Monday, 14 May 2012

The Rights Sandwich

Why do we already have some rights, but not others?

Last week’s article explained that, although we all have various human rights, not all of these rights are absolute.  Even our right to life has exceptions.  This week we will look at the types of rights we already have, and those we are waiting for.

Our human rights fall into three different categories, and each category builds on the previous one, rather like making a sandwich: first you need the bread; then the butter makes it easier to eat; and the jam makes it more much more enjoyable.

The Bread. Sometimes referred to as our First Generation rights, these are our fundamental civil and political rights, such as the rights to liberty, to freedom of expression and to not suffer discrimination. Our First Generation rights provide us all with protection against government and others interfering in our lives.  These are fundamental to our lives, just as the bread is fundamental to our sandwich.

First Generation rights should be the most simple to enforce. Where our civil and political rights are threatened, we should expect to have recourse to a court of law and a legal remedy to stop it.

The Butter.  Our Second Generation rights are our economic, social and cultural rights, such as freedom of religion and the right to have work and to have housing. They are sometimes described as “aspirational” rights – things we should expect but are not as vital to our lives.  A sandwich with only bread will keep us alive but the butter makes it easier to eat.

For example, we cannot demand that our government provide us all with a job and a home.  That would be impractical.  Some governments can afford to do that, and when they can they should, but ours currently cannot, though we can expect that our government won’t actively prevent us from having these. Economic, social and cultural rights are more of a statement of intent – our government should help us to achieve these things. 

These rights are not enforced by law. They are usually monitored through reports made by countries to the United Nations.  

The Jam.  Once we have the bread we need, and the butter we want, we can start to consider the jam: our Third Generation rights. These can be thought of as rights to enjoy our lives.  They cover subjects such as peace, personal development and a satisfactory environment. Like economic, social and cultural rights, Third Generation rights are difficult to enforce because they, too, relate to human aspirations, rather than fundamental needs.  We want jam on our sandwich, but we can’t demand that it’s provided.

So how is St. Helena doing on the Human Rights Sandwich?

In St. Helena most of our fundamental rights are included in our Constitution, but our Constitution only controls how the Government behaves.  Our Constitution does not control what happens between, businesses and private individuals, so these issues need to be covered by local legislation.  Our government is working on it, but not all of this legislation is in place yet.  In St. Helena, therefore, our bread is only partly baked! And we have to finish the bread before we focus on the butter and the jam.

In December 2011 ExCo gave its full backing to the adoption of the Human Rights Action Plan for St Helena. Over the next three years the Human Rights Capacity Building Committee will be working with St Helena Government, Civil Society groups and individuals to produce a perfect loaf!

If you have any questions about Human Rights please contact Catherine on 2133 or email

Next week  What is discrimination?

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