What are Economic, Social and Cultural rights?

Economic, social, and cultural rights include the human right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and housing, the right to physical and mental health, the right to social security, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to education. 

Economic, social and cultural rights are part of the body of human rights law that developed in the aftermath of World War II. Human rights law includes all economic and social rights, as well as civil and political rights like the right to free speech and the right to a fair trial. These rights are deeply intertwined: for example, the right to speak freely means little without a basic education, the right to vote means little if you are suffering from starvation.  Similarly, the right to work means little if you are not allowed to meet and assemble in groups to discuss work conditions.

The most important human rights law is in the International Bill of Human Rights, which includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Economic and social rights are also included in numerous other human rights legal instruments. Among the most important are:

CESR has prepared a Guide to the Legal Framework of economic, social, and cultural rights that elaborates on how those rights exist in international law. Click here for the Guide. 

Why are they called "rights"?

All the world's great religious and moral traditions, philosophers, and revolutionaries, recognize that human beings deserve to live in freedom, justice, dignity and economic security. The International Bill of Rights grew out of these traditions, and calls for all governments to make sure their citizens have human rights—civil, political, social, cultural and economic. Referring to economic, social and cultural issues as "rights" uses the legal framework developed under international law, and gives individuals legitimate claims against state and non-state actors for protection and guarantees.

During the Cold War and within trickle-down economic theory, economic, social and cultural rights were frequently mislabled as "benefits," meaning individuals had no basic claims to things like food and shelter. After the Covenant came into force in 1976, jurisprudence around economic and social rights began to develop and great progress followed the formation of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

Economic and social rights require governments and other powerful actors to ensure that people have access to basic needs, and that people have a voice in decisions affecting their well-being. Poverty and injustice are neither inevitable nor natural, but arise from deliberate decisions and policies, and the human rights legal framework provides a way to hold public officials accountable for development policies and priorities.

What are the minimum requirements?

States are bound to ensure minimum human rights regardless of their resource constraints. For ESC rights, minimum core requirements include available foodstuffs for the population, essential primary health care, basic shelter and housing, and the most basic forms of education. The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights elaborated on state obligations under General Comment 3: The Nature of States Parties Obligations.

How do states fulfill their minimum requirements? Every government in the world has certain responsibilities regarding its citizens. The human rights legal framework spells out those responsibilities with the following three obligations:

  • Respect - the obligation to respect requires governments to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights
  • Protect - the obligation to protect requires governments to prevent third parties, such as corporations, from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights
  • Fulfill - the obligation to fulfill requires governments to adopt the necessary measures to achieve the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights

    What about non-state actors?

    Human rights treaties are signed by governments, and are the duty of governments to enforce. However, this does not mean that non-state actors are free to violate people's human rights. There are three main ways to apply human rights standards to non-state actors. First, governments have the primary responsibility to protect human rights, including from violations by non-state actors. Second, individuals may enforce their basic rights through judicial action. Finally, non-state actors are bound to respect human rights standards through the universal protection of human dignity.

    How are these rights enforced?

    At the international level, the most effective enforcement mechanism for all international human rights is political pressure. Those states that have ratified the ICESCR are required to submit regular reports every five years to the Committee on Economic and Social Rights that detail their human rights standards. When these reports are reviewed, it provides an excellent opportunity for civil society and the international community at large to put pressure on a country to adhere to its legal obligations. To learn more about how to work with the Committee, please refer CESR's Activist's Manual on the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, prepared by Jeff King for CESR and the Sri Lankan-based Law and Society Trust.

    For many years, there has been no way for individuals to bring forward violations of ESCR to the Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights. However, governments at the United Nations agreed in 2008 to allow the possibility of allowing individual complaints through the adoption of an Optional Protocol to the ICESCR.

    For those countries that haven't ratified the ICESCR, there are other international venues that apply political pressure. For example, a country may be a party to the CRC or CEDAW, both of which include ESCR. Larger bodies, like the Commission on Human Rights, can also be used to apply political pressure. Additionally, petitions in regional human rights commissions can also be effective in highlighting an issue and seeking remedy.

    At the domestic level, there are political and legal remedies for many ESC violations. Although these remedies are still far from comprehensive, they do demonstrate that economic and social rights are fundamentally justiciable. For example, a core part of every ESCR is a prohibition on discrimination, whether for employment, housing, or food. Anti-discrimination laws exist in most countries, and are fully enforceable in a court of law.

    Justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights

    Opponents of ESCR, regrettably including some in the human rights field, argue that ESCR are not judicially enforceable and that they are too vague to monitor effectively. Yet most sovereign states have enshrined ESCR in their constitutions, and there are numerous examples of courts applying domestic and international law to protect ESCR. Vagueness has also not prevented international development agencies from producing immense volumes of research on global social and economic conditions. These include standardized methodologies for comparing conditions in different countries and regions, the UNDP's human development index and gender-related indices, UNICEF's rate of progress measurements, and the World Bank's World Development Reports, to name a few.

    Historical neglect of ESCR cannot be attributed to methodological obstacles. While there is always a need for additional indicators to measure compliance in specific rights, it must be emphasized that the definition of all rights, even freedom from torture, changes and expands over time through concrete practice. The main obstacle to realizing ESCR remains a lack of political will and commitment on the part of states, international institutions and NGOs whose responsibility it is to respect, protect and promote these rights for the benefit of all human beings.

    The following list provides just a few examples of ESCR violations that are already being tried in courts around the world:

    • Forcible evictions
    • Terminating an employee without cause
    • Deliberate poisoning of a water supply
    • Discrimination in access to medical care, work, housing, education etc.
    • Banning unions
    • Depriving children of adequate food and water
    • Failing to provide any primary level education
    • Failing to provide basic health care facilities
    • Educational institutions in such poor condition that they are a risk to safety
    • Housing in such poor condition that it is a risk to safety