The Right to the Continuous Improvement of Living Conditions: Responding to complex global challenges

11 Eka -tik 12 Eka -ra

Coordinators: Beth Goldblatt (University of Technology Sydney), Jessie Hohmann (University of Technology Sydney)

Description of the meeting

The workshop explores how the underdeveloped right to the continuous improvement of living conditions can be unpacked, interpreted, and applied to respond to complex contemporary problems of poverty, inequality and environmental destruction. Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reads as follows:

'The States Parties to the Present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions… '

While the right to an adequate standard of living, and particularly its constituent elements of housing and food, have received attention, the right to the continuous improvement of living conditions has been largely ignored in interpretation and commentary. This project aims to address this gap by considering what this right might entail, and how it might be used to respond to contemporary challenges.

What might such a right mean? How should it be understood on a theoretical and philosophical level? And how should it be translated into actual social change? In a world where inequality is growing, and we are confronted by our unsustainable impacts on the planet, the right to the continuous improvement of living conditions can seem both naively and dangerously rapacious. At the same time, considering and seeking to embed this right into human rights in a way that responds meaningfully to these problems offers a potential break from a never-ending economic growth model to more sustainable ideas of what it means to be human.

At a time when the global economic, social and political order appears increasingly unstable many are questioning the continuing relevance of the post WWII settlement, including its commitments to human rights, the equality of states, and the financial ordering of the world through regimes of rights, finance and trade. In this context, we need radical new ways of thinking about old problems, institutions and arrangements, which draw on the grounded and socially embedded work of scholars. Linking together original and creative thinking and research with a commitment to solving real world problems, this workshop will seek to consider a number of pressing social questions and issues around human rights, distributive justice, equality, poverty, development, and sustainability.

This is both a practical project with tangible application in developing the content of the right and an imaginative project that involves critical exploration of what this right means for our understanding of human rights as a broader goal. It addresses three interlinked and mutually reinforcing themes. First, it seeks to interpret and give meaning to the right as a legal standard, giving it practical value for those whose living conditions are inadequate. Second, it seeks to locate the right within the broader philosophical and political context, asking how the right can illuminate or be understood within theories of the social contract, questions of what constitutes a good life, and the relationship between the material and social conditions for that life. Third, it offers a new lens through which we can consider, and seek to move beyond, intractable debates in human rights. By recovering this ignored right into the canon of human rights, we can re-consider questions of the history, current interpretations and critical understandings of human rights, and their (utopian) futures.

The questions raised by this project, and which will be illuminated in the course of presentation and discussion, include:

  • What do we mean by living conditions – what is their scope and reach? What else besides food, clothing and housing might be required? Are these purely material dimensions of what is needed to live a safe and comfortable life? Or do living conditions also involve individual and communal relationships? How are these determined and what are the values that underlie these?
  • What do we mean by continuous improvement? Are there aspects of living conditions that could be continually improved without requiring material/environmentally unsustainable resources based on a perpetual growth model?
  • How does continuous improvement align with ideas of development and critical concerns with colonialism, globalisation and neoliberalism? Does the right help to deepen links between human rights and development in contributing to challenge the idea of human rights as separate from fundamental social and economic reordering? How does this right relate to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and debates about their value?
  • Are there ideas within socialism, social democracy and other progressive visions of social organisation that assist in giving meaning to the right as a goal of a good society?
  • How does the right look if considered through prisms of intergenerational equity, from the perspective of the child, or as part of the rights of future generations?
  • What other ignored or marginalised rights can help illuminate the content, scope, and value of this right? Consider for instance the right to rest and leisure under the UDHR, the right to play under the CRC, and the right to clothing under the ICESCR.
  • Do approaches or theories such as the capabilities approach, vulnerability theory, and ideas of relational rights offer ways of thinking about the right to continuous improvement of living conditions as an aspect of a democratic project directed at social justice?
  • Are there other strands of theory within post-colonial studies, feminism, disability studies, Indigenous world views, queer studies, critical race studies, and others, that might help us think about whether the right is a helpful one in addressing intersectional disadvantage and recognition harms?
  • Are there dangers in the utopian and never-ending expectation that our ‘living conditions’ will continuously improve? What purpose does this vision serve and how might critical concerns with the human rights project problematize this right?

The workshop aims to: Consider the scope, potential and implications of the right; Set a research agenda for interdisciplinary and socio-legal research on this important and ignored topic; Strengthen a network of research and discussion on the right and related issues, including with scholars in the Basque region; and; Publish a significant collection of papers that will provide a foundation for ongoing research on this right.

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Workshop Coordination Team

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