Wednesday, June 19, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Treating them like humans

Presenting a case for social rights

Update : 20 Jan 2024, 02:29 PM

In contemporary political discourse, discussions often revolve around civil liberties and human rights -- rights enshrined in national constitutions. Civil society organizations and activists play a crucial role in highlighting violations of civil rights, and on the international stage, human rights defenders criticize governments for their failure to protect these rights.

In 2024, the world is going to see national elections in 60 or so countries. At the end of the year, it would be an opportune moment to reflect on how various democracies have ensured the protection of the human rights of their citizens. All these discussions of rights are fine and needed to protect the liberty of the citizens, especially when their governments turn against some citizens for political reasons.

While all these lofty ideals must be respected, what most scholars and commentators seem to overlook is to place social rights as matters of immediate concern to the people.

In essence, civil rights emphasize individual liberties and legal protections, while social rights centre around collective well-being and access to essential social services, forming a comprehensive framework of human rights.

What are social rights? 

Social rights are distinct from civil rights. While civil rights have direct political connotations, social rights are distinct categories of rights with a focus mostly on rights related to the everyday life of a citizen. For example, a simple concern of a parent is to put her child in a school where she is assured of good education or a person seeking health service or service from a government office.

Civil rights, in theory, relate to individual freedoms and protections from discrimination of all kinds. Civil rights encompass political and legal rights. The important aspects of civil rights are freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, and equal protection under the law. 

These are rights that are found more in the book and get noticed only when those rights are violated. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, but ordinary people may not be as worried about it as the intellectuals who guard these rights religiously.

Social rights, on the other hand, are about societal and economic well-being that affects everyone who lives in a society. They include rights to clean air and water, unadulterated food, quality education, quality and affordable healthcare, affordable housing, and social security. I would also add an important component, the right not to be insulted or humiliated by other people or institutions of society.

Social rights ensure a basic standard of living for all members of a society; they ensure well-being for all as citizens. The link between social rights and citizenship is crucial. One is entitled to social rights because of the fact that he or she is a citizen. Not surprisingly, TH Marshall linked social rights to citizenship.

At the risk of generalization, it can be said that the rights of a typical citizen in Bangladesh are limited to voting that takes place every five years. On election day, he or she goes to the polling booth. She is treated with respect, courtesy, and even a touch of dignity. But the very next day -- the day after, she is back to her grinds. She becomes the shadow of a citizen without social rights.

TH Marshall (1893 – 1981), a British sociologist, is well-known for his influential work on citizenship and social rights. In his essay “Citizenship and Social Class,” published in 1950, Marshall proposed a dynamic theory of citizenship. He dwelt on the development of citizenship. Marshall argued that citizenship evolves through three stages: Civil, political, and social.

Social rights, in Marshall's view, include access to education, healthcare, and social services, aiming to provide a more equitable distribution of resources within society. Marshall stressed the state’s responsibilities to ensure the social rights of the people, which he thought included the rights to live according to their social heritage as well as to live fully as civilized people.

Social rights not only refer to a set of rights related to social and economic well-being; access to quality public services is included as a social right in the revised European Social Charter.

Imagine the indignity and the hassle an ordinary citizen has to go through to receive service in a government department, unless he or she is willing to pay a bribe or grease money to make the system work.

The prevalence of corruption often stems from the lack of social rights, compelling citizens to resort to illicit means to get their needs met. Combating corruption requires not only enforcing policies but also eliminating opportunities for corrupt practices by reducing bureaucratic hurdles.

An essential step toward ensuring social rights is the provision of universal healthcare, addressing a fundamental need of citizens. The concept of social rights stems from a contract between citizens and political authorities, making it the responsibility of the latter to ensure these rights are protected and upheld. 

The enforcement of social rights acts as a deterrent to corruption, fostering a society where citizens can access essential services without compromising their integrity.

The provision of universal healthcare will be an important step in granting one of the important social rights to the citizens.

The idea of social rights emanates from a contract between the citizens and the political authority. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure the social rights of the citizens as part of the social contract.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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