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What is social justice?

“Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations” (United Nations)
“Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations” (United Nations)

We all believe that social justice is a good thing – but what exactly do we mean by it? On the World Day of Social Justice, guest blogger Isabelle finds that it is a concept built out of a whole range of interlinking themes.

A cause that I’ve always supported is “social justice”, without really knowing what it is or what implications it has. But with World Day of Social Justice coming up, I think it’s imperative that people understand what it is they are advocating.

When I think of social justice, I think of the ongoing fight against inequality between various groups of people, in terms of gender, economic situation, culture and ethnicity, education and knowledge, opportunities and privileges, and so forth.

According to the United Nations, “Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability.”

Complex definitions

There is a difference between the protection of human rights and social justice; the former focuses on individuals, while the latter concentrates on society and international cooperation for development. “Social justice” is a problematic phrase because it encompasses many interlinked issues; and as the time passes, the term becomes increasingly multifaceted and therefore more ambiguous. Yet one way of defining it is by looking at its opposite, social injustice: when some human beings are treated as ‘lesser’ than others, through wealth distribution, oppression, access to basic rights, etc.

Receiving care at the SOS Medical Centre in Antisarabe, Madagascar
Access to good services regardless of income and societal status is a key indicator
of social justice

Economic justice is one of the main elements of social justice. The gap between the poorest and wealthiest people is widening – not only between countries but within them too. This manifests in the form of unequal distribution: of income among individuals and households, at a local or national level; of assets, such as capital, land, and buildings; and, notably, of employment opportunities.

Sustainable development is also an important aspect of social justice; all humans have the right to a safe and pleasant environment. Economic growth needs to be ecological, ensuring the protection of the environment and non-renewable resources for future generations; the development of eco-friendly products and technologies; and that poor and rural groups are not disproportionately affected by hazards such as pollution.

Finally, adequate access to basic services is a major concern for social justice. This includes knowledge and levels of education that are only accessible to some children; the availability of healthcare and social security; the opportunity for civic and political participation; and safety from terrorism, conflict, and crime. The latter is particularly relevant to this year’s World Day of Social Justice theme: ending human trafficking and forced labour.

Is there justice in the world?

A UN report, “Social Justice in an Open World”, states that income inequality is increasing, and there is little indication of any real ongoing commitment to address existing inequalities. However, it recognises that when putting the past decades into perspective, the equality of rights has significantly improved in many areas.

People have achieved freedom from authoritarian and totalitarian regimes on a massive scale; there have been concentrated efforts to reduce all forms of discrimination on an international level; and despite religious and cultural traditions, some progress has been made in achieving equality between men and women, as well as for indigenous groups and disabled people.

What still needs to be addressed is the equality gap for migrant workers and refugees, although the awareness of their predicament is growing. The disparity of opportunities is another problem; apart from high unemployment rates, many societies don’t offer people the chance to engage in activities of their choice, or to receive benefits commensurate with their talent and effort.

The report further notes that poverty reduction and overall improvements to the standard of living are realistic goals that would greatly contribute to social justice. For this to be done, there needs to be an adequate framework of social justice, which takes into account geographical, sociological, political, and cultural factors. Then only can the relations between individuals and groups of people be correctly understood, assessed, and characterized as just or unjust.

A just cause

Ban Ki-Moon standing at a lectern
Ban Ki-Moon: “There is nothing inevitable about inequality” (Photo: Remy Steinegger CC BY-SA 2.0)

The fight for social justice is hard, never-ending, and often seems a little hopeless, given that it is such a broad and obscure issue. Perhaps the cause can best be described by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in his message for the 2014 World Day of Social Justice:

“Circumstances such as where a person is born, where they live or their gender and ethnicity should never determine their income or their opportunities for quality education, basic healthcare, decent work, adequate shelter, access to drinking water, political participation or living free from threatened, or actual, physical violence.

“As inequalities widen, the social fabric of our societies is both stretched and strained. This often leads to a downward spiral of economic and social uncertainty and even unrest. Violent conflict in many parts of the world is often rooted in deep inequality, discrimination, and widespread poverty.

“Yet there is nothing inevitable about inequality. Our shared goal should aim at taking practical steps to remove this formidable barrier to development and human dignity. Experience shows that economic growth, on its own, is not sufficient. We must do more to empower individuals through decent work, support people through social protection, and ensure the voices of the poor and marginalised are heard.”

Social justice is just one of the big themes our guest writers tackle in our blog. To get cranium-stretching content to your inbox every month, sign up for our free email newsletter. As well as the pick of the month's blog, you'll receive photos, videos and updates on our global work. Subscribe now.