Personal Dignity: Minimum Socio-economic Conditions

The Anti-Discrimination Center “Memorial” deals with the advocacy of social and economic rights more and more often. I would like to focus on the links between the violation of these rights and the violation of other rights and on the negative role they play in the discrimination of the most vulnerable social groups. The analysis of this role is very topical as so far it has been underestimated and considered as only an economic problem (“no money” causes an inability to realize socio-economic rights). We will analyze this problem through the notion of human dignity.

Personal dignity is protected by the state, prescribed in one of the paragraphs of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. In spite of the pretentious perception of this statement, advocacy of human dignity and inadmissibility of its denial is a basic concept for the idea of human rights advocacy. In modern civil law, the notion of dignity is considered an individual’s intangible welfare and is defined as “an individual self-appraisal, perception of individual qualities, skills, world-view, and its social meaning”. In other words, dignity is an understanding and ownership by a person of their place in a society and of their unique, individual characteristics which is a necessary condition for equal rights and mutual respect. Personal dignity is traditionally guaranteed and protected within personal rights (right to freedom and personal inviolability, right to privacy of personal correspondence), but, in fact, its advocacy is impossible without realization of a minimum social and economic rights. As the Constitutional Court stated many times, “personal dignity should be protected as a common condition for realization of all other rights and freedoms regardless of the real social situation of a person”. Personal dignity in every society has certain socio-economic “price” which, unfortunately, cannot be ignored. Socio-economic rights, in fact, are aimed at creating certain living conditions – minimum conditions allowing a person to feel a full-fledged member of society. Thus, these rights are important not only of their own account, but also as a basis for integration into society for all people, regardless their status, to provide social integrity and natural development of any state. Other rights which supersede others and which prohibit the state to interfere with personal autonomy (such as personal inviolability, inviolability of home and right to life) are often violated because of lack of social and economic preconditions of the law.

A good example proving the link between socio-economic rights and other rights is deportation of the Roma which, unfortunately, is still a major issue. It is obvious that deportation, especially a forced one, would inevitably cause violation of a number of essential personal rights. Inviolability of the home is violated with impunity only because the unregistered Roma constructions are not recognized as housing by the civil law. In the case of forced deportation, privacy and freedom of movement are violated as well. In fact, the absence of socio-economic material conditions (registered houses) deprives people of ability to realize and defend their personal rights. Thus, the material and legal absence of housing causes absence of a “related” right to its inviolability and, as a result, obvious denial of human dignity.

Another example is from criminal processes: recently the workers of law-enforcement agencies organized a “search” in one of the Roma settlements in the Leningrad region. The workers entered the houses without permission of the owners, searched the residents and kicked them out of their houses without any legal permission and in violation of judicial procedure. It seems that the workers felt impunity investigating the cases of the people who live in very poor socio-economic conditions. The workers did not consider their activities home invasion.

Thus, the lack of positive measures of the state in the socio-economic sphere often causes systematic violation of all other rights, and this is the most dangerous consequence of the omission of the power. Unfortunately, the creation of minimum adequate living conditions is not considered a duty of the government in our country. The administration of Chelyabinsk answered the request of the ADC Memorial (related to a real threat of eviction and demolition of the Roma houses in July, 2010) that a special commission was created to evaluate the sanitary condition of the Roma settlement. The commission decided that the houses were “unaesthetic”, and their sanitary condition was unsatisfactory. As a reason for such a situation, “congestion of the residents, migration of the settlement residents and inobservance of hygienic norms” were indicated. But administrative neglect was not even mentioned. Nevertheless, the creation of a commission “on settlements problems (medical and social)” as an “emergency measure” should be hailed. Of course, only if the findings of the commission’s examination would lead to a real improvement of living conditions of the settlement’s residents (who, by the way, have lived in the territory of the city since 1994), not to another attempt to liquidate “unaesthetic” houses in the bounds of a “well planned” and “sanitary problem-free” city.

The realization of socio-economic rights shows the economic and organizational complexity but also the resistance of any possibility of obligations to individuals (moreover if the obligations carry extra expenses) on the state level. One of the deputies of the Saint Petersburg city parliament answered the request by the ADC Memorial for a Roma applicant who lives in a dangerous structure: “You should understand that these people are foreign to our city. We cannot provide accommodation for everyone. We have many people with children like her”. Unfortunately, it represents the attitude of most authorities: providing socio-economic rights is considered to be state or certain officers “charity”, and the citizens have to “beg” in the lines in front of the officers’ offices.


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Nevertheless, at the level of program statements and decisions of the superior courts, the idea of social state and mutual responsibility of the state and a person has been actively developed. For instance, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation stated many times, “As declared in the Constitution of the Russian Federation the aims of the social policy of the Russian Federation presupposes “the state’s obligation to take care of prosperity of its citizens, their social protectiveness and providing basic living conditions” ( Decree made on the 16th of December, 1997 N 20-P, Decision on the 15th of February, 2005, N 17-O). The state’s duty is connected to the right of anyone who cannot reach a good level of life on their own to socio-economic support. In regard to the right to housing,   the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation underlines the importance of this right’s realization “as one of the basic conditions to guarantee the right to a good standard of living”. In other recent decision (on the unconstitutionality of part 4 of article 292 of the Civil Code allowing parents freely dispose the place which is the only accommodation for their children) the Constitutional Court noted the importance of realization of the right to accommodation to provide a worthy life and free development of the child, referring to the practice of the European Court to base the priority on the children’s interests. The problem of observance of the socio-economic rights of the child does require special attention. Creating conditions for the development and formation of a child’s personality has priority and should not depend on wrong and inopportune activities of parents.

As it has been already mentioned, socio-economic rights are “difficult to execute”. Maintaining these rights requires from the government extra expense, organization of systematic activities in the framework of social policy. The Russian state tried to improve the situation. These efforts influenced the process of the development and realization of the administrative reform still not finished. The concept of the reform is based on a “service state” (rendering services for its residents) which is not in compliance with the Russian legal reality. Realization of socio-economic rights in such a system is a “state service”, and the citizens are “consumers of the service” having a right to demand quality and terms of the services (for example, registration for improvement of living conditions is a state service, benefit payment to mothers is a service as well). As a result of the reform, almost all functions of the state bodies become equal to services which should improve the quality of the services, according to the creators of the reform. Besides that, the notions of “electronic services” and “one-window principle” were introduced in the reform to make the access of the citizens to state resources simpler. For instance, a special website (http://www.gosuslugi.ru/ru/) providing information on all state services (medical, social, law-enforcement, transport, environmental and so on) and detailed regulation of each step of the state bodies and its’ terms was created. The aim of the reformers – transparency of the state organs, struggling against corruption, expedition of the consideration of requests – are necessary and wise, but realization as it usually happens not only slackens reaching the result, but also distorts good intentions.

In reality, we can see, on one hand, the regulation of services of benefit payments, on the other hand, refusal to register a child at the mother’s abiding place and the impossibility to get the guaranteed government support for maternity. This happened in the Roma settlement of Nizhniye Vyazovye (Tatarstan): a child was registered and the mother got the benefit payments only after the ADC Memorial sent a petition to the head of the local administration. Such “contrasts” shows that the sense of socio-economic legal relations is not understood. They only make realization of socio-economic rights of certain population groups dependent on formal conditions. Schools use it quite often not accepting the children without certain documents. The Roma people have problems with getting these documents. Thus, formal requirements which are not discriminatory on their own account become a means of discrimination, limitation of access of the Roma children to education and social services. The European Court interprets such a situation as “indirect discrimination”.

The problems with medical service, benefits, accommodation and jobs emerge in almost any Roma settlement. For example, the results of the survey of one Roma family in the village of Suponevo (the Bryansk region) show that each member of the family had socio-economic complaints to make. Svetlana Ardati, a mother of five children, complained on the nonpayment of benefits (even for a disabled child) as there was no registration. Andrei Ardati, her 19-year-old son, dropped out the school as he had to work and support the family. He did not study later as he saw no sense to study, because afterall “nobody would accept a Gypsy into the university”. Marina Erdati complained that the registry office refused to give Roma children birth certificates, because “the Gypsies often steal children”. The children, even the newborns, are not attended by a pediatrician because “the doctor does not want to go to Roma camp”. Tamara Erdati does not get pregnancy benefits. She was also refused registration and was not accepted to work because “she is Gypsy”.

Thus, the discriminatory attitude of the state social service structures deprives the Roma of ability to realize their socio-economic rights. It happens not only in Russia. On the website of the European Roma Rights Center (http://www.errc.org/) there are separate sections on social and economic rights (social security, children’s rights, job placement, healthcare and so on), with information on violations of these rights in different countries of Europe.

The problem of ethnic discrimination raises the problem of ethnic dignity, denial of which can be the subject of requests on compensation for moral damage (for example, actions on discrimination and denial of ethnic dignity in the cases of segregation of Roma children at school).

The level of realization of socio-economic rights shows not only the material, but also the legal and moral condition of a society. It reflects all the shortcomings of the governing system of the state. The minimum to be provided by the government to everyone can change depending on social policy and wellbeing, but nonetheless should be provided by an effective system of public governing. The administrative reform in our country, unfortunately, cannot be considered successful in respect to creating a mechanism of realization of socio-economic rights for vulnerable population groups, especially with the discriminative attitude of the authorities themselves. Until necessary and sufficient minimum socio-economic conditions are created, personal dignity will be under threat. Depreciation of personality in the terms of society and state is very dangerous even for those whose socio-economic living conditions make them feel safe.

Anna Udyarova

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