do nothing’ – I hear such statements frequently these days from our people!”[11] He concludes correctly that this is a “dead dangerous”[12] sentence. As a consequence he proposes less saving and more investments in social projects “for our people”[13].

He wants improvement of social standards, more investments in children’s care and public housing projects, and so forth – but he also had the state elections in 4 of the German states in mind. His intention was to calm the mood and unite people again, to take the wind out of the AfD’s (Alternative für Deutschland) sails. The vice-chancellor may also plan ahead – and we impute noble motives to him that he in fact, wants to include everybody, that he pursues a policy of social justice for everyone. But his message apparently comes too late – The AfD is gaining more and more popularity. This party has been ignored for too long and the AfD and its supporters are only gaining more strength through polarization. One can ask provocatively: Do you want economic equality and social justice for European citizens only? What about the refugees?

Let us have a look at the industrial sector in Germany – corporate management cannot wait to integrate newly arrived migrants into the job sector, skilled workers are needed. But at the same time it is talked about how the minimum wage can be suspended, at least for some time. It seems justifiable, since a lot of refugees first need to qualify and cannot get paid the full salary from the start. Still, out of experience we might ask: Is this a new attempt to recruit cheap labor force? The industry has a long history of lobbying in the two democratic parties being in power right now, saving itself a competitive advantage (SPD and CDU/CSU). Loosening these bonds would be one important step towards a balance of power. Politics should then be able to enforce the right to equal pay for equal work more consequently. The basis for this must be the minimum wage recently pushed through by the SPD (Social Democratic Party).  The future will show – let us hope Germany has learnt its lesson from the “Gastarbeiter” (guest worker) recruitment in the 60s. Max Frisch, a renowned Swiss-born writer, brought the issue to the bottom line when he said: “We called for labor force, humans arrived, though”[14]

What the Western Cultures tend to forget - Human Rights in China

After reviewing this issue from the perspective of the western world, it is also necessary to concern the gap between human rights and social justice in China. Being a major target of international criticism for its human rights record, pragmatic foreign policy and energy-driven activities in the developing world, China gives outsiders the impression that there are still wholesale violations of human rights in this country, and the west has been attempting to tell China how to behave when it comes to human rights.

However, things are changing. Just as Xiaoyu Pu[15], a post-doctoral fellow on the Princeton-Harvard China Program claims, “human rights is no longer a taboo issue in China; justice never was”. His essay on “China’s human rights diplomacy” reveals that China has generally accepted the universality of human rights. For instance, it has joined a number of international human rights forums on racial discrimination, discrimination against women, apartheid, refugees and genocide. Moreover, China is not simply a passive recipient of international criticism on human rights any more. On the contrary, it has applied the international standards to criticize western countries. Although some of its criticism might seem hypocritical, it at least suggests that China is beginning to take the international human rights system more seriously and gradually accept the general concept of universal human rights. In addition, Chinese leaders argue that the promotion of human rights in China should consider its practical conditions. In other words, developing countries should have distinctive human rights priorities with the principle of “seeking common ground while preserving differences”. Accordingly, Pu pinpoints that “China priorities economic, cultural and social rights over civil and political ones, and has demonstrated this by signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and signing, but not ratifying, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

What do we make of it?

There are two things we constantly have to keep in mind when trying to achieve more justice in these fields:

First: Both concepts have its faults. The human rights framework is similarly prone to misuse as is the social justice approach – in other words: the flexibility of the two concepts is their greatest strength but also their greatest weakness. Recalling the situations in the above mentioned countries, we can conclude that promoting Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESR) through social justice reforms is in many cases much more tedious than targeting more obvious abuses of human rights such as torture or arbitrary arrest. However, it also became clear that the different countries we looked at have very unique issues to deal with – accordingly unique solutions need to be found. China, for instance, has not had any trouble to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, if we look at civil and political rights in China we tend to judge very quickly.

Second: As long as we speak of the misuse of human rights and social injustices from the perspective of the Western cultures only, we won’t come very far. There is the ongoing need to save ‘other’ countries from themselves, their own ideologies and religious beliefs. How are we possibly solving the so-called social “injustices” around the world imposing questionable values on the Muslim and Arab cultures of the Middle East while denying their human rights of freedom to live, to adequate housing, and to express their religious beliefs and ideals? They are denied their freedom of expression, and the freedom of movement and housing is severely restricted. We bomb their cities take down their governments and then leave them stateless and exiled from their own land, all in the name of seeking social justice and a universal human right; a universal human right that is only as good as those that follow this Western notion of freedom, a freedom driven by capitalism and power.

This is why we think grassroots movements are a more promising way to counter inequality - social media offers new opportunities here. A large number of promising projects already exist in the countries we looked at (BlackLivesMatter, the numerous microbloggers in China, the Chinese Artist Ai Wei Wei, or the newly created solidarity networks for refugees in Germany, to name just a few).

Bianca Furak, Zeyu Li, Christopher Saal (Group 4)



[2] ibidem

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[11] (translated from German)

[12] Ibidem (translated from German)

[13] Ibidem (translated from German)

[14] (translated from German)



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