World Day of Social Justice: A Sense of Direction
On a proposal of the Ambassador of Kyrgyzstzan, the United Nations General Assembly has set 20 February as the World Day of Social Justice. It was observed for the first time in 2009, but is not widely known. As with other UN-designated “Days”, the World Day of Social Justice gives us an opportunity to take stock of how we can work together at the local, national and global level on policy and action to achieve the goals set out in the resolution designating the Day of “solidarity, harmony and equality within and among states.”
As the resolution states “Social development and social justice are indispensable for the achievement and maintenance of peace and security within and among nations and that, in turn, social development and social justice cannot be attained in the absence of peace and security or in the absence of respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The Preamble to the UN Charter makes social justice one of the chief aims of the organization, using the more common expression of that time “social progress”. The Preamble calls for efforts “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”. However, in the preparation of the Charter during the last days of the Second World War, there was no definition given of “social progress”. There was agreement that social justice was definitely more than law courts plus a social policy. It was easier to recognize social injustice than to define social justice.
The societies created by Nazi Germany and the military in Japan with slave labor and the abolition of workers’ rights were the models of social injustice that the drafters of the UN Charter had in mind along with the consequences in North America and Western Europe of the 1930s depression.
Ideas concerning international efforts for social progress were drawn largely from the experience of the League of Nations and especially the International Labour Organization (ILO), which had been created in 1919. The representatives from the USA and Great Britain were most influential in the preliminary work on the UN Charter, other European states being occupied by Germany or still in the middle of fighting. Thus US representatives were strongly influenced in their views of social progress by the “New Deal” legislation of President Roosevelt and the British by the outlines of the 1942 Beveridge Plan, named after its main author, Lord Beveridge, which led to the setting up of the first unified social security system. By 1944, with the tide of war turning, the ILO met in Philadelphia, USA, and set out its aims of post-war world employment policies, freedom of association for workers and the extension of social security measures.
Thus from the start in 1945, the emphasis in the UN system had been on social justice as related to conditions of employment and the right to organize which was made manifest in the 1948 ILO Convention number 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize. Progressively, education was included as an aspect of social justice, in part because education is closely linked to employment. Later, health was added as an element, again because of a close link to employment.
It took much longer but ultimately, gender equality has been included in the aims of social justice as fair employment practices, good education, and adequate health services could often still overlook the existence of women. Even today, can education be the only measure of women’s empowerment? Does reproductive health and rights come under adequate health care?
It is likely that employment, education, health with equality between women and men is as far as government representatives are willing to go collectively in discussing policies and programs of social justice. Further advances will have to come from the non-governmental sector, though representatives from some governments at times can take a lead. Today, we can still see injustices due to social class, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, age, sexual orientation and disabilities. There is a reluctance on the part of governments to deal with these issues nationally and an even greater reluctance to deal with them collectively within the UN system.
However, it is too easy to throw back on others responsibilities for injustices, if at the same time one does not realize how each of us shares personally in the benefits of injustice. Thus, we can use the World Day of Social Justice not only to celebrate the advances made but to get a sense of direction for the road to be yet taken.
* Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens