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Holding Countries Accountable for Social and Economic Rights

by Terra Lawson-Remer
October 22, 2012

Boys look out of a window on bus as they return from school in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 4, 2009 (Carlos Barria/Courtesy Reuters). Boys look out of a window on bus as they return from school in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 4, 2009 (Carlos Barria/Courtesy Reuters).

Last week I introduced the SERF Index, a new measurement tool my colleagues Susan Randolph, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, and I have built to evaluate social and economic rights fulfillment. The new index sheds important light on the issues facing the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, where Argentina, Gabon, Ghana, Peru, Guatemala, Benin, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Pakistan, Zambia, Japan, Ukraine, and Sri Lanka will be evaluated on their human rights practices under applicable international human rights conventions from October 22 to November 5. This year’s session will be the fourteenth meeting of the Universal Periodic Review since its first session in March 2006.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has underlined the importance of the upcoming session, noting that the Universal Periodic Review “has great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.” Yet the review process faces trying challenges, and wide scrutiny, in effecting real change in human rights situations on the ground. The SERF Index can help us analyze performance in the countries up for review. Some highlights:

  • Overall, Argentina performs well, ranking thirteenth out of 98 countries on the SERF Index. Argentina consistently meets 80 percent or more of its obligations on the right to food, education, work, and health, which is surprising given the challenges the country faced during its economic crisis almost a decade ago. Nonetheless, Argentina could do better by focusing resources on its weakest area: the right to housing, for which the government meets only 78 percent of its potential.
  • Data on Gabon reveals that even when limited state capacity is taken into account, the government is still underperforming in meeting its obligations to fulfill social and economic rights. Gabon achieves only 52 percent of its potential in providing citizens with the right to food—with 26 percent of its population stunted or not receiving adequate nutrition. Gabon’s fulfillment of the right to education is also quite low. Gabon’s performance in the right to housing is particularly bad, scoring a 20 percent fulfillment rate—ranking second to last on the SERF Index.
  • Instead of dismissing Ghana as a middle-of-the-road development country, it should be commended for its efforts in some areas and supported in refocusing attention to others. Ghana is an example of a country that is, in general, meeting the rights of its citizens even with very little. Ghana reaches 80 percent or more of its obligations in the rights to work, food, and education, despite its median ranking on human development indicators. However, the SERF Index parses out the country’s weaknesses as well as its strengths. The Ghanaian government fulfills the right to health at only 60 percent and the right to housing at an unimpressive 52 percent, showing that although the government is successful in providing certain rights, it could perform much better in others.
  • Benin struggles to meet its capacity for fulfilling the social and economic rights of its populace—ranking in the bottom fifteen of all the countries analyzed on the SERF Index—with a fulfillment of 52.5 percent. Benin’s categorization is also similar on the HDI, which ranks Benin as a “low human development” country. However, a closer examination of Benin’s fulfillment of specific rights shows that, in comparison to other indicators, the country is most successful in providing the right to education, at roughly 68 percent, versus the right to work (at 41 percent) or the right to food (at 46 percent).
  • Peru seems like a a middle-of-the pack country at first glance, but SERF indicators offer a more nuanced perspective that can be useful for UN human rights evaluators to determine how the Peruvian government can close the gaps in human rights fulfillment. Peru performs especially well on the right to education at a high rate of 97 percent fulfillment, but struggles in the area of housing rights, meeting only 58 percent of its obligations.
  • Guatemala, in most regards, scores at an above average rate when compared to other countries in the SERF Index. But while HDI characterizes Guatemala as a medium human development country, SERF reveals that the country is failing to address its food crisis. Although Guatemala fulfills the right to education (at 72 percent) and work (at 76 percent), the country scores above only two countries—Yemen and Afghanistan—on the right to food, meeting a mere 17 percent of its obligations.
  • Switzerland is not currently ranked by the SERF Index.
  • Overall Pakistan appears to be doing poorly. The government fails to meet even half of its obligations for fulfillment on the rights to education, food, and work. However, the SERF Index shows that Pakistan is not a hopeless case. Despite its limited resources, the country does relatively well in meeting its obligations for the right to housing (at 74 percent) and is about average in its fulfillment for healthcare, at 66 percent.
  • Zambia barely meets 57 percent of its rights fulfillment capacity. But when we look in detail at the right to education, the country does remarkably well. It meets almost 92 percent of its capacity, given available resources. This presents a different picture that the one seen when only looking at HDI measurements, which neglect the great resource constraints Zambia faces and fail to take into account the country’s efforts on the right to education. However, the government could do better on other SERF indicators, particularly the right to food and work, where it meets only 44 and 39 percent of its capabilities, respectively.
  • Japan is not currently ranked on the SERF Index.
  • Ukraine ranks seventh overall on the SERF Index, with approximately a 91 percent fulfillment rate. The country also ranks highly among those assessed by the HDI, but an analysis of individual SERF indicators shows that while Ukraine performs well on the rights to work and education, efforts should be concentrated on improving the right to food, for which the country’s fulfillment currently stands at roughly 77 percent.
  • Sri Lanka is another example of a country performing well in spite of limited resources. Ranking in the top thirty on the SERF Index, Sri Lanka meets 84 percent of its capacity overall. Specifically, the country reaches 85 percent of its capabilities or higher on the rights to housing, health, education, and food. However, the country falls short on the right to work, meeting only 63 percent of its capabilities—a nuance that is missed when looking at the country’s medium human development ranking on the HDI.

While the SERF Index can help provide a fuller picture, it is by no means a complete one. No one index can perfectly capture the realities on the ground, and multiple sources of information should be used simultaneously to provide a complete picture. Nevertheless, the SERF Index can help global governance institutions and civil society organizations hold states accountable for meeting the social and economic rights of their people.

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