As the world confronts the devastating impact of the COVID pandemic it must tackle the thorny related problems of increasing economic inequality – within countries and between them – as well as the urgency of the climate crisis. Can human rights assist with a vision of the kind of world that we should be striving for? And can this vision guide our responses towards overcoming the global challenges that stand in the way of good lives for all people? The UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) contains a little explored right to the ‘continuous improvement of living conditions’. The right, in Article 11(1), follows on from the right to an ‘adequate standard of living’, which protects rights to housing, food, clothing and an implied right to water, which have received much more attention. The right to the continuous improvement of living conditions may have been neglected because it was perceived as something to be considered only after achieving adequate living standards for all. But as we emerge from the hardships of the COVID pandemic, we must critically harness new practical and theoretical tools that offer a potential break from a never-ending economic growth model toward more sustainable ideas of what it means to be human.
In this context, there are valuable possibilities in this neglected right. The right prompts us to consider what continuous improvement means in the context of finite resources and an unsustainable capitalist system. It asks us to connect our current rights protections to the rights of future generations, the problems of the system of debt, the contradictions between Indigenous worldviews and colonial value systems, the nature of social reproduction, and many other core issues. The right also invites us to interrogate concepts such as poverty, time, measurement, and work. It might help us to recover other ‘forgotten’ rights both within the ICESCR and in other human rights treaties.
A deep engagement with the right to the continuous improvement of living conditions leads to strong arguments for greater use of the right and further scholarly attention. In a world of unsustainable, yet vastly unequal, production and consumption, the right to the continuous improvement of living conditions can seem both naive and dangerously rapacious. However, we argue that examining this right gives us new ways in which to move beyond polarised debates in human rights. This is particularly the case for debates on whether human rights have anything to offer on questions of economic equality and distributive justice, and whether economic, social and cultural rights are concerned only with minimum standards, or with human flourishing more broadly. Considering the right thus forces us to examine a number of pressing and fundamental socio-legal questions – from why we have lost or turned away from utopian projects in international law, to fundamental issues of what constitutes a good life and a just international order. To address such questions, we need radical new ways of thinking about old problems, institutions and arrangements, which draw on the grounded and socially embedded work of scholars and activists. Engagement with the right is a call for reimagining our human rights histories, and their futures.