Commentary on Katharine G. Young’s article: The Minimum Core of Economic and Social Rights – A Concept in Search of Content

by Mohsen al Attar



Ideas about global capitalism have been in constant flux since the beginning of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, imperialist theorists such as Hobson and Hilferding argued that inter-state rivalries would bring down the castle; WWI and WWII seemed poised to do just that. Fast-forward to the 1950s and not only did this not happen but the castle was fortified and stood stronger and taller than it ever did before. The reason? Giovanni Arrighi explained in his seminal work, ‘the Geometry of Imperialism’, that changes in international capitalist relations were neutralising the inter-state rivalries of yesteryear. Briefly, vertically and horizontally integrated multinational firms were supplanting the nation-state as ‘the primary form of political organization of world capitalism’ thus reducing instances of cross-border strife. Building on and possibly even supplanting the work of Arrighi, Robinson and Harris detailed in an important article the ways in which neoliberalism was further transforming the existing capitalist order: through widespread integration of national economies in the world trading system and a restructuring of finance and production systems along global lines. Combined – and despite disagreement between the various camps – these critiques of capitalism are invaluable in comprehending the state of the world today.



Having just read Katharine Young’s article, I would argue that much more could be understood about the nature and future of our world by relating the theories of the above-mentioned scholars to the work of the Human Rights Committee as it concerns socio-economic rights. Whereas Hobson and Hilferding, Arrighi and Robinson-Harris, asserted that changes to global capitalism were the result of ‘polarising tendencies’ within the system itself, neither group seemed to consider that the conflict between neoliberalism – the epitome of an ‘obsolete market mentality’ – and society – champion of a democratic human mentality – was (and is) a key catalyst in its transformation. From the rubble of WWII emerged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an idealistic – albeit entirely credible – set of obligations to which states committed themselves to respect and promote. This document was followed shortly thereafter by the two Covenants, each guaranteeing a set of interrelated and, as some would later argue, mutually dependent series of rights. It is no secret, and Young’s piece attests to this, that controversy has surrounded the concretisation of socio-economic rights from the moment of their inception.



In her timely piece, Young surveys the various approaches that human rights scholars, human rights activists, and the Human Rights Committee have adopted in their advocacy for socio-economic rights. Being familiar with the literature, I can confidently state that no single article does a better job at compiling the strengths and weaknesses of each trend within the minimum core debate. But Young does more than simply survey the state of the discourse; in the final section, she argues for a reformation of the movement’s preferred approach to the minimum core – to assess a state’s positive obligations via indicators and benchmarks and its negative obligations through responsibility and causality. Despite being a little nebulous at times, her suggestion is a sophisticated one that should be examined by human rights scholars, activists, and state officials for it provides a powerful rebuttal to the justiciability, derogability, and extraterritoriality concerns that seem to perpetually circulate and to frequently undermine progress in the socio-economic rights field.



To return to my introduction, whether Young knows it or not (and seeing that her article is peppered with references to neoliberalism and trade matters, I suspect she does), she is contributing to a wider debate on the ills of unfettered capitalist expansion. When two opposing forces come into conflict ‘one of them has to come out on top’. Capitalism in general – and neoliberalism in particular – weaken democracy and strengthen the market, producing a series of social and economic dislocations. Economists from Adam Smith through to Joseph Stiglitz have been aware of this; in fact, the welfare state was inaugurated to counter-balance the inevitable impact. A variety of groups, such as social movements, non-governmental organizations, and, increasingly, human rights advocates have sought to address these dislocations by either challenging the constitutive elements of the international economic framework or – and here we find Young’s work – by democratising and humanising the global capitalist order. Indeed, Young offers us a coherent and convincing account of the potential of the minimum core, a field otherwise muddled by ambiguity and contradictions, to promote access to material items that would undoubtedly improve our collective quality of life. I would argue that she achieves this formidable feat by being persuaded herself (and, in turn, persuading readers) about two assumptions: 1) That everyone involved in the debate shares in her commitment and refreshing idealism to social justice and 2) That human rights have become a foundational element in a quasi-global constitution to which all nations are bound. Her assumptions may or may not be founded but this is inconsequential for the approach she advocates is a sound one that, and to repeat myself, deserves much consideration by scholars within the field if we are to move socio-economic rights and social justice beyond the facade of academic rhetoric.



Ultimately, Arrighi and Robinson-Harris still believe that the cyclical rise and fall of great powers at the hands of other great powers determines global capitalism’s evolutionary course. Social movements would likely dispute this claim – and the scholarly treatment of the impact of social movements on regulatory frameworks would corroborate their retort – by pointing to the numerous instances in which popular struggle has altered the course of contemporary history. The human rights movement is part of this struggle and is a powerful force in the remaking of the world along more democratic and equitable lines. Young’s ideas about indicators and benchmarks, about responsibility and causality have the potential of contributing to the struggle in a practical and meaningful way by altering our very perception of the rights we advocate for. I conclude this comment by urging others to read her article (with particular attention to the final section) and by urging Young to develop her ideas; they are most welcome and much needed.


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