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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: July 2009

9 - Defending Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: Practical Issues Faced by an International Human Rights Organization


Over the last decade, many have urged international human rights organizations to pay more attention to economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights. I agree with this prescription, and for several years Human Rights Watch has been doing significant work in this realm. Nonetheless, many who urge international groups to take on ESC rights have a fairly simplistic sense of how this is done. Human Rights Watch's experience has led me to believe that there are certain types of ESC rights issues for which our methodology works well and others for which it does not. Understanding this distinction is key, in my view, if an international human rights organization such as Human Rights Watch is to address ESC rights effectively. Other approaches may work for other types of human rights groups, but organizations such as Human Rights Watch that rely foremost on shaming to generate public pressure in defense of rights should remain attentive to this distinction.

During the Cold War, ESC rights tended to be debated in ideological terms. This was not only a matter of the West stressing civil and political rights while the Soviet bloc (in principle if not in practice) stressed ESC rights. Many in the West went so far as to deny the very legitimacy of ESC issues as rights. Aryeh Neier, the former head of Human Rights Watch and now president of the Open Society Institute, is perhaps the leading proponent of this view – most recently in his memoirs, Taking Liberties.