Alice Henkin Calls for Commitment to Economic and Social Rights as She Receives Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award

Reading the remarks made by NESRI board member Alice Henkin as she received the prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award  was a strong reminder that political clarity and courage deeply matter and can inspire and motivate the long term work of economic justice and rights in the United States. 

There were endless reasons for Alice Henkin not to call for the recognition of economic and social rights in the United States and the ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  It is decidedly the last in the political queue of human rights treaties considered serious candidates for ratification, it inflames the increasingly militant and extremist Tea Party and related movements and their political wings, it is considered unrealistic and far from pragmatic, and it is outside the parameters of the politically serious and viable at the national stage at this moment.   But call for it she did, standing next to Secretary Clinton and being honored by an administration that has been exceedingly cautious if not almost reticent on embracing the moral need to recognize the U.S. government’s responsibility to the full range of human rights for its own people, in particular economic and social rights.

At a time when we have increasing numbers of homes without people and people without homes, growing hunger and ever longer lines at food pantries, decimated state budgets for basic needs and families desperately looking for decent work as their lives fall apart due to lack of good jobs and a secure safety net, Alice Henkin showed us that it is in fact politically and morally imperative to continue to make this call.  This was her moment to be recognized for a lifetime of commitment and service.  She could have simply enjoyed her well deserved moment as well as the honor to her husband (She received the prize on behalf of her husband Professor Lou Henkin who died on October 14th, 2010 and on behalf of herself).  But instead she chose to take up the task of pushing for a set of rights unpopular with the political establishment because of the core American values she truly does embody: social inclusion, the recognition of the human dignity of all people, and the importance of community and the public good.  Below we proudly share some of her comments with you.

I will quote very briefly from an article Lou wrote in 1997 in the Texas International Law Journal about that third freedom. Quote: “For many the U.S. system of rights is deficient in that it does not guarantee freedom from want. The place of economic and social rights and U.S. jurisprudence and policy has been unsteady. Indeed, the sentiment that economic, social, and cultural rights are not rights has spread, and reluctance to assume international obligations to realize them has remained strong. However, the United States has joined in promulgating and promoting the economic and social rights through the universal declaration. But economic and social rights are not part of the U.S. Bill of Rights and are not guaranteed by other provisions in the Constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on the other hand, recognizes not only the civil rights rooted in natural law and the political rights associated with democracy; it recognizes also the economic and social rights associated with the welfare state: a right to food, housing, health, education, leisure, social security, and work.” End of the quote. Then he goes on to support the U.S. ratification of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights. … – Alice Henkin