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Is there any point in the UN's World Day of Social Justice?

UN decided in 2007 to mark 20 February annually as the World Day of Social Justice [UN]

Given that citizens were being humiliated in most countries year in and year out, the UN decided in 2007 to mark 20 February annually as the World Day of Social Justice, under the slogan of "social justice and a decent life for all". It was a slogan proposed by the Union of Russian Workers.

The UN defines "social justice" as the equal rights of all peoples, and the opportunity for all human beings, without discrimination, to benefit from economic and social progress in all parts of the world. The organisation stresses an agreement with 100 heads of state that social development and social justice are crucial for peace and security within and between states. However, this will not happen without governments developing plans to eliminate poverty, unemployment and discrimination based on gender, age, race, religion, culture or disability. The International Labour Organisation adopted the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation to combine the responsibility of local and global governments — globalisation, after all, affects every country — in order to tackle the ever-widening economic gap between developed and developing countries.

Like all UN charters and declarations, governments, including those in the Arab world, were quick to welcome the decision to have the World Day of Social Justice, which is certainly noble in its intention, and then use it as a facade for the reality that there is no political will to make changes. Ruling elites are unable to change, due to the spread of corruption, and the ability of international capital's monopoly to block steps to eliminate economic inequality.

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The concepts of justice and equality are related mainly to economic conditions and inequality. The equitable distribution of wealth and the consequent equal opportunities are often the basis on which political equality, enjoyment of human rights and the promotion of development and human dignity are built.

The concept of social justice, in its legal sense, presupposes that individuals are treated as citizens; in its customary sense, it is rooted in society and goes beyond the law. Such definitions combine individual freedom and equal opportunities in addition to economic exploitation by capitalist countries of labour in developing countries. Since the UN definition does not cover all aspects in terms of the causes and the means to counter them, especially with regard to inequality, the answer to the question "Why is inequality considered important?" may shed light on the aspects and consequences that are not addressed. This is discussed by American philosopher T.M. Scanlon, who specialises in theories of justice, equality and moral theory, in his book on inequality. Scanlon identified six reasons for objecting to and seeking to eliminate or reduce different forms of inequality.

These can be summed up as follows: Because inequality can make humiliating differences in social status and class systems, it gives the rich unacceptable power over those who are less fortunate; impairs equal economic opportunity; undermines the integrity of political institutions, and results from the violation of a demand for equality in concern for the interests of those whom the government is obligated to provide some benefit. It also arises from unfair economic institutions. If the inequality is based on class, race, or gender, then established laws or customs and social attitudes have their effects, prompting consideration of societal moral equality.

Perhaps the best example of moral inequality within the system of social justice that the UN Declaration does not address is racial discrimination imposed from the outside, which is the most obvious facet of colonial policy and occupation when indigenous peoples are seen as inferior to the colonisers and denied basic rights. They are even pushed into professions that are viewed as unappealing and not suitable for the colonisers, as was the case in South Africa in the past, and is seen in occupied Palestine today.

In terms of hindering the achievement of justice in society, corruption occupies a distinct place. It is possible to consider Iraq as a model in which basic human rights such as education, health, housing and work have diminished. This is not to mention ensuring social security for all members of society and securing healthy and safe working conditions, as a necessary step to eradicate poverty, in the face of the greed of the economically and politically corrupt. This is in addition to the exploitation and greed of the international monopoly system and the encouragement of discord. This situation is completely incompatible with the concept of social justice as a basic principle of peaceful coexistence and economic, social and political independence within and among nations.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides for the possibility of achieving social justice through the redistribution of wealth and its implementation by public bodies in the state, which raises the question of the mechanisms that must be applied to actually achieve this. On the surface here, the concept of social accountability — holding government officials accountable for their actions, especially related to the management of public resources, and holding those accountable when corruption is suspected — should be carried out by civil society organisations and civil society, as well as citizen participation according to monitoring mechanisms.

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Will the celebration of a single day for social justice lead to its universal realisation, given that it is a long-standing demand, first mentioned in December 1784 by the French King Louis XVI when he said that there were sacred rights of mankind, among which is social justice? The simple answer is no.

The continuity in the demand for social justice through the ages, and with all the political and economic changes that have been seen, means that it is a basic requirement to preserve human dignity and establish citizenship and actual equality. Many people around the world are still working towards this, which means that it may be difficult to achieve, but it is not impossible.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 14 February 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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