Economic, Social and Political Costs of the (Non-)Realisation of Human Rights: Towards a New Social Contract

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‘Can We Still Afford Human Rights?’ This was the provocative question asked by the four editors of the book Can We Still Afford Human Rights? Critical Reflections on Universality, Proliferation and Costs (Edward Elgar 2020). A question which several authors aim to answer in their contributions to the book. In the volume, 14 chapters focus on one of the three interlinked topics of universality, proliferation and costs. In this blog series, three posts relating to the book focus on one of these topics respectively. In this last post of the blog series, prof. dr.  Felipe Gómez Isa questions whether costs really provide a counter-argument to the realization of human rights and considers the way forward. 

Orthodox economists have traditionally conceived human rights as an obstacle to economic rationality rather than as a social investment for the promotion of just and stable societies of free individuals. Economics, on the one hand, and human rights studies, on the other, have contributed very little to each other. Yet, economics do not necessarily have to be at odds with the protection of all human rights. On the contrary, there is strong empirical evidence showing that those societies in which human rights are at the centre of economic and social policies, are better equipped to build more egalitarian communities and to promote sustainable development (UNDP Human Development Report 2000: Human Rights and Human Development).

Human Rights and Economics : A Problematic Relationship?

Human rights are no longer considered as an impediment to development but, on the contrary, as its main driver. This new vision about the controversial relationship between development and human rights paved the way to one of the main conceptual innovations in the field of development studies in the last part of the twentieth century. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) proposed a new theoretical paradigm to deal with development in 1990: human development. The individual and her or his human rights must be at the very centre of a sound development policy. Human rights – both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights – are the necessary complement for a comprehensive and multidimensional conception of development.

An Economic Analysis of Human Rights

Due to the growing complexities of our societies, the realization of all human rights has become an increasingly sophisticated and expensive exercise in modern states. The provision of public services such as high standards of health, quality education, adequate security or the maintenance of a professional judiciary requires increasing economic resources provided by society. Indeed, a significant part of public expenditure is devoted to guaranteeing basic human rights. Accordingly, in order to maintain the legitimacy of the human rights discourse, we need to take into account their cost implications, efficiency considerations and social utility. In this complex scenario, appropriate taxation continues to be the most reliable and predictable source of the financial resources that the state needs to mobilize for the implementation of all human rights.

Towards a Human Rights-Sensitive Fiscal Policy

The duty to pay taxes must be considered as a duty of solidarity that derives from a civic contract of confidence between citizenry and the state. Citizens, as members of society, should be proud of paying the level of taxes that is necessary for the realization of the human rights of all members of society, especially of those in situation of exclusion and vulnerability.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights has raised very serious concerns about the low level of taxation in some developing countries. The Committee has also expressed its deep concerns about the austerity measures imposed in some developed countries to face the financial global crisis and about the impact of the decrease of public revenue on the enjoyment of socio-economic rights.

Taxation policies therefore cannot be dissociated from human rights policies; they are intrinsically linked. As explained more extensively in the book chapter, a coherent, consistent and progressive fiscal policy is the most influential tool for the generation of public income for the realization of human rights.

Human Rights in an Era of Inequalities

Inequality is one of the main legacies of the 2008 global financial crisis that is still having a dramatic impact on the way in which societies are dealing with social, political and economic challenges in the beginning of the twenty-first century. The social contract that defined post-war Europe and America after 1945 is no longer in place. It has been significantly eroded by globalization and by the conservative revolution that emerged in the 1980s. This social contract was based on an adequate balance between the intervention by the state and the operation of the rules of the market. Neoliberal globalization has challenged this status quo, and the global financial crisis has deepened its problems of legitimacy and survival.

The increasing sense of injustice, frustration, disenchantment and discontent in relevant segments of society is also having a strong political impact. We are witnessing a global trend that goes from cosmopolitan liberalism to nationalist populism, neo-fascism and far-right political parties that openly challenge the longstanding foundations of international human rights and representative democracy. New forms of populism not only question human rights and raise voices of intolerance, but also criticize diversity and multiculturalism, gender equality, the activities developed by some human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or deny the urgent need to fight environmental degradation and climate change.

The Way Forward: Towards a New Social Contract

The realization of all human rights cannot be interpreted exclusively as an economic cost but must also be seen as a social investment that can positively impact on economic growth, equality and development. Those societies in which human rights and democratic principles are fully respected tend to be more egalitarian, and create the optimal conditions and incentives that are necessary for inclusive and sustainable economic development. There is a need of a new social contract in which modern societies again find the adequate balance between the market, the state and other stakeholders that has been reversed by the current process of globalization. Ultimately, the state continues to be the main guarantor of human rights.

We must reflect not only about the economic costs the implementation of human rights entails, but also about the economic, social and political costs of the non-realization of all human rights. So the right question to be answered is not whether or not modern states can afford human rights, but whether or not our societies can afford not to realize human rights. The price to be paid for the non-realization of human rights is too high.

Felipe Gómez Isa is Professor of International Law at the University of Deusto. He is currently part of the research team ‘Social and Cultural Challenges in a Changing World’, recognized under category A by the Basque Government (2019-2022).


F. GóMEZ, "Economic, Social and Political Costs of the (Non-)Realisation of Human Rights: Towards a New Social Contract", Leuven Blog for Public Law, 15 January 2021, https://www.leuvenpubliclaw.com/economic-social-and-political-costs-of-the-non-realisation-of-human-rights-towards-a-new-social-contract (geraadpleegd op 3 March 2021)

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