The Future of Human Rights: the climate crisis, economic and social rights, and systems thinking

Photo credit: Liselott Lindström/Sveriges Radio

Sherif Elsayed-Ali

There are no human rights without a liveable planet.

The human rights framework has had many successes in the 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, but is still relevant to today’s challenges? I believe it is but it must continue to evolve and address the biggest issues that affect most people head on. I have three main proposals for this:

  1. putting climate change at the top of the human rights agenda;
  2. significantly increasing the amount of work on ESC rights undertaken by human rights advocacy and campaigning organizations, and;
  3. adopting a system-analysis and solutions-based approach to human rights.

Human rights and climate change

The link between a healthy environments and human rights was recognized decades ago and the UN Human Rights Council adopted the first of several resolutions on the human rights implications of climate change back in 2008. Despite this, human rights practice has, until recently, overwhelmingly placed people above our natural environment, failing to respond to the dual crisis of environmental destruction and climate change. This is changing but not fast enough.

I believe there are three reasons for this:

The first is the de facto prioritization of civil and political (C&P) rights by many organizations in the human rights movement, at least in the global north. The principle of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights is well accepted in legal and academic circles but less practiced on the ground — and when it is, it often reverts to issues around freedom of expression and assembly linked to economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights.

The second reason is that the human rights framework is, in practice, usually used in relation to what can be termed direct human rights violations, and to a lesser extent, root causes of violations.

Examining human rights violations at the level of direct violations limits the examination to an individual, group or community, usually involving one or a small number of rights, within a specific period of time. First order root causes can impact wider groups and rights over a longer period of time.

However, the human rights framework is seldom applied to second order root causes of violations, those resulting from breakdown in systems further removed, such as ecological, economic or financial systems. They can impact whole societies, or even the global population on a multitude of rights and a prolonged timescale. One of the most important examples of second order root cause of violations is climate change.

Tackling system level failure that lead to human rights abuses, at the level of first or second order root causes, has a multiplying positive effect on human rights as corrective action propagates from global systems to various subsystems to communities and individuals.

I believe the human rights community at large — and not just the subset that focuses on environmental issues — needs to embrace environmental protection and climate change action as the top priority for human rights in the decades to come. If it is to stay relevant, and hopefully to thrive, the human rights movement must also become an environmental and climate change movement.


Despite the wide acceptance in the human rights community that there is no hierarchy between C&P and ESC rights, many national and international human rights institutions have historically had a disproportionate focus on civil and political rights. For example in this 2016 report, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to the UN Human Rights Council concludes:

Specialist studies indicate that while a handful of [national human rights] institutions have devoted significant attention to economic and social rights, the vast majority have not… The bottom line is that few of these “institutions are producing regular, comprehensive reports on ESC rights fulfilment in their countries.


Only one out of five [UPR] recommendations adopted have been specifically concerned with economic, social and cultural rights. Only 11 per cent of the recommendations put forward by the regional group that have made, by far, the most recommendations overall dealt with economic, social and cultural rights.

There is very little, if any, quantitative data on the proportion on the proportion of ESC v C&P output from major human rights organizations. But a simple set of google searches can give some indication as to the prevalence of work on these issues.

There is good reason for all the work that human rights organizations do on C&P rights. Foundational rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are severely curtailed in many countries — and without them, it is not possible for people to demand and put pressure on governments to respect their other rights, including economic and social rights.

But international and national human rights institutions must elevate ESC rights much higher up their agenda. I believe this is critical to grow support and commitment for human rights among the public in the first place, and as an indirect consequence, governments’ commitment to human rights.

Whenever human rights organizations campaign on issues such as violations of the freedoms of expression and assembly, the right to life, freedom from torture, and access to justice, these are issues that, by their very nature, directly impact a small proportion of any given population at any given time (bar in exceptional circumstances such as armed conflicts), whilst access to healthcare, education, work and housing directly impact, by their very nature, almost everyone in a given population.

This doesn’t mean that civil and political rights are less important to people — only that their impact is often felt when someone has a problem: they are arrested, they are detained, they have to go in front of a judge, or they face retaliation for publicly challenging a government — but on most days, for most people, many civil and political rights may not be at the forefront of their thinking. On the other hand, health, work, education and housing are much more palpable issues day in and day out.

Here human rights are often in competition with politics: for people to actively care about the human rights message, particularly that of equality and non-discrimination, they must see greater human rights protection as the means for a better future. Without this, human rights risk being seen as something that only benefits those perceived as “other”: refugees, people in far away conflicts, and the minority of the population who are politically active.

The best way to protect the rights of minorities, refugees and disadvantaged groups in a society, is to have widespread support for human rights. When people hear a human rights message that speaks to their needs they are more likely to be receptive to a human rights message about the needs of others. If the backlash we have seen against human rights across the world is any indication, the opposite is equally likely to be true.

Major human rights organizations, national and international, should change the balance of their work to something much closer to a 50/50 split between civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights.

3. Solution-focused and systems thinking

The solutions to some human rights violations are relatively straightforward — for example ending torture in police custody and ending legal threats against independent journalists. Yes these require many steps and much work to achieve in practice, but if a government has the willingness, it will know what it needs to do.

The same cannot be said for all human rights problems: for example when it comes to access to healthcare, and the right to work, the answer is often not straightforward. The fulfilment of these rights is almost always heavily resource constrained. There is also seldom a clear right answer to questions such as: should healthcare be free at the point of service? What’s the threshold for treatments that should be available in a public health system? When and how much should the minimum wage be raised?

Often, we — human rights practitioners — fail to provide solutions. Yes, exposing human rights abuses is incredibly valuable in and of itself, but we must not stop there. Human rights organizations should also propose practical solutions, ones that a government or company that accepts they must change their practices would be able to implement.

These solutions should go beyond legal changes — they should encompass technical and technological solutions, financial analysis and cross-system analysis. As human rights advocates and practitioners, we must embrace the complexity of the world and see human rights as one of multiple interacting systems needed to achieve individual, societal and planetary well-being. These include economic, fiscal, political and technological systems, among others.

It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that the human rights framework has the solution to every sociological, political or economic problem. The human rights framework’s legal standing, wide acceptance and international nature make it essential for sound governance but to think of it, explicitly or in practice, as the answer to everything, is to set it up for failure.

We must also increase our outreach and collaboration with other sectors — scientists, economists, politicians, businesses and others without whom the ideal of universal enjoyment of human rights can never be achieved.

If we want to get to a world where everyone enjoys their human rights, civil society, governments, business (and others) must collaborate to achieve this. Exposing violations and abuses is always needed but working together towards solutions for protecting rights is even more important.