Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

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Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Citizens of modern states enjoy a number of rights. Civil and political rights shape individuals' interactions with states' legal and political systems. Economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other hand, address freedoms often exercised in private life. Examples include access to sufficient food, education, health care, and employment. Although economic, social, and cultural rights offer different guarantees than do civil and political rights, the international community treats them as indivisible. Because they reinforce each other, together they help to ensure social justice. For example, without the political right of free association, the economic right to form unions would be meaningless. Equally, the social and cultural right to an education would be worthless to those imprisoned because they do not enjoy the civil right to be free from arbitrary detention.


Widespread human suffering during World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945) gave great traction to the idea of internationalizing human rights. Many leaders agreed that only universal recognition and protection of rights would be sufficient to prevent another such tragedy. Although World War II's devastation was the immediate catalyst, drafters of human rights documents built on multiple foundations. In delineating these rights, authors drew from many sources, including religious and philosophic traditions.

Many religious traditions believe that humans embody certain rights because of the way that a Supreme Being structured the universe. Further, these advocates argue that such "natural" rights are beyond human transformation or negotiation. They believe that human reason allows the discovery of God's plan, and people must govern themselves based on these discovered laws. Additionally, as natural rights predate the creation of governments and exist independently of human created law, these believers maintain that these fundamental rights are superior to human decisions.

Many of the world's religions recognize not only human rights but also human responsibilities to protect the rights of others. Religious teachings range from Judeo-Christian lessons such as "love thy neighbor as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18) to Islamic instruction about tolerance and respect for "People of the Book" to a Buddhist focus on the interconnectedness of all beings. These conceptions of a community's responsibility to all its members have particularly helped to shape economic, social, and cultural rights, going beyond civil and political rights to so-called "second-generation" rights.

Various philosophic schools also contributed to rights development. The idea of individual civil and political rights drew from such Enlightenment thinkers as John Locke, (1632–1704) an English liberal philosopher who wrote of the inalienable rights of all people. Although legal positivists such as British Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) indicated a different source for the legitimacy of human rights—the sovereignty of law creators—they acknowledged both human rights and duties. From these differences come some of the variations in the concept of rights as either universal or culturally bound. Those who see rights as attaching to the people envision the same rights for all. Those who rest authority in the rights' creator, on the other hand, could expect different rights from dissimilar sovereigns. Later philosophers, including the German founder of socialism, Karl Marx (1818–1883), contributed ideas that supported second-generation rights, including those related to a minimum required standard of living and other material provisions.

Although rights originally attached to the individual, many rights now are seen as belonging to groups as well. Intergovernmental institutions, such as the Organization of African Unity, and private organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have pushed to expand human rights definitions to include members of collectives. Advocates often reason that certain groups such as children or minority populations are vulnerable and therefore need clear protections, especially for rights that are particular to them. Examples include the right to an education, to practice a minority religion, or to communicate in a minority language. Otherwise, groups' lack of a dominant political voice can leave them at the mercy of unsympathetic majorities. Collective rights also may require new rights, such as access to public education in minority languages.

Additionally, the gross atrocities committed in World War II, especially the Holocaust, following closely on the brutalities of World War I, forced states to face their need for a means to guarantee human rights. In response, they created the United Nations (UN). The UN charter's first article addresses "respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (United Nations, 1945). However, while establishing that all UN members had an obligation to protect rights, the charter did not lay out these rights and freedoms with any specificity. The UN's General Assembly began to address this with passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948.


Recognition and protection of economic, social, and cultural rights developed along two tracks. International institutions, especially the UN, serve as one forum for their development. Simultaneously, many states, through organizations linked to a particular geographic region, pursue additional human rights regimes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in the UN General Assembly without a dissenting vote. It outlined thirty principles basic to human development and dignity, including not only economic, social, and cultural rights, but also civil and political rights. Following passage, the body asked the Commission on Human Rights to put the general language of the Universal Declaration into a form legally binding on states with a treaty outlining specific rights and their implementation. This eventually led to two treaties: the International Covenant on Cultural and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Signaling the political disputes involved, neither covenant passed the General Assembly until 1966. Each required an additional ten years, until 1976, before receiving the thirty-five votes required for ratification .

In part, countries debated whether economic, social, and cultural rights require different implementation than do civil and political rights. Either legislative or administrative actions, or a combination of both, usually suffice to ensure civil and political rights. Economic, social, and cultural rights, however, demand a positive action by government. Thus, rather than states agreeing not to do something (negative right), states or some other entity must agree to take action or to provide something (positive right).

The ICESCR addresses a number of specific issues, including the right to an adequate standard of living, to an education, to self-determination , and to participation in cultural life. Further, it specifies equal rights for men and women, the right to work, to form and join trade unions, and to have just and favorable conditions for work, as well as the right to the best standards of physical and mental health, to social security and to social insurance, and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress. These positive rights mean that employers, for instance, rather than governments, should enact the right to "enjoy just and favorable conditions of work … [including] fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value" (Article 7, ICESCR). Obviously, implementation is complex, as states often do not provide these rights directly but take responsibility for outcomes dependent on their provision. For example, although private clinics might deliver medical care, the state guarantees its citizens the right to good health.

Additionally, states' varied levels of economic development and wealth made the ICESCR's drafters cautious about stipulating a specific time frame for implementation. Instead, the covenant anticipated "achieving progressively the full realization of the rights" covered (Article 2, ICESCR). This differed from the ICCPR, which required immediate implementation of its rights.

The ICESCR called for supervision by the UN's Economic and Social Council. In 1985, the Economic and Social Council replaced the monitoring Committee of Experts with the Committee for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which enjoys greater power. The CESCR reviews signatories' progress using several sources of information. First, each state must report on its advancement and plans for the future at intervals specified by the committee, as well as explain any retreat from its provision of treaty rights. Next, specialized UN agencies, including the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, provide the committee with information about states' progress. Domestic and international non-governmental organizations also may report to the CESCR. As well, the CESCR is considering an Optional Protocol to the ICESCR that would allow individuals to lodge a complaint.

Additional UN treaties, more limited in scope than the ICESCR, also address some or all of the various economic, social and cultural rights. These include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (1960), and the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984). Additionally, specific groups gained protections under the Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951), the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

Regional organizations also produced agreements that obligate signatory states to provision and protection of economic, social, and cultural rights. In some instances, these rights regimes are different from those created within the UN, and they rely on a variety of means to enforce and protect these rights.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, passed by the Organization of African Unity in 1981, differs from the ICESCR, as it includes collective rights and protections of groups as well as the rights of individuals. Further, the charter protects the family unit, recognizing it as the "natural unit and basis of society" (Article 18) and the keeper of traditional values and morals. The charter allows governments to suspend or limit certain rights for such reasons as national security. The charter also instituted the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, which studies African rights issues, gathers information, publicizes the charter and the rights it protects, and suggests to signatories ways to improve their rights regimes and resolve outstanding problems.

Africa is not alone in this endeavor. The Organization of American States (OAS) passed the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man in 1948 and the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969. These resolutions address civil and political, as well as economic, social, and cultural rights. The OAS added an Additional Protocol in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1988). This addendum includes rights related to work, unions, health, food, education, and protection of such groups as the handicapped, children, the elderly, and families. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, created in 1959, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, created in 1969, resolve complaints and aid in the implementation and protection of rights. Signatories agreed to implement these rights on a progressive basis.

The Council of the League of Arab States created a Permanent Arab Commission on Human Rights (1968) and passed the Arab Charter on Human Rights (1994). The charter calls for reports by signatories and created a Committee of Experts to monitor state actions. Some Arab countries took part in the 1990 meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The subsequent Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam states that Allah defines all rights and that they are subject to protection under Islamic Shari'a law. This interpretation of human rights, particularly in terms of the rights of men and women, often differs from the UN's human rights regime.

The European Council (EC) enacted the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1953), which has since been amended by several additional protocols. The EC agreed to the European Social Charter in 1961, which included supplementary economic and social rights. Council members revised the charter in 1996, adding additional rights and protections. Those who believe they have suffered violation of their rights can complain to the European Commission on Human Rights. The European Court of Justice may adjudicate cases the commission cannot resolve. In 1999 the council created an Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights. The charter and its revision include core obligations that immediately bind signatories, while allowing progressive implementation of the remainder. The depth and breadth of its protection of human rights makes Europe an enviable model for rights activists.

Asia remains the only continent without regional protection of the rights of their citizens. Some leaders from the region argue that human rights historically have been defined and implemented in culturally biased ways. Thus, they believe the current protections reflect the hegemony of Western ideas rather than universal norms applicable to all states and people.

issues of implementation

The UN has been a leader in the development and implementation of international human rights agreements. Non-governmental organizations—sometimes in cooperation and sometimes in conflict with governments—have helped the UN by providing information to states and to their citizens, and by publicizing states' failures to meet their obligations.

Although the old East–West tensions of the Cold War have faded, they colored the development of the rights regimes. Soviet-bloc states emphasized economic and social rights, arguing that economically disenfranchised citizens would be unlikely to participate fully in a political life. Further, socialist governments refused to give up state power, which guarantees of civil and political rights require. Western states, led by the United States, gave primacy to civil and political rights. Coming from a liberal tradition, with limited governments and a focus on individual freedoms, these states were not well structured to provide economic, social, and cultural rights. Further, they argued that free individuals could best guarantee their own economic, social, and cultural development. Each side used the issue of rights to criticize the systems developed by the other.

web-based resources

The following is a list of Web-based resources for issues concerning economic, social, and cultural rights.

African Union. <>.

Council of Europe. <>.

European Court for Human Rights. <>.

The European Union's Human Rights and Democratisation Policy: Overview. <>.

Human Rights Watch. <>.

Organization of American States. <>.

Organization of the Islamic Conference. <>.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. <>.

University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. <>.

United Scholar Workstation at Yale University. <>.

Differences in economic resources and focus now separate many developed countries, (often labeled the "North") from less developed states (often called the "South" or "Global South"). Although developed states criticized the Soviet bloc 's weak civil and political rights, these same states supported repressive regimes in the South if they were anticommunist. Thus, some in the South regard the rights regimes encouraged by Northern states with skepticism.

Further, Southern states believe rights related to economic development are just as critical as the civil and political rights that are championed by Northern states. The Southern states argue that free elections are meaningless to people without shelter or sufficient food. Additionally, many in the South focus on provision of such collective rights as self-determination and racial equality, whereas Northern leaders often look to individual freedoms as the best way to achieve all human rights.

Some states have sharpened the argument by insisting that, rather than being universal, rights regimes reflect Western values. This push for culturally relevant rights often is associated with Asia and the Middle East. Additionally, some Asian states note that their cultures' traditional focus on families and groups, rather than individuals, may make individual rights inappropriate. Further, the tenet of equality between men and women, they say, ignores fundamental differences. Finally, some characterize universal rights as a neo-imperialist tool for interference in national sovereignty.

Attendees of the World Conference on Human Rights (1993), however, affirmed the universality of human rights in their final report. They noted, "All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated" (UN, 1993, No. 5). Despite the conference's broad participation, these disputes remain topical with continuing claims that the rights embedded in liberal democracies are not universal, and that equality between the sexes and protection of children—especially female children—from traditional practices infringe unacceptably on their religious, ethnic, and cultural practices.

See also: American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights; Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; European Court of Human Rights; Human Rights; International Human Rights Law; United Nations; Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, 1979. <>.

Brown, Seyom. Human Rights in World Politics. New York: Longman, 2000.

Donnelly, Jack. International Human Rights, 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Falk, Richard. Human Rights Horizons: The Pursuit of Justice in a Globalizing World. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Ishay, Micheline R., ed. The Human Rights Reader: Major Political Essays, Speeches, and Documents from the Bible to the Present. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Meijer, Martha. Dealing with Human Rights: Asian and Western Views on the Value of Human Rights. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2001.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.<>.

Steiner, Henry, and Philip Alston. International Human Rights in Context, Law Politics and Morals, 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1995.

United Nations. Charter of the United Nations, 1945. <>.

United Nations. Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, 1993. <>.

Janet Adamski

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Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

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