Socioeconomic rights researchers, advocates and practitioners gather at Åbo Akademi University
Through this blog, I share what I have learned from recently attending a week long advanced course on the justiciability of social, economic and cultural rights (SECR). The annual course forms part of the Global School of Socio-economic Rights and is organised by various institutions. It has been hosted at the Institute of Human Rights at Åbo Akademi University in Finland for the last 12 years. The course brought together post-graduate researchers; NGO practitioners in law, human rights and development; policy-makers; and judicial officers, to tackle some of the contemporary themes in debates surrounding the justiciability of SECRs by considering standards of assessment as well as engaging comparative perspectives amongst others.
The recognition of SECRs as rights and their enforceability in courts varies across the world. Since the birth of the human rights movement in the late 1940’s, SECRs have by and large been deemed inferior to those rights of a civil and political nature. However, the post-cold war period saw an understanding of all rights categories as inter-related, interdependent and indivisible. Indeed, if this historic reality were personifiable, it is through the legacy of now late Cuban Revolutionary Fidel Castro. This incongruence persists as many jurisdictions still do not recognise SECRs. At domestic, regional and international levels, the legal frameworks within which SECRs exist differ significantly. Jurisdictions such as South Africa and Kenya are ahead of the curve in constitutionally prescribing SECRs as justiciable but vigorously debate the most appropriate standards to be used in judicially assessing claims. Participants on the course considered the dominant standards of reasonableness review––preferred by the South African Constitutional Court––and the UN SECR Committee’s minimum core obligation as adapted by various scholars. Other jurisdictions including Canada and the Inter-American human rights system have had lukewarm receptions to SECR claims and justiciability. Arguably, the African human rights system is the frontrunner amongst regional systems in SECR rights justiciability, but faces issues with implementation.
To my mind, this course’s greatest strength and uniqueness lies in the multicultural intellectual environment it creates, translating into a rich cross-pollination of perspectives stemming from the geographical assortment of instructors and participants present. Although the substance of challenges in realising SECRs differ in character, what was most noticeable is the reality that issues concerning housing and health provision are particularly ubiquitous across jurisdictions (assuming the course participants to be a representative global sample). SECR advocates from Canada confront first world homelessness in their inner cities, while our Kenyan counterparts litigate force evictions of society’s most vulnerable. Latin American jurisdictions have asserted health rights but faced issues with the inequality that individualised claims present. In jurisdictions such as my own, Namibia, chronic inaccessibility of housing and a severely wanting public health system remain almost exclusively within the realm of social activism and political contestation; although the constitutional framework offers much potential to test its contours, a culture of direct claims for SECR enforcement remains underdeveloped. As a post-graduate researcher who dedicates a significant amount of time to theorising SECRs and justiciability issues, learning from course participants who have practically confronted the issues through policymaking and litigation––some of which is on-going––was enriching.
I recommend this course to those interested in SECRs although, as its title suggests, the level of engagement is more advanced than a typical undergraduate course. Limited funding through scholarships is also available depending on the year. In candid disclosure, I am a beneficiary of such funding, for which I am grateful to Åbo’s Institute for Human Rights in sponsoring my course costs, as well as the Finnish Foreign Affairs Ministry for generously funding an extended two weeks stay to allow me to conduct my own research in Turku.
In conclusion, the course, albeit removed from settings of the most pervasive of socio-economic deprivation, is a platform for SECR advocates (myself included) to take a step down from ivory towers of theory and meaningfully exchange with others and create professional networks. Perhaps most importantly, it allowed for the formation of new, trans- and intercontinental friendships rooted in a commitment to social justice. Of course, in the spirit of true cultural immersion, indulging in the thrilling Finnish tradition of submerging one’s self in the ice cold Baltic Sea and dashing off into a steaming sauna – no less than seven times over – was a delightful plus (and must!).