Amnesty head urges U.S. ratification of economic and social rights treaty


Irene Khan, seen addressing the World Economic Forum in 2007

As Congress continues to debate health care reform, and personal testimonials about unemployment, bankruptcy, debt, and homelessness remain at the forefront of American consciousness, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan LL.M. ’79 had a message for the U.S.: ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). 

Khan explained that the U.S. views human rights, like health care, as needs to be met by markets as opposed to legal entitlements possessed by all.  This approach leads to inequality, she intoned, a statement borne out by to the U.S. experience, in which the rich can purchase the best health care in the world and the poor and many of the vast middle class face a diminished quality of life, or death, because they are priced out. Turning a human rights lens on the health care issue, Khan continued, empowers people to claim their rights and holds governments accountable for organizing systems and markets in a way that fulfills these rights.

Khan spoke at Harvard Law School during lunch on Monday, October 19, to a room comprised of students and of faculty and staff from Harvard’s broader human rights community.  Over plates of salad and vegetarian lasagna, she explained her personal journey as a human rights lawyer and the growth and new direction of Amnesty International.  She studied transnational law at HLS at a time when the Human Rights Program did not exist and when international human rights law as a field would be best described as nascent.  Today, leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty have embraced the indivisibility of all human rights to move beyond the narrow focus on civil and political rights that dominated during the Cold War era, and continues to grip the U.S. in a limited “civil rights” approach to human rights legal entitlements. 

Khan advocated instead for an experience based approach to human rights.  Beyond legal texts, she explained, we must focus on the lived experience of the poor and the marginalized.  This approach is strikingly relevant to the American experiences that have come to light in the recent financial crisis.  While U.S. law does not provide for a right to work or a right to health, the country is gripped by record unemployment and a staggeringly damaging lack of health care.  Reflecting on what the U.S. needs most now, and starting from this experience, our right to access healthcare and to just end equitable remuneration can be seen not as a socialist construct or a fantastical anti-market idea, but as a necessity for the functioning and flourishing of the country.  Khan noted that making health care a right empowers people, creates an accountability framework, and provides a remedy, outlining a legal orientation to healthcare that would move the U.S. debate in  a different direction.

At the international level, Khan called for U.S. ratification of the ICESR to create a unified vision of human rights among the G-20.  Moving ahead in the global fight against poverty, she said, requires this ratification, and China’s ratification of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  Both the U.S. and China should be leaders in linking economic growth to human rights standards, particularly the need for full democratic participation in economic development strategies. 

She pointed out Brazil, China, and India as examples of growth that has left the poorest segments of society behind.  But data also show the stark inequalities of American life as well and the developed world consequence of letting the market rule without a human rights based floor for goods such as heath care and education. 

As Khan traced Amnesty’s path over the years, she argued that its mission has been quite consistent.  While it used to focus primarily on political prisoners, it has expanded to focus on prisoners trapped by poverty and other human rights abuses.  Ironically, Khan commented, addressing poverty and issues like health care often leaves groups accused of wading into the “political,” and yet Amnesty focused on political prisoners for years without receiving this criticism.  This anecdote should be instructive as Americans watch the idea of health for all devolve into partisan squabbling.

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