Carmel Williams: Human rights extend beyond the right to vote into social issues

No comments

This coming weekend we exercise our civil and political right to a fair and democratic election. Voting is fundamental to our understanding of democracy and human rights. And yet there are other human rights which have the equivalent status of civil and political rights, but they are less spoken about as rights in New Zealand.

unnamedKiwi and UN Expert Paul Hunt calls them “social rights” and in many respects it is how we experience these rights that determines how we vote. They include rights to an adequate standard of living, affordable housing, food, education, an equitable health system and social security based on respect, not sanctions.

Paul Hunt has this Monday published a report in the United Kingdom stressing the importance of seeing social problems as human rights issues. Although he focuses on the United Kingdom, many of the social issues he highlights are the same as those we are experiencing here in New Zealand: lack of affordable housing, increasing poverty and inequality, and worsening access to healthcare and education.

Politicians generally avoid referring to these other rights as rights. But New Zealand, like nearly all other nations, has signed up to honouring these human rights obligations through legally binding UN treaties. New Zealanders are therefore legally entitled to have their social rights fulfilled.

unnamed (1)In his report, Social Rights are Human Rights – but the UK System is Rigged” Professor Hunt writes:

“Explicit social rights have the power to dignify and emancipate individuals and communities. They can shape policies and practice. There is evidence of their positive impact. Why not use them?”

Drawing examples from around the world, he illustrates the power of turning social issues into human rights entitlements. For example, a social movement in Spain used the right to housing to organise peaceful protests and it successfully delayed and halted many housing evictions. This ultimately led to changes in law and policy.

Politicians may claim there is no need to refer to social services as human rights, because, as Paul Hunt writes, they argue that, “they implicitly include this human right in their work.” But seeing social issues and services as human rights is important because when people learn there is a fundamental human right which entitles them to receive quality health care, or live in a house not a car, or have a decent standard of living, the knowledge is empowering and transformative. This understanding leads to their realization that they do not have to be dependent on charity for their circumstances to change: rather, the government is obligated by international human rights law to meet these social rights. And more, the government must report to various UN systems to show it is fulfilling its legal duties.

So enjoy your right to vote this weekend – it is your civil and political right to participate in the election of a government that will then have obligations to meet all our social rights.


Professor Paul Hunt is Professor of Law, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and Adjunct Professor Law at Waikato University. Between 1999-2013, he worked in the United Nations on economic, social and cultural rights. He has published extensively on social rights. He can be contacted at

Carmel Williams is the Executive Editor of Health and Human Rights – a Harvard University journal, and Honorary Lecturer at the School of Population Health, University of Auckland. Phone 021 708 396, email:

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash.