In Debate, NESRI Stresses the Value of Economic and Social Rights

During a lively conversation about economic and social rights, NESRI Executive Director Cathy Albisa dialogued with Rev. Harcourt Klinefelter, a former speechwriter to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aryeh Neier, President of Open Society Foundations and an opponent to the economic and social rights framework.

Sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Section on International Law, the teleconference panel answered the question, “What are economic, social and cultural rights and how do they relate to what's happening in today's world?”

Rev. Harcourt Klinefelter spoke of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how his final campaign demanded economic rights—not only for African-Americans but for all. King called on Americans to question our economic systems, our distribution of wealth and the capitalist economy that has produced poverty. Klinefelter closed his remarks with a call to action: “We are now ripe for a new rise in the movement. Will you be a part of it?”

Aryeh Neier argued against the idea of economic and social rights, saying that “rights” are intrinsic to our humanity and cannot be violated in any circumstance while economic decisions involve tradeoffs. Questions of economic justice should be negotiated through the political process, he said: “You can’t simply say I have the right to more of everything and not know there are costs to that.”

According to Catherine Albisa, however, “You cannot ensure justice without rights.” If economic justice is an imperative, we need a set of rights to ensure that justice; otherwise, notions of democracy and justice become mere procedural shells for power struggles. Emphasizing that human dignity is imperiled without economic and social rights, Cathy argued for a multi-sector approach that goes beyond the legal sphere and includes social movements.

The full conversation is available for download here.