What Are Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?
Economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) embody essential elements for a life of dignity and freedom, including work, health, education, food, water, housing, social security,healthy environment, and culture. Human rights provide a common framework of universally-recognized values and norms, both to hold state and increasingly non-state actors accountable for violations and to mobilize collective efforts for economic justice, political participation, and equality.
People worldwide have long struggled for these basic rights, concern for the poor and the oppressed has been expressed in many religious and philosophical traditions, and more recently human rights have been articulated in international law. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), establishing the vision and principles which recognize the interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights: a vision that guarantees people civil and political freedom as well as economic and social well-being. ESCR were embodied in international treaty law through the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as through other universal treaties and regional mechanisms. To date, more than 150 countries have ratified the ICESCR, accepting the obligation to fulfill the economic, social and cultural rights of their peoples. In addition, many countries have articulated their commitment to ESCR through domestic law and national constitutions.
There are important principles in the realization of ESCR that are outlined in the ICESCR and other treaties regarding ESC rights. States must avoid discrimination in access to these basic rights (including on the basis of sex, race or social origin), ensure minimum core obligations, and take progressive steps towards the full realization of ESCR. Using the ‘maximum of its available resources,’ a state has the primary obligation to respect (refrain from any violation of), protect (prevent third parties from violating), fulfill (take necessary measures to realize, such as legislation and budget appropriations), monitor (measure the progress of), and promote (ensuring broadest possible awareness and understanding of) human rights. According to the Preamble of the UDHR, ‘every individual and organ of society shall strive…to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and…to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance’; businesses and international and multilateral organizations also have the responsibility to promote and secure human rights. Furthermore, the ICESCR requires a commitment to ‘international assistance and cooperation’ in the realization of ESCR.