Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), the foundation stone of the entire human rights framework, declares that everyone has the full range of human rights: civil, political, economic, social, and cultural.

 Social, economic, and cultural rights are a class of rights that relate to conditions necessary to meet basic human needs. Sometimes referred to as “security-oriented” rights, they differ from civil and political rights in that rather than restraining governments, they call upon governments to take “progressive action,” to respect, protect and fulfill these rights. They include rights not included in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights such as:

Civil and political rights are a class of rights that protect individuals’ from infringement of their freedoms by governments and ensure everyone’s ability to participate in the civil and political life of the country without discrimination or repression. They are familiar to most American from the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. They include:

  • the right to life
  • the prohibition of torture
  • the right to liberty and security of person
  • the right to freedom of movement
  • the right to a fair hearing
  • the right to privacy
  • the right to freedom of religion, expression, and peaceful assembly
  • the right to family life
  • the rights of children to special protection
  • the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs
  • the over-arching right to equal treatment
  • the special rights of members of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities

Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Following the adoption of the UDHR by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the UN Commission on Human Rights immediately set about to draft a subsequent treaty that, unlike a declaration, would be legally binding on states that ratify it. This proved to be an impossible task, however, because ideological differences divided opinion between the western, capitalistic states and the eastern, communist-socialist states. After eighteen years of negotiation, what emerged was not a unified document but two separate human rights treaties:

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) and
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966).

At that time of the Cold War, countries of the so-called “Western Bloc,” including the USA and its allies, immediately ratified the ICCPR but not the ICESCR, while countries of the ”Eastern Bloc,” including the Soviet Union and its allies, ratified the ICESCR but not the ICCPR. This ideological “schizophrenia” only ended in 1993 with the Vienna Declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights, which declared that human rights were indivisible, interdependent, and interconnected. This means that every individual is entitled to the full range of human rights, not just those that his or her government selects to recognize. Since 1995 most governments have ratified both Covenants. The United States, however, has ratified only the ICCPR, which contains many of the same rights found in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Many of the social and economic rights included in the ICESCR, e.g., the right to health care, shelter, and education, are not recognized in the US Constitution.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1981) advance many of the economic, social and cultural rights recognized in the ICESCR in relation to children and women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD, 1963) prohibits discrimination on the basis of racial or ethnic origin in relation to a number of economic, social, and cultural rights. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, 2006) also prohibits all discrimination relating to full enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights on the basis of the disability including refusal of reasonable accommodation.

As the human rights framework evolves, new concepts continue to develop. These include environmental, developmental, and collective rights that recognize that not only individual rights but also collective rights.

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