World Day of Social Justice: a break in 364 days of social injustice
A longer opinion piece reflecting this statement was published in Danish newspaper Politiken (link under paywall and in Danish only).
Courtesy translations in English and French are also available below:
All around the Mediterranean – in Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt and France to name but a few – millions of people are taking to the streets in mass protests to denounce degrading living standards, lack of access to basic services, increases in prices on basic needs, corruption and rising inequalities. The political and economic contexts of each of these countries differ significantly. Some are democratically organised, others are autocratic; some economies are more developed and more resilient than others. Yet, the popular demands bear striking resemblances. Popular dissatisfaction with the unfair distribution of income, the divide between the elites and the rest of the population, unkept promises of equal opportunity, and the weakening of mechanisms for expressing discontent has reached a tipping point. The protesters’ demands have quickly turned into a much broader rejection of the socio-economic status quo.
What is needed is a social, economic and political model that respects, protects and fulfils people’s entire range of human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural – that is, a system that meets people’s basic needs. The rights and principles enshrined in the internationally agreed human rights framework must remain the guiding lights of our policy– and decision-makers if we want to achieve a more resilient and just society. It is primarily governments’ responsibility, individually and collectively, to work towards social justice, to guarantee the provision of basic services and to dismantle obstacles to the fair redistribution of wealth and power. This is not about long-term policy aspirations; this is about every individual’s enforceable rights.
In reality, however, governments across the region have – in an effort to tackle national debt crises and under pressure from international financial institutions – significantly cut their social spending, and thus reduced public services and employment opportunities. Disadvantaged people, who rely most heavily upon these services, have been hit the hardest. This has further exacerbated economic and social inequalities, and undermined people’s economic and social rights. At the same time, widespread and deeply entrenched corruption among political and economic elites continues to divert public funds. According to UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report 2019, only 16% of citizens of Arab countries are satisfied with their government’s efforts to tackle wealth inequality, and only 12% think that increasing taxes is the best way to reduce poverty. What’s more, peaceful protestors are facing violent government responses and criminalisation of activities, violating their rights to assemble peacefully to express grievances, and to participate in public life and decisions affecting their own lives. The Hirak in Algeria, as well as protestors in Lebanon, Morocco, France and elsewhere are facing arrest, prosecution, police violence and ill-treatment. Sadly, social injustice is flourishing. According to the same UNDP report, since 2010, nearly all Arab countries have slowed or reversed their average annual human development advances.
Temporary solutions cannot calm the protests nor resolve their root causes. A mere change of leadership and the reversal of individual policies won’t be enough. This is a collective struggle which demands a systemic change. A social and economic model, with economic and social rights at its heart, must be put in place in countries across the Euro-Mediterranean region. It is the State that should ultimately be the guarantor of people’s socio-economic (and other) rights, the provider, or at least regulator, of essential services, and the guarantor of fair taxation and resource allocation. The European Union can play a key role in supporting democratic, participatory decision-making and championing socio-economic rights by starting to take its own human rights commitments seriously. Rather than restricting member states’ and partner states’ ability to implement socio-economic rights within their domestic policy space, for example through fiscal compacts (internally) or trade and investment protection agreements (with non-EU states), the EU should support and strengthen this set of rights. The EU speaks a great deal about human rights but needs to back up words with action as evidenced, for example, by civil society’s rebuke of the EU-Tunisia Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation given the major concerns regarding its impacts on human rights.
We are calling for a shift in perspective: people’s human rights, rather than merely economic growth, should be the decisive factor in all political decision-making. In the absence of any such change, we run the risk of increasing populist and xenophobic discourses – out of fear of further deteriorations in people’s living standards and the overall circumstances – instead of progressive reforms and strengthened democracies.