Where’s that 2nd Bill of Rights?


Well, Happy Bill of Rights Day!

On this day in 1791 the Bill of Rights went into effect when Virginia became the 11th state to ratify them.  These first 10 amendments became part of the beloved constitution that we all know so well (right?). This bedrock document for protecting individual civil and political rights (thank you James Madison) has been a source of inspiration the world over and has been something that we have struggled to interpret, uphold, and live up to through the last 218 years.

FDR declared the day of observance in 1941.

But lesser known is FDR’s call in 1944 for a “Second Bill of Rights”–sometimes referred to as an “Economic Bill of Rights“.

hmmm…whatever happened to that?

Just for reflection, today I read again the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United States in 1948.

The second part expresses language similar to FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights”, which would become the core of the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”, a treaty signed (though often violated) by over 160 nations to date.  The United States signed but has yet to ratify it.  It was signed in 1979 under the Carter Administration, but never approved by Congress.

Ironically, part of the lead for the initial Universal Declaration of Human Rights came from the United States in the form of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Among those rights articulated: labor rights, social security rights, rights to adequate food, clothing, housing, health, education, family and reproductive rights.

Such rights have been implemented with varying degrees of success in many countries, while paid lip-service by others. It has largely been stalled in the United States, especially since the 1970’s.

There are a multitude of factors that explain why the United States never ratified that covenant and why we and many parts of the world struggle to fully implement them, not least is the fact that they haven’t been recognized as rights by many leading politicians in this country.  Moreover, the rise of the excessive power of corporations, the prioritization of the military industrial complex, those pesky foreign entanglements about which our forefathers warned us so firmly, the break-up of working class movements, the never-ending diversions and infotainment, and the stranglehold of the two-party system in this country have stalled whatever advances have been made and in some cases caused a severe reverse in labor rights and economic fortunes.

Witness the current torturous health care reform process, the cutbacks in education, lowering of wages when measured against inflation, the heavy indebtedness of most households, including student loan debt (which i see as a form of tax), the increasingly unemployed and homeless, and record numbers of Americans who are hungry.

Notwithstanding the fact that there are often differences in interpretation and difficulties balancing different rights, it is safe to say that most regular people agree that most of these are at the least worthy social goals and are fighting for.  The myriad social movements on the left and the global justice movements have been seeking to secure these rights, even if they don’t necessary use the framework of the ICESCR.

Yet these movements are not struggling merely to have gain patchwork solutions as an afterthought to business as usual, but to fundamentally alter the structure of economic–and therefore political– power.

One space where these voices are being amplified are the Social Forums being held throughout the world since 2001.  They are gatherings of organizations and movements working on the issues of social, environmental, and economic justice.  These forums are spaces for  building movement coalitions and alliances among the various social justice struggles.  I attended the 7th annual World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya in2007, about which I wrote here. I can attest to their power, vision, and passion.

The second U.S. Social Forum is being held next June in Detroit and people are already building momentum to seize this opportunity in our nation’s history to create a more just, sane, and healthy society.

A second Bill of Rights is one route to go, though I suspect that there will be multiple strategies in the years to come for securing that other possible world that participants want to create.  While we keep one eye on civil and political liberties that are promised in the Bill of Rights–which are inherently in need of eternal vigilance–surely these other social, economic, and environmental protections are worthy of a glance from our other eye.

For as FDR ended his speech, “America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.”

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