Social protection and the UN human rights system

Social protection is a fundamental human right, enshrined in core United Nations (UN) human rights instruments, and often reinforced and reflected in national legislation. Social protection systems have the potential to assist in the realisation of a host of human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to adequate food, housing, education, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Even so, the linkages between social protection and human rights are underestimated in global efforts to promote social protection. In this context, an exploration of how the UN human rights system - particularly the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms - highlights the importance of promoting the human rights-based approach to social protection.

 

UN human rights and social protection

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) takes its starting point with the notion that all human beings are born free and equal in status and right. Notwithstanding, the right to social security and social protection is incorporated in a handful of the UN’s core human rights conventions, including inter alia, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The right, however, is most explicitly articulated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Under the ICESCR, states commit to the obligation to respect and protect economic, social, and cultural rights. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which oversees States’ implementation of the ICESCR, has over the years developed the notion that, States are legally obligated to establish social protection systems, and that this duty flows directly from the right to social security, as enshrined in Art. 22 of the UDHR and Art. 9 of the ICESCR.

As a result, the majority of UN Member States - as party to at least one of the above-mentioned treaties - are obligated to promote and protect the right to social protection, and furthermore, for these obligations to be applied in the development of national social protection policies.

 

The Human Rights Council

Beyond the enshrinement of social protection as a human right within the treaties listed above, other components of the UN human rights system have in recent years taken steps to engage with social protection as a human rights issue. The Human Rights Council (HRC), established in 2006 through UN General Assembly resolution 60/251, is the primary body within the UN responsible for “promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all”. To-date, the HRC has engaged with the issue through the adoption of 19 resolutions referencing “social protection” and 16 referencing “social security”, respectively.

These resolutions span in addressing a variety of human rights issues, including inter alia, the right to work; human rights of older persons; the work and employment of persons with disabilities; the right to food; strengthening efforts to prevent and eliminate child, early and forced marriage; the protection of human rights in the context of HIV and AIDS; accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women; rights of the child; protection of the family; human rights and arbitrary deprivation of nationality; and even one stand alone country-specific resolution on advisory services and technical assistance for Cambodia (HRC resolution 30/23), which encouraged Cambodia to include "the expansion of women’s economic benefits through improved working conditions, social protection and labour standards" in its strategy for gender equality.  

Several of the thematic resolutions adopted by the Council, explicitly acknowledge that “social protection may facilitate the enjoyment of human rights,” including, "the rights to social security, the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, an adequate standard of living… in accordance with the human rights obligations of States" (HRC resolution 28/12). It also emphasises "the importance of relevant social protection measures” for the realisation of human rights (HRC resolution 31/15).

Finally, recurring resolutions on the ‘Question of the realisation in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights’ has resulted in action on the issue, including requesting the UN Secretary-General to submit a report to the Council, with a “special focus on the importance of social protection floors for the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights” (HRC resolution 25/11); and multiple times encouraging States to “put in place social protection floors as part of comprehensive social protection systems that will contribute to the enjoyment and realisation of human rights“ (HRC resolution 28/12).

 

Special Procedures

In addition to output from the Council, in the form of reports and resolutions, the HRC also maintains a system of Special Procedures. These mandate-holders serve as independent human rights experts and conduct in-depth research and country-visits pertaining to their specific thematic or country mandate. Several of these mandate-holders have over the years engaged with social protection as a human rights issue in their reports to the HRC, including inter alia, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation; the Special Rapporteur on the right to food; the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; and the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt.

Most notably, the mandate-holders on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, including then Independent Expert (2008-2014) Magdalena Sepúlveda, who focused a lot of her reports to the Council on examining the relationship between extreme poverty and the enjoyment of human rights and later went on to develop a stand-alone online platform, seeking to advance a human rights-based approach to social protection.

Subsequently, the current Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, has continued to focus on social protection, including actively addressing the issue in his country-visits to Ghana, Japan, and the United States earlier this year, and in his forthcoming report to the HRC this June, focusing on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its impact on social protection.

 

Universal Periodic Review

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process within the Council aimed at improving the promotion and protection of human rights within all 193 UN Member States. When the Council was first established, it was mandated to "undertake a universal periodic review, based on objective and reliable information, of the fulfilment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States(UNGA Resolution 60/251). To achieve this, the UPR involves periodic assessments of all States’ human rights records during interactive dialogues, where States take the floor to make human rights recommendations to the State under Review.

As enshrined in the treaties mentioned above, the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights obligations lie with the State. In this regard, the UPR provides a space, firstly, for States to report on the actions they have taken to improve human rights within their countries and in fulfilling their human rights obligations, and secondly, provides an opportunity for States to make recommendations to States under Review to address specific human rights concerns, including social protection.

A review of all recommendations submitted to States during the first two cycles of review (between 2008-2016), indicates that out of 57.686 recommendations submitted, 91 explicitly referenced social protection and 92 referenced social security, in one way or another. This number does not include the plethora of recommendations addressing sub-themes that fall under the wider concept of social protection.

During the first UPR cycle, recommendations including references to social protection were submitted 19 times (out of which all were accepted by States under Review). For the second cycle, this number rose to 72 (out of which all, but two were accepted). Similarly, during the first cycle, recommendations on social security were submitted 27 times (out of which 17 were accepted). While the second cycle saw an increase in recommendations referencing social security to 65 (out of which 59 recommendations were accepted).

Without going into detail of the specifics of the recommendations - and without including those recommendations addressing social protection indirectly - the numbers alone indicate increased attention on social protection as a human rights obligation to promote and protect. Only time will tell if this will continue during the third cycle of reviews currently under way.

 

Conclusion

Social protection is inherently a human right, as enshrined in the UDHR and other core UN human rights conventions. Moreover, as indicated by the wealth of resolutions, reports, initiatives, and UPR recommendations submitted to States under Review, the UN human rights system continue to take steps to anchor social protection policies and programmes within the international human rights system. Considering these recognised human rights obligations are accepted by the majority of States, increased attention to ensuring a human rights-based approach to social protection and to promoting the mutually reinforcing link between human rights and social protection seems to be a natural progression.