Written by Deb­orah Feldman. This article orig­i­nally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of the North­eastern Law Mag­a­zine.

They didn’t go for the wine. Or the food. Though this was Italy, so, of course, the cui­sine was a marvel. As were the views across Lake Como. But inside the Rock­e­feller Foundation’s Bel­lagio Center, a small group of the world’s most dis­tin­guished leaders in social and eco­nomic rights theory came together for three days in April to bring their ground­breaking book, Social and Eco­nomic Rights in Theory and Prac­tice: A Crit­ical Assess­ment, one step closer to completion.

The working premise we are testing is that enacting, imple­menting and enforcing SER can play a mean­ingful role in making our soci­eties more equal, just, inclu­sive and caring, and in fos­tering human dig­nity and self-​​realization,” says North­eastern law pro­fessor Lucy Williams, who is editing the book with law pro­fessor Karl Klare and Helena Alviar García, dean of the Fac­ulty of Law at the Uni­ver­sidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

The book’s authors are all mem­bers of the Inter­na­tional Social and Eco­nomic Rights Project, a world­wide net­work of lawyers, judges, human rights advo­cates and aca­d­e­mics focused on iden­ti­fying and pro­moting legal devel­op­ments in the ser­vice of social jus­tice. iSERP is based in the School of Law’s Pro­gram on Human Rights and the Global Economy.

iSERP was launched at the School of Law in 2009 when Williams brought together a number of leading human rights spe­cial­ists. Since that first con­ver­sa­tion, iSERP has grad­u­ally expanded to a core group of about 25, while holding con­fer­ences at the Fac­ulty of Law at the Uni­ver­sidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2010; the Fac­ulty of Law at the Uni­ver­sity of Pre­toria in South Africa, in 2011; and Uni­ver­sity Col­lege London in 2012.

Northeastern law professors Karl Klare (left) and Lucy Wiliams.

North­eastern law pro­fes­sors Karl Klare (left) and Lucy Williams.

iSERP has two spe­cial fea­tures for a group in the legal-​​academic world,” notes Williams. “We are com­mitted to cul­ti­vating a col­lab­o­ra­tive, dia­logic and non-​​hierarchical work style. And we bring a crit­ical per­spec­tive to our work. We con­sider weak­nesses as well as strengths, the lim­i­ta­tions as well as achieve­ments of rights-​​based advo­cacy, and the dif­fi­cult trade-​​offs that must be faced even when a legal com­mu­nity is totally com­mitted to human rights prin­ci­ples in the abstract. In addi­tion, unlike some of the main­stream legal schol­ar­ship, our work attempts to be acutely sen­si­tive to the racial, cul­tural and gender impli­ca­tions of human rights practice.”

As the book began to take shape, the pres­ti­gious Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion pro­vided sup­port for iSERP to con­vene the book’s con­trib­u­tors at its Bel­lagio Center, which pro­motes inno­va­tion and iden­ti­fies impact-​​oriented solu­tions to crit­ical global problems.

The Bel­lagio grant was a major aca­d­emic accom­plish­ment,” says Williams. “In addi­tion to hosting us and cov­ering many travel-​​related expenses, the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion asked us to par­tic­i­pate in a video con­fer­ence with foun­da­tion offi­cers so that we could advise them on how our work links up with the foundation’s top priorities.”

Our book and iSERP’s con­tin­uing work over the longer term is intended to pro­mote legal and strategic approaches that will encourage judges and other deci­sion makers to adopt robust and trans­for­ma­tive approaches to SER ques­tions, some­thing many deci­sion makers now hes­i­tate to do,” explains Klare. “We believe and seek to demon­strate that expan­sive def­i­n­i­tion, imple­men­ta­tion and enforce­ment of SER com­bined with nuanced grass­roots activism will ben­efit poor, vul­ner­able and mar­gin­al­ized people and enhance human dig­nity and self-​​determination.”