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Rights-Based Social Policy: Does Our Post-Pandemic Future Need It?

September 20, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has put our democracy at a crossroads. The path we choose now will shape our future. Are we going to further strengthen our democracy and affirm our commitments to human rights, equity and justice? Or do we double-down on the pre-pandemic status quo? 

When we put “democracy” and “human rights” in the same sentence, you might think of things like fair elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press. These are our civil and political rights, and in Canada, we tend to focus on these. But we can’t forget about economic and social rights. 

Economic and social rights are those that relate to employment, social security and access to housing, food and water, education, health, and an adequate standard of living. They are the rights that allow us to live in dignity and participate fully in society. As with civil and political rights, they are fundamental human rights, inherent in all people. 

While efforts to strengthen our democracy often focus on civil and political rights, such as the right to vote, economic and social rights are equally fundamental, and are indivisible. To live a life with dignity, we must be able to realize all of these rights. 

The idea of democracy is often reduced to mean simply “majority rule,” without considering the systems and culture of information that produce that majority. For example, we’ve seen that merely asserting that people can change their governments at the ballot box every few years has not been effective in pushing back against the rising tide of populism, or the dizzying amounts of misinformation and mistrust of institutions that accompany it.

Choosing to strengthen our democracy requires that we address inequities head-on—across race, gender, and income lines. It also requires that each person has access to the full suite of human rights so they can fully participate in civic life. For example, one of our most basic rights is the right to a stable home – a home where you can receive your voter information card, for example, through the mail.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed that social safety nets in Canada and around the world are torn, and in desperate need of repair. To help ensure that all people have a minimum standard of living, we need structural reform and strong social policies. 

How do we get there? 

Focusing on social policy that is rooted in human rights might be a good start. Rights-based policy focuses on the progressive realization of rights – that is, steady progress towards the conditions that allow people to realize their rights in their daily lives. It also focuses on building and strengthening the structures that support human rights, such as accountability mechanisms and ways that people can seek remedies if they cannot access their rights. It both articulates human rights principles and works to build the infrastructure that supports those principles. For some, it is “just good policy.”

For others, rights-based social policy may just be a lofty goal without any practical application, a distraction that will make policy-making unnecessarily complicated and slow. Or worse, an imperative that will result in governing by fiat, interfering with democracy by pushing aside the mandates of legitimately elected governments. 

On October 15, Maytree and others will convene a panel discussion at DemocracyXChange to dig deeper into the issue of economic and social rights, rights-based social policy, and democracy. We will look at questions such as: Do we need rights-based policy processes in order to achieve the outcomes we want? Does it interfere with democratic processes, or does it enable equitable participation in democracy?

Everyone is welcome to hear experts discuss what the foundations of our post-pandemic recovery should look like. Our panelists will provide a wide range of perspectives, and draw on lessons from Canada and around the world, and ask, “What do we owe each other, and how do we get there?”


Garima Talwar Kapoor

Director, Policy and Research at Maytree

Garima Talwar Kapoor is the Director of Policy and Research with Maytree, a foundation committed to advancing solutions to poverty through a human rights approach. Prior to joining Maytree, Garima spent several years with the Ontario Public Service in progressively senior roles. Her work focused on understanding how changes in the labour market and economy impact population health and our social fabric, and helped develop policy initiatives that could help strengthen the income security system. Garima is driven by a passion to understand how civil society organizations, governments and private industry can work together to strengthen communities across Canada. Garima holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University.