The international human rights movement and its institutions have faced searing criticism that they have abandoned social, economic, and cultural rights (“social rights”). While favorable treaties and constitutions have proliferated over the last decades, grave poverty, inequality, and disease still run rampant across the globe. Many have attributed the latest rise of demagogues and terrorist groups to this widespread social disenfranchisement.
The supranational human rights courts have historically avoided social rights enforcement due to limited subject-matter jurisdiction. Yet more recently the Inter-American Court of Human Rights introduced a conceptual breakthrough to assess social rights, which was affirmed by the U.N. Human Rights Committee at the end of 2018. These advances reveal a building, although controversial, movement among supranational tribunals to hold States accountable for ensuring a “dignified life” and various social rights.
In Parts I and II, this article will examine these international legal developments, which primarily involve the integration of social rights into the right to life. In Part III, the article will then assess this expansive right-to-life approach, considering its consensual, suprapositive, and institutional aspects. When these three aspects are balanced, a court’s interpretation contributes to making its treaty system “justifiable, politically acceptable, and effective.”
The Inter-American Court has recognized that the fundamental right to life will never be meaningful and effective without nutrition, water, health care, housing, education, and ancestral lands. By establishing that these elements are indivisible from life, the Court also justified its expansion of remedies to safeguard many individuals and communities at risk. While States originally did not draft this “right to a dignified life,” they have permitted it to develop in the Inter-American System, as it aligns with their emphasis—at least in principle—on human dignity and respectable living conditions. The article concludes that the right to a dignified life, despite certain drawbacks examined, is a sensible approach to protect several intertwined rights, because it reasonably balances consensual, suprapositive, and institutional factors. If the Inter-American Court remains committed to its development, the evolving right to a dignified life will become increasingly protective, as well as progressively influential for both supranational tribunals and national legal institutions.