Social and Economic Rights in Transition

About the project

Understanding the form and substance of socio-economic rights protection in conflict transitions enables better policy and transformative conflict engagement. Peace agreements are less likely to be effective or sustainable if they do not address these underlying structural inequalities. To this end, this project improves knowledge of the role of social and economic rights in peace agreements and examines how civil society organisations can use peace agreements as levers for socioeconomic transformation.

Through a combination of literature reviews and interviews with trade union, human rights, women’s rights, and Irish language groups and activities, this project examines Northern Ireland (NI) as a case study, in particular critically examining the success and challenges of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. In the context of NI, people often see the peace agreement as a “success story”. However, this project exposes the limits of an imperfect and incomplete peace where some communities and voices remain missing from the discussion – frequently people concerned about social and economic justice, including social and economic rights.

Key findings

Whilst the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement has advanced some important achievements, gaps remain and non-delivery and implementation of parts of the Agreement persist.

The reduction in direct physical violence has been an important outcome, but parts of the Agreement have not been implemented that would address social and economic issues, for example a Bill of Rights for.

There is no legal way to directly enforce the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and reforms that emphasise procedure are a source of frustration.

There are issues around the language deployed in some parts of the Agreement’s text, where it is imprecise or aspirational, rather than including clear obligations. The consequence of this is that policies can be enacted that are not in the “spirit” of the Agreement but cannot be legally challenged. The Agreement also includes procedural reforms, which are valuable, but do not guarantee just outcomes and become box ticking exercises over substantive change.

The inclusion of power sharing agreements has led to a state of stasis.

The inclusion of power sharing, or concessional arrangements in the Agreement has led to a system of government that is frequently in limbo as one side or the other deploys a veto power. Even when the institutions are operational, the power sharing system often means issues critical to progressive change get side-lined.

The Good Friday Agreement has left key patriarchal power structures that underly the conflict untouched, and there is a lack of traction and commitment to implementing gender equality.

Whilst there are elements of the Agreement that address women’s participation, this has not resulted in action to ensure women’s participation in public life in Northern Ireland. The high profile succusses for individual women does not transcend to a commitment to gender equality, or for the Women, Peace and Security Agenda to be delivered in Northern Ireland.

There is a large gap between the literature on conflict transformation and how this is experienced by communities in Northern Ireland.

Whilst there are bodies of academic literature on civil and political rights, less practical attention has been given to social and economic areas. Many other post-conflict countries see Northern Ireland as a positive example based on the scholarly literature and framing as a success story due to the drastic reduction of violence. But the structural violence and social and economic disadvantages that communities experienced pre-the conflict remain.

Economic and social rights have been overlooked not only in relation to building durable peace, but also in fostering gender equality in post-conflict societies.

A fundamental aspect that drives post conflict change for women is economic empowerment. But what we see with the Agreement is an oversight in breaking the structures that are economic barriers for women and a failure to deliver the implementation of meaningful new mechanisms of inclusion. This is also an oversight at the international level, with the Women, Peace and Security agenda for example, which has not centred economic and social rights.

Civil society plays a crucial role in Northern Ireland and is an effective force for change and coalition building.

Civil society remains well-embedded in communities and has a great deal of political and strategic knowledge. They can name the real and pressing needs of people living in post conflict sites rather than simply framing human rights in terms of historic grievance.

The commitments contained in the peace agreement on human rights have lagged behind and been under-enforced in multiple dimensions.

Human rights remain heroic, underfunded, voluntary, feminised and inordinately dependent on the leadership of singular individuals whose capacities are continually stretched. Institutional commitment to human rights enforcement is largely a box-ticking exercise, devoid of commitment to a transformative vision of the dignity and equality of the human person.

The Covid-19 Pandemic underscores the need for transformative human rights and equality reform.

The pandemic has harmed everyone’s enjoyment of rights and liberties and has highlighted and reaffirmed existing structural inequalities in society. The pandemic has differentially affected women, carers, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, older persons, those experiencing poverty and deprivation, and other groups. A crisis requires a societal response, and that societal response must deliver for everyone.

A lot of money that comes into a conflict leaves after the conflict is solved. And one of our key takeaways from that is that if you want to invest in long-term peace processes, you better continue to invest in and help civil society.

Recommendations

Northern Ireland Assembly, UK Government, Donors and Funders

  • Northern Ireland should be recognised as a post-conflict context. For a just and sustainable peace to be possible in Northern Ireland, the UK Government must acknowledge the ongoing legacies and impacts of this conflict. Legislation and polices must be responsive to the needs of victims of the conflict and proactively invest in the post-conflict work needed to end the sequence of this conflict.

 

  • A bespoke Bill of Rights is needed in Northern Ireland to address the underpinning causes of the conflict and social problems in this jurisdiction. Among the important causes of the conflict were violations of a wide range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. These include structural problems and inequalities with housing rights, employment rights and cultural rights. A Bill of Rights has strong cross-community potential. This is especially true for the types of interests protected by social and economic rights: adequate housing, access to health care, access to employment and education are rights that appeal across the traditional divide in this jurisdiction and also appeal to many who do not identify with the main traditions.
  • Civil society work needs to be better harnessed and supported. NGOs embracing the full diversity of human rights claims, focusing on the indivisibility of rights, specifically civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, are better placed to be relevant to the emerging diversity of post-conflict rights claims. Their work should be better supported and funded.

Civil Rights Organisations

  • Organisations need to broaden their agenda and objectives, embracing the full diversity of human rights claims, and working to develop solidarity across wider civil . Gender-mainstreaming across traditional human rights focused NGO’s, from women’s equality to LGBTQI+ affirmation, is an essential aspect of building legitimacy with, and relationships to, contemporary equality movements.

Researchers and Academics

  • There is a need to think differently about what is or is not a socio-economic right in the context of a peace agreement. This analysis is important for the construction of knowledge around socio-economic rights and peace agreements and drawing key actors’ attention to socio-economic rights.

…we work with LGBTQI+ groups, women’s rights groups, women’s reproductive rights and Irish language speakers, all politically contentious issues, all with a high level of solidarity, but with the rule that everything is on the table and that we must deal with and not ignore these issues ….” (Women’s Rights Defender)