It is time to take action! Join our Tribe of Changemakers. Sign up for Virtual Conversations!
Fully realizing the promise of the United Nations more than 75 years after its founding will require a fundamental shift to a more forward-looking social vision, which takes historical injustice into account while tapping the broadest possible talent pool for solutions. A few of the issues that affect Social Justice are explored below:
Social Justice and the SDGs
Persecution and Marginalization
Designing a world that both draws on energy resources in a more sustainable manner by 2030, and fosters the fairer treatment of traditionally marginalized people, would constitute a major step forward for humanity. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide clear targets for eradicating discrimination.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, established in 2015 as a series of targets to hit by the year 2030, include a number of people-oriented goals including eradicating poverty, ending hunger, facilitating the creation of universal health and education access, and eliminating gender-based discrimination and inequality.
Ultimately, it is the “Leave No One Behind” principle that ties the goals in their entirety to a social justice agenda. This provides a framework for potentially strengthening social justice, and pointing systems in a more positive direction for the long-term. Goal 16 may be the marquee goal in terms of social justice, as it calls for providing access to justice for all and for the building of effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions.
The potential value in putting this principle into practice is obvious: it means recognizing the people who have traditionally been ignored. Related efforts can be augmented by other goals targeting greater energy innovation, more sustainable cities, and decent wages and employment.
However, the UN has noted that while the global homicide rate declined between 2015 and 2018, and nearly 130 countries have adopted right-to-information or freedom-of-information laws, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a serious threat to global peace and security.
According to the UN, the principle represents an unequivocal commitment among all member states to eradicate poverty, end discrimination and exclusion, and reduce inequalities and vulnerabilities.
Enhancing social justice by re-imagining urban areas - expected to be home to nearly 70% of the global population by the year 2050 - is crucial. Similarly, ensuring that fair work conditions are available to everyone, and not just individuals from dominant socio-economic classes, is key.
The goals also provide a means to better recognize the role of indigenous people as traditional environmental custodians - and to draw inspiration from their traditional knowledge to generate innovative solutions for climate change impact mitigation, sustainable energy, maintaining biodiversity, and establishing genuinely circular economies.
Power differentials based on gender, tribe, colour, ethnicity, religion, language, ability (or disability), sexual orientation, age, and nationality have all been the cause of serious injustice. The potential rewards for ending the mistreatment of those deemed ‘different’ are many.
While patriarchal systems continue to treat women as lesser human beings, ethnic strife remains easily stoked. Discrimination can cause considerable hardship at an individual level, by silencing and denigrating those affected. But collective discrimination that effectively targets an entire category of people can be the cause of systemic, ingrained social injustice.
The formation of the United Nations stemmed directly from the Holocaust and other deadly injustices committed in the name of collective discrimination during World War II.
Yet, inequality reinforced by injustice continues to be a global reality, pushing people to the margins and predetermining their life’s trajectory - whether it is labourers from South Asia toiling in the Middle East, Muslims in East Asia being subjected to inhumane treatment, or Black Americans being systematically denied the right to vote. Such destructive identity markers have and will continue to be levelled at people simply for being “different.”
The legacy of slavery and incomplete efforts to address lingering systemic racism in the US helped spawn the Black Lives Matter movement - which has in turn galvanized people around the world to confront the marginalization and persecution they face at home.
The potential rewards of ending persecution and marginalization are many - enabling, for example, societies to benefit from the entire spectrum of human talent, and to not have to rely solely on those who happened to have been born with the “right” identity markers.
While legal systems may have been constructed with equal rights in mind, the actual realization of these rights requires considerable policy support - including affirmative action measures designed to redress historic injustices and check the continued marginalization of people in public life based on perceived differences.
In terms of rhetoric, at least, progress has been made towards greater inclusion. Yet, social justice will only be achieved if carefully designed safeguards are constructed to protect against the episodic use of identity markers - especially in the political sphere - to encourage majorities to stoke the politics of fear.
Protecting the Planet from People, for People
Colonialism and an unquenchable thirst for natural resources played key roles in the now-unfolding environmental crisis, as extraction and exploitation became the norm in many parts of the world. These activities undermined indigenous cultures, and subjugated indigenous peoples - relegating them to footnotes in a supply chain. They also triggered overconsumption in wealthy countries, elevated profits over ethics, marginalized efforts to replenish resources, and curbed necessary climate action.
Humanity has managed to bring the planet to the brink of destruction, with devastating implications.
Configuring a more just relationship between the planet and people, and between the people who have benefitted from resource exploitation and those who have been marginalized as a result, is now urgently necessary. Related efforts call for effective prioritization - and a recognition of the fundamental role played by indigenous peoples as traditional environmental custodians.
Assumptions that modern technology alone can solve problems like the climate crisis errantly overlook the value of traditional knowledge, which has been progressively depleted and dismissed during the era of exploitation that brought us to this crucial juncture.
The areas of the planet that tend to most conscientiously practice sustainability are managed by indigenous custodians using traditional practices. Evicting them from their lands in the name of economic development or to form “Protected Areas” is therefore a result of deeply flawed logic. Instead, there should be more mainstreaming of their approaches, acceptance of their sovereignty, and more of an effort to seek out their advice when it comes to stemming environmental damage.
Ultimately, there is a need for fundamental, systemic change in terms of demand and consumption - including the manufacturing of more durable goods, and the reduction of disposable products that contribute waste. For businesses this calls for more sustainable, less expansive supply chains. The very values underpinning commercial activity require dramatic change. The values that have underpinned commercial activity require an update.
A greater emphasis on environmental protection is required, and greater returns must accrue to people by way of meaningful employment and just pay levels. The effort to achieve greater equality and sustainability is a key test for humanity, and one that it cannot afford to fail.
Social Justice and Human Rights
The same platforms that can bring us together are often used to foment division and violence
Technology can be harnessed to better promote human rights and sustainability. The growth of the Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future movements have demonstrated this - though it also requires new ways of thinking.
Digital rights need to become as much of a priority as more traditional civil and political rights, and to be built on the same process of restructuring institutions to create greater inclusivity.
The post-World War II vision of systemic, change-oriented responses to the deprivation of rights has become a cornerstone of legal systems, and the idea that the state should uphold these rights is relatively uncontested - though for the most vulnerable populations this remains purely aspirational.
Every quest for social justice essentially constitutes a push for greater recognition, and access to protections for cultural and educational rights. For much of the 20th century, human rights efforts were focussed on devising rules to reign in the power wielded by governments and courts.
Now, corporations have come into much sharper focus - due to the significant influence they wield, not least in terms of dictating how people gain access to information (or misinformation).COVID-19 has increased our reliance on technology for work, school, communication and creating a sense of community even during isolation.
There are also plenty of examples of technology enabling the collection of personal data that is then misused, and of technology seemingly designed to foster cohesion instead pitting some groups against others while sowing hate, fear and mistrust.
Future peace, prosperity and respect for individuals and communities will rely at least in part on the extent to which such technology can be responsibly harnessed and used for good, while users are protected from those who seek to exploit it solely for their own benefit.
The use of such platforms to generate alternative realities, propagate violence (such as in Myanmar or the US) and undermine institutions and individuals potentially negates earnest efforts to foster unity across sometimes great distances through a shared interface and digital environment.
The extent to which artificial intelligence can be used to undermine human rights and perpetuate systemic racism has is alarming; it can have a significant negative impact on people while fostering misinformation, increasing fragmentation, and risking violence.
The Economic Case for Social Justice
Festering injustice as a legacy of a poorly-understood past can act as a brake on development - and a failure to confront it can allow it to linger for generations, nurturing resentment and sowing conflict.
Increasingly diverse societies are a reality in many parts of the world, especially in relatively wealthy countries where colonization and trade drew waves of newcomers over the years. Yet, rather than seeing this as a natural advantage (and natural consequence of historical choices based on greed and resource exploitation), many places have seen a negative, identity-based politics that encourages xenophobic tendencies emerge in response.
The ostensible justification for this is often that “outsiders” pose a threat. However, this view is based sentiment instead of science. It undermines social cohesion and, in turn, shared prosperity.
The intermixing of cultures and peoples over the centuries has expanded economies, buttressed international relations, facilitated commerce, and directly contributed to improving the quality of life.
Better ensuring that everyone has access to a quality education can disrupt these exclusionary patterns. It can help mend fragmented societies, prevent fracturing along identity fault-lines, and boost a more diverse mix of entrepreneurs.
Policies that take into account historical social injustices can knit disparate communities together, and encourage them to pursue common goals - and work towards achieving more peaceful and prosperous societies.
Talent is measured through achievement, though achievement itself is often a result of opportunity - which is unavailable to many people. The potential economic rewards for limiting social injustice are many.
Under revamped paradigms, success will accrue on the basis of ability, not identity. A wider range of role models will become available to inspire more diverse communities, and more energy will be harnessed to find the solutions needed for contemporary problems - whether it is a global health crisis, or a geopolitical conflagration.
Diverse communities will feel increasingly welcomed, and their increased engagement, commerce and trade will aid economic growth and prosperity. Sustainable development for all can ultimately overcome the fractious politics of distraction, which is based on identity and engineered to benefit the few.
Ensuring such harmony could boost tax revenues, purchasing power, educational and health outcomes, and general levels of confidence in ways that spark innovation and commerce.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
No Justice, no Peace and Security
Generations of idealists have sought to establish a global system of governance that creates the conditions necessary for peace, security and prosperity to prevail.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals - and specifically the related “Leave No One Behind” principle - have generated a vision of a more peaceful world; not necessarily through avoiding war or better arranging for collective security, but based on addressing basic human vulnerability alongside planetary concerns, and by redesigning underlying systems in ways most likely to yield greater stability.
The work of the United Nations, a manifestation of this idealism, is replicated in regional arrangements that seek collective security, and in other institutions (like customs unions) that work towards greater global cooperation through trade.
Conflict is the unfortunate backdrop for many such attempts throughout history; decolonization, achieved progressively since the end of World War II, has yielded many independent countries still configured along lines drawn on maps centuries ago to delineate spheres of interest among competing colonial powers.
Vulnerability and a lack of security continue to undermine aspirations for peace and security. International law has deemed these boundaries sacrosanct, despite their often, random nature - which has frequently placed many different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups under a single flag. Failing to address root problems like a lack of security and disease undermines the rule of law
Successful states have been able to bring communities together to create stability, while in others ethnic tensions and historic antagonisms boost the odds of violent extremism, and war, both within and beyond national boundaries.
The global arms trade and the proliferation of weapons often hasten the breakdown of the rule of law - but failures to address root problems, like disease, food and water insecurity, and a lack of meaningful employment and education, are also factors.
Entrenched poverty and the competition for scarce resources create existential tension, enabling conflict to fester. Climate injustice, long suffered most acutely by those farthest from power, has boosted migratory flows - as have armed conflicts.
Humanitarian actors have struggled to meet growing needs, and to engender a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, while policy-makers, activists and experts have toiled to draw sufficient attention to the climate catastrophe and the need to help ensure a better future for the planet.
Whether based on race, caste, religion, or gender, discrimination is rampant. Entrenched structural shortcomings have made inequality a reality in just about every part of the world.
Prejudice is born of insecurity, and ensures that particular groups dominate. This legacy is deep-seated, and continues to enable the subjugation of native populations, making their ancestral territories and resources subservient to dominant political powers.
It is perpetuated by people (usually men) from dominant ethnic, racial, religious, or linguistic communities, with any departure from their “norm” treated as deviant and harmful, In previous centuries this fueled colonization and false notions of the value of one civilization over others.
While Apartheid in South Africa was easily recognized as abhorrent, similar types of systemic bias continue to sustain patriarchy and privilege - and are either not-well-understood or willfully ignored. These systems are often presented as meritocratic and fair, while in fact they serve to keep certain groups of people far from power and influence.
Despite the aspirations of human rights activists and policy-makers, humanity still has not realized its collective talent potential - as significant parts of the population remain effectively excluded from obtaining a quality education.
Structural discrimination rests on the twin pillars of prejudice and failure to prioritize systemic change. Some of the many factors at play include race in the US, caste and religion in India, sexual orientation in Uganda, gender in Saudi Arabia, immigration status in Europe, and statelessness in Haiti.
The general exclusion of women and others deemed “deviant,” such as the LGBTI community, has continued - though modernizing social norms are steadily outstripping ancient prejudices.
Women’s voices are coming to the fore, as seen in the #MeToo movement, racial intermixing and immigration are reshaping societies, and widespread support exists for the types of systemic change called for by Black Lives Matter and other movements.
Societies constructed on explicit or implicit bias require a retracing of the steps that got them there, a recallibration of historical attitudes, and more forward-looking approaches.
The scale and complexity of global problems requires tapping the broadest talent pool to find solutions; relying only on a relatively small portion of the population based on its privileged identity would be foolhardy.
The Justice is the concept of fairness. Social justice is fairness as it manifests in society. That includes fairness in healthcare, employment, housing, and more. Discrimination and social justice are not compatible. While “social justice” as a term sees widespread use these days, it’s not new.
Now, social justice applies to all aspects of society, including race and gender, and it is closely tied to human rights. More specifically, what does social justice mean?
Tragic events have served to focus greater attention on the structural inequalities and injustices that undermine our collective security and economic well-being.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted disparities in healthcare systems, the mistreatment of minorities and indigenous peoples has generated a relentless series of distressing headlines. Whether based on race, caste, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or immigration status, discrimination remains rampant.