Early warning and economic, social and cultural rights

There is increasing evidence that violations of economic, social and cultural rights are causes, consequences and often even predictors of violence, social unrest and conflict.

Violations of economic, social and cultural rights stem from a variety of factors including unequal power distribution, discrimination and inequality. For example, the unrest in Tunisia in late 2010 and 2011 that led to the so-called “Arab Spring” was triggered by the suicide, in sign of protest, of a street vendor. However, the underlying causes of the turmoil that followed included long-standing inequality, high unemployment, limited and precarious access to livelihoods, and very limited ability to redress the status quo. More recently in 2014, in Brazil, in the eve of the World Cup Football, people protested against their lack of access to economic and social rights, including water. Another example is the recent riots in Ferguson and Baltimore in the United States. While, in both cases, the initial trigger was the killing of young black men by the police or while in police custody, many linked the subsequent riots and unrest to frustration over systemic discrimination and the lack of equal access to jobs, quality education and health care for racial minorities.

Early warning is important to ensure appropriate early, concrete preventive action that would diffuse tensions and build a more cohesive society. In recent years, the United Nations has expressed increasing commitment to consider and use the tools available to identify warning signals that can trigger unrest and conflict. There has been a proliferation of initiatives both within the United Nations and its various agencies, including the Human Rights Up Front initiative, which encourages early, coordinated action to prevent violations of human rights or humanitarian law. However, despite the attention being given to this topic, no unified methodology has been developed that could aid in the early, practical identification of tensions and allow more specific and targeted interventions, especially around economic, social and cultural rights.

Violence, social unrest and conflicts occur in countries with various levels of development, political and governance systems, and demographics of the population.

There is clearly no “one-size-fits-all” model that will allow us to predict with certainty where and when unrest and conflict will erupt in the absence of preventive measures. Yet there may be some core elements particularly regarding economic, social and cultural rights that could be identified as part of an early warning system. In particular it should be examined and identified whether there are particular dimensions of accessibility, availability, acceptability or quality regarding economic, social and cultural rights that should be taken into account. Also is there a threshold of violation that should trigger international attention to prevent the escalation of unrest and conflict? Is conflict and unrest always accompanied by active discrimination and/or stigmatization of a particular group? What information should we take particular note of? Are there other predisposed conditions from the human rights perspectives that should be taken into account such as the level of political inclusion in the society, accountability for State and non-State actions, and access to justice?

These and other questions were the object of two experts meetings organized by OHCHR in Geneva and Bangkok in 2015. The United Nations High Commissioner opened the Geneva meeting with the following speech.

OHCHR has prepared a thematic report on early warning and economic, social and cultural rights for the 2016 session of the Economic and Social Council and continues to research the issue.