The History of World Day of Social Justice

The World Day of Social Justice, held on February 20th each year, is an opportunity to draw attention to social justice issues around the globe. By understanding the various injustices present in the world, people are better empowered to find solutions and work towards true equality. Only equality can ensure happy, healthy societies where people can reach their full potential. What is the history of this day?

Social justice as a concept

Before talking about the history of the World Day specifically, it’s worth learning about “social justice” as a concept. Before the phrase was created, philosophers wrote about various tenets of social justice such as equality and human rights. In the old days, thinkers referred to “natural rights.” These were rights unrelated to specific cultures or styles of government. Philosophers believed natural rights were inalienable and universal. What those rights include d specifically evolved over the years, but from very early on in human history, there was a belief that all people had certain entitlements founded simply on shared humanity. Today, we know “natural rights” as human rights. It’s impossible to talk about social justice without including human rights.

“Social justice” as a phrase

The actual phrase – “social justice” – most likely dates back to the 1780s. It appears in The Federalist Papers No. 7 written by Alexander Hamilton. In one line, he writes that “a war, not of parchment, but of the sword, would chastise such atrocious breaches of moral obligation and social justice.” Luigi Taparelli, a Jesuit priest, also used the phrase “social justice.” He is often credited with coining the phrase in the mid-1800s, though as you just learned, it did appear earlier in The Federalist Papers.

Regardless of where it first showed up, the phrase and concept gained traction during the Industrial Revolution. It was a response to the exploitation and human rights violations suffered by the working class. Civil revolutions through Europe also popularized social justice with a focus on the gap between the wealthy and the poor. In the 20th century, social justice expanded from economic concerns to other areas of social life, including race and gender. International law began referring to “social justice” as a primary goal.

The 1995 Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action

In 1995, the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen took place. At the time, it was the world’s largest gathering of world leaders. 117 heads of state or government were represented. They agreed on a mandate called the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action. Its goal was to establish a “people-centered framework for social development.” 10 commitments were taken on, such as:

  • Create an environment (economic, social, political, legal, and cultural) that empowers social development
  • End poverty (countries decide on timelines)
  • Support full employment
  • Achieve gender equality
  • Increase resources for social development

The Commission for Social Development, which the United Nations Economic and Social Council established in 1946, is responsible for implementing and following up on the goals set at the 1995 World Summit. Currently, there are 46 members, who are elected for 4-year terms. Every year, the Commission meets at the UN Headquarters and reviews the mandate.

The UN establishes a World Day focused on social justice

Social justice is the key to social development. In 2007, the UN General Assembly decided that February 20th would serve as the World Day of Social Justice. In 2008, the International Labour Organization (an agency of the UN) further the UN’s dedication to social justice by adopting the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization. The World Day for Social Justice was first officially observed in 2009.

Each year focuses on a different social justice theme. In 2018, the day relied on data from the ILO to shed light on “Workers on the Move: The Quest for Social Justice.” Most migration has to do with the hunt for adequate work opportunities. Work is always an important factor in migration, even if it isn’t the main cause. In 2019, the theme was “If You Want Peace & Development, Work for Social Justice.” 2020 focused on closing the inequalities gap.

Why is a World Day of Social Justice important?

When looking at the history of the World Day of Social Justice, it’s clear how important social justice is to the UN’s goals. The day was born from huge gatherings of world leaders working towards social development. Without social justice, social development is impossible. Setting aside a World Day to learn about social justice, how far we’ve come, and where we need to go fits in with the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action’s commitment to a “people-centered framework.” To be empowered, people need to be aware of the social justice issues affecting them directly. The World Day of Social Justice is a great opportunity to get educated on the most pressing concerns and the best solutions.