Savi Hensman

Human rights are not just for individuals

By Savi Hensman
October 12, 2008

Social justice 'is a matter of life and death,’ declared a hard-hitting World Health Organization report in August 2008. ‘Social and economic policies have a determining impact on whether a child can grow and develop to its full potential and live a flourishing life, or whether its life will be blighted.’ Urgent action to reduce health inequities is ‘an ethical imperative’.

Economic and social issues tend to be controversial, and it is hard to be wholly objective. However this carefully-researched report by the Commission on Social Determinants of Health, chaired by world-famous public health specialist Michael Marmot and which includes Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, deserve at least to be considered seriously.

Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health suggests that:

The poor health of the poor, the social gradient in health within countries, and the marked health inequities between countries are caused by the unequal distribution of power, income, goods, and services, globally and nationally, the consequent unfairness in the immediate, visible circumstances of peoples lives – their access to health care, schools, and education, their conditions of work and leisure, their homes, communities, towns, or cities – and their chances of leading a flourishing life. This unequal distribution of health-damaging experiences is not in any sense a ‘natural’ phenomenon but is the result of a toxic combination of poor social policies and programmes, unfair economic arrangements, and bad politics…
And of course climate change has profound implications for the global system – how it affects the way of life and health of individuals and the planet.

Three principles of action are set out: to improve daily living conditions, tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources, and measure and understand the problem and assess the impact of action. These translate into a range of practical objectives, for instance:

* Provide quality compulsory primary and secondary education for all boys and girls, regardless of ability to pay…

* Manage urban development to ensure greater availability of affordable housing; invest in urban slum upgrading including, as a priority, provision of water and sanitation…
Make full and fair employment and decent work a central goal of national and international social and economic policy-making…

* Provide quality work for men and women with a living wage…

* Establish and strengthen universal comprehensive social protection policies that support a level of income sufficient for healthy living for all…

* Build quality health-care services with universal coverage…

* Empower all groups in society through fair representation in decision-making about how society operates.

Much of this echoes a document produced sixty years ago – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included social, economic and cultural as well as political rights. To quote:

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment…
Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection…
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control…
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Why, then, are such rights still so far from being achieved? According to Closing the gap in a generation:

Inequity in the conditions of daily living is shaped by deeper social structures and processes. The inequity is systematic, produced by social norms, policies, and practices that tolerate or actually promote unfair distribution of and access to power, wealth, and other necessary social resources.

Those who seek a more just and healthy world must be willing to ask searching questions about what seems ‘normal’ and challenge the wealthy and powerful.

Faith traditions may have something to offer, since these have often involved probing what people assume and how society is organised, and working for positive change in the confidence that this can be achieved.

For example, the unflinching willingness of Jewish prophets such as Isaiah and Amos to recognise the plight of the marginalised in their era, and grapple with the causes, still inspire some in today’s world. Likewise, the example of early church leaders may encourage boldness in addressing the causes of inequality and exploring solutions. ‘Be ashamed, you who hold back what belongs to another, take as an example the justice of God, and no one will be poor,’

St Gregory of Nazianzen wrote in the fourth century. ‘He gives the air to the birds, the water to the fish, and the basic needs of life abundantly to all.’

Yet, in practice, churches and other religious institutions through the ages have taken a variety of positions, ranging from championing economic, social and cultural rights for all to opposing them vigorously.

For example, a 2005 World Council of Churches document on Alternative Globalization urged:

Our faithfulness to God and to God’s free gift of life compels us to confront idolatrous assumptions, unjust systems, the politics of domination and exploitation in the current world economic order. Economics and economic justice are always matters of faith as they touch the very core of God’s will for creation.

The top leaders of the Roman Catholic church, while broadly supportive of the capitalist system, urge greater social protection for the disadvantaged and some restraint on the working of market forces.

In September 2008, Pope Benedict 16th urged international leaders to ‘to adopt and implement with courage the measures needed to eradicate extreme poverty, hunger, ignorance and the scourge of pandemics, which strike above all the most vulnerable’. His predecessor, in a detailed discussion in 1991 of social and economic issues, had argued that:

Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice…
It is not merely a matter of "giving from one's surplus", but of helping entire peoples which are presently excluded or marginalized to enter into the sphere of economic and human development. For this to happen, it is not enough to draw on the surplus goods which in fact our world abundantly produces; it requires above all a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power which today govern societies.

There are some churches which urge compassion but focus on individual charity and sometimes support for faith-based organisations to provide basic facilities and services. According to George Verwer, former international director of the evangelical agency Operation Mobilisation, in an article in Decision, produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:

I launched out to Mexico with a vision both to reach the masses and to make individual disciples for Jesus Christ…
One of the things that affected me powerfully as a young Christian was a visit to people who were living in a garbage dump outside Monterrey, Mexico. There I saw extreme, raw poverty for the first time...
We cannot evangelize the world without having our hearts broken and doing something about physical needs as well as spiritual ones.

Likewise, in other faith communities, and indeed in secular circles, some have championed greater equality and others have opposed it. The challenge now is to create a new consensus for change, rooted in the deepest elements of our traditions.


This is part of a series of articles on human rights, written from an engaged Christian perspective.

(c) Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).

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