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Rights to education, health and work squandered? healthand work squandered?

Trinidad Express / I listened and watched with growing alarm and a curious mix of anger and distress, the several parents, flanked by primary school students, bewailing their despair at the lack of school facilities, which translated into the fact that these children are being denied the opportunity, nay the right, to attend school. Some parents were on their knees crying, hands outstretched, imploring, begging the relevant minister to have pity on them, give them a chance, bestow on them, it seems, a great gift—the opportunity to go to school. No, this was not in some impoverished part of Africa, or India. It was not our neighbour Haiti, often dismiss as voodoo cursed. This was our own dear wannabe first world status country of Trinidad and Tobago. Is it only me that is embarrassed and enraged at scenes like these in sweet T&T?

These scenes are little different to those which show us, weekly, daily, the trials and tribulations of sick people who do not have adequate access to our publicly funded hospitals, who, when they are lucky enough to get a bed, cannot get drugs, or effective drugs, or see the doctor and any one of the myriad of problems that plague our health sector.

From all of the various reports, I have heard very little or nothing that we are in fact, speaking about rights. Yes, indeed, rights, not privileges, or handouts from some benevolent state. Such rights invoke legal obligations on the part of the state. Note, I said, the state and not the Government, or any partisan political arrangement. The State is a neutralised concept which goes beyond particular administrations and political timeframes. Human Rights thought has long gone past the limitation that the subject of rights only involves what we call civil and political rights, that is, the right to life, to expression, movement etc. Rather, the more recent understanding of rights is that they also involve what we call economic, social and cultural rights, namely, the rights to education, to health, to work, the environment and to culture.

Significantly, we have moved away from the self-imposed limitation that economic, social and cultural rights are merely unenforceable ideals. Rather, the international community now accepts that these kinds of bread and butter rights are just as vital, and in some ways more directly important, to the central dignity and equality of mankind. Accordingly, international conventions and protocols have been signed and developed to ensure that they have tangible and concrete meaning. Ultimately, what this means, is that states now have direct legal obligations to promote and protect such rights. The OAS, for example, has promulgated the San Salvador Protocol, which focusses specifically on making such rights enforceable and specific indicators, on education, health, work etc. have been developed to measure how states perform in this regard. We are part of the OAS community. This complements already existing obligations under the UN and the American Convention. The bottom line is that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the state’s duties to promote, provide and protect rights to education, to health, to work, to culture and to the environment. Notably, this jurisprudence calls on states to “progressively realise” these rights. What this also means is that a state cannot regress or go backward in their provision. What does this say therefore, about our long-standing commitments to universal education, including tertiary education, universal health care when we see these dire situations of the marginalised?

Rights in the work sphere—to work, to adequate wages, to earned benefits, to decent working conditions, continue to be problematic. Under the rubric of “work”, we include rights to social security. The arrangements that we make, or do not make for our citizens when they are laid off, or cannot obtain employment, or are unable to work, , are therefore pertinent here, whether it be unemployment insurance, which I have long advocated, or a simple food card to an unemployed person or the elderly. Similarly, our casual disregard of ‘ratty’ workplaces and termination benefits that escape all legal obligations, or denying GATE funding to persons above 50.

We have become so insensitised to suffering, so unaware of and cynical about our place in the world that on the night that the story of the kneeling parents was aired, the people meter question was whether it was “politically motivated”, as if ethnicity, when thrown into the mix, should make any difference to our entitlements and rights as citizens of this nation that we say that we want to build.

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