Advancing social justice through human rights at Amnesty International


In expanding its work on economic and social rights to look more closely at issues of resource allocation and distribution, Amnesty may appeal to some—but not all—of the constituencies demanding social justice. Español

Ashfaq Khalfan Iain Byrne
5 October 2015

Amnesty International has been working on economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) for nearly 15 years, but our relatively late arrival into this field has been part of the problem in establishing ESCR as “real” human rights. Many people continue to identify human rights with those civil and political rights that the organisation has traditionally worked on, such as prohibitions against torture, the death penalty, or arbitrary detention.

This problem was compounded by the fact that when Amnesty took up ESCR as a new issue, it was in addition to many other areas of on-going work, and extensive new resources were not available. To date, Amnesty’s work on ESCR has mostly focused on demanding these rights be respected and protected, without discrimination. However, Amnesty’s strategic plans for 2016 onwards aim to devote more attention to issues of resource distribution, in particular demanding the fulfilment of ESCR. One area is in regard to barriers to access to essential services, such as lack of affordable housing, or lack of free access to essential vital sexual and reproductive health services, including post-rape health care and emergency contraception; we will also look at the impact of privatisation of public services.


Demotix/Lawrence JC Baron (All rights reserved)

Amnesty International activists participate in a march against poverty in Madrid, Spain. Amnesty’s strategic plans for 2016 onwards aim to devote more attention to issues of resource distribution.

There are several avenues where Amnesty could contribute significantly to strengthening its work on fulfilment of ESCR, and in so doing more directly connect to social justice concerns. First, it could identify situations where a government has clearly failed to address the needs of disadvantaged groups in its plans and in practice—for example, a failure to address palliative care for those suffering untreatable conditions.

Second, it could expose how in distributing services there is a failure to prioritise the needs of disadvantaged groups, such as when disproportionately high amounts of public funds go to wealthier areas within a city.

Third, it could assess whether a government has set out a plan to progressively realise ESCR, to cost them and to demonstrate an analysis of possible sources of funding.

Fourth, Amnesty could ask a government to show that setbacks in fulfilling ESCR were unavoidable, and that it fully used and tried to mobilise available resources.

Fifth, and linked to the fourth point, Amnesty could query the government’s conduct by examining whether it has taken reasonable steps to address a particular failure to fulfil rights. For example, has the government allocated public land for low-cost housing and, where they exist, are such allocations respected?

Sixth, Amnesty could assess whether a country has adequately mobilised resources for public services by comparing it to its peers. For example, it could assess how much of a country’s GDP is taxed, and how the per capita expenditure on public services compares to peer states. This type of analysis does not, on its own, prove a human rights violation. But it could put the onus on a government to demonstrate why it allocates fewer resources than its peer countries.

The methods discussed above would focus on concrete, specific changes, justified by the realisation of specific rights rather than ideology. The methods discussed above would focus on concrete, specific changes, justified by the realisation of specific rights rather than ideology, and which in principle are consistent with both leftist and right (or at least centre-left/right) ends of the political spectrum.

In order to carry out this kind of work, Amnesty will need to invest time to carry out detailed legal and policy analysis to be able to critically assess government reforms and—crucially—to take up a seat at the policy-making table if it is offered.

Some traditional constituencies may be disappointed at Amnesty’s focus on social justice concerns—but this will depend on the extent to which Amnesty’s work on ESCR makes solid arguments based on law. Campaigns must clearly refer to human rights terms and analysis; we should be cautious in using political terminology. For example, it makes a difference whether we refer to people whose concrete rights are being violated, rather than to “the dispossessed”.

Conversely, can Amnesty satisfy a broader constituency of social justice activists? There are  two groups who may appreciate Amnesty’s focus on the disadvantaged, but who may not consider Amnesty to be addressing their most deeply felt concerns.  

The first are those focusing on broader forms in inequality within society, and the distribution of wealth. Amnesty would oppose such forms of inequality only when it involves discrimination or where it is clear that such inequality leads to denial of ESCR, including when the state is failing to adequately fund public services and social welfare through taxation, and where there is a failure to progressively increase the levels of enjoyment of ESCR.  Amnesty would generally critically review government policy rather than propose specific levels of taxation or fiscal policies. In addition, Amnesty would generally focus on the most marginalised sectors of society, rather than addressing the distribution of resources between the upper and middle classes or issues of equity between countries.

A second group who may find this approach too cautious are those fundamentally opposed to greater involvement of the private sector in economic life. In line with human rights standards, Amnesty would oppose privatisation of public services only in situations where insufficient safeguards are in place to protect ESCR.

Human rights groups will tend to react slower than other groups to new and emerging issues, as they need to develop sufficient evidence to sustain their claims. However, as they become better at such work, they will be better placed to respond to new challenges, such as a newly announced austerity measure or a new taxation policy, on the basis of evidence in other situations.

The two constituencies mentioned above might find that Amnesty’s objectives fall within at least part of their agenda, and this could lead to useful and significant collaboration. For example, groups opposing privatisation of water services, such as the Council of Canadians, have together with Amnesty been at the forefront of advocacy for recognition of the right to water, even though Amnesty has not engaged with them in anti-privatisation struggles.  

The time is ripe for Amnesty to deepen its engagement in social justice issues, building on its existing work. However, Amnesty’s work has focused and will generally focus on the rights of the most marginalised sectors of society, rather than on the overall distribution of wealth or on opposing the private sector. In that sense, Amnesty may be able to appeal to some—but not all—of the constituencies demanding social justice.


This essay represents the personal views of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of all colleagues at Amnesty.

This is a shorter version of an article that first appeared in Can human rights bring social justice?, published by the Strategic Studies project at Amnesty International, Netherlands.


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