Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR)

Human rights have been divided into several categories: civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights.

Human rights can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948) and were laid down in two legally binding international instruments, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, adopted in 1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, adopted in 1966), to point out the different character of these rights, particularly with regard to their means of implementation.

The ICCPR enumerates a number of civil and political rights or ‘classic freedom rights’, for example the right to life, the right to a fair trial, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of thought and religion, freedom of association, which are supposed to be immediately guaranteed by States. It was argued that the enforcement of civil and political rights mainly demanded States not to interfere; in other words, they should refrain from action in these fields. The ICCPR further provides for rather extensive means of supervision: a reporting procedure (Article 40), a State complaint procedure (Article 41, optional) and an individual complaint procedure (Optional Protocol).

The ICESCR contains economic, social and cultural rights, for example the right to work, the right to health, the right to education and the right to an adequate standard of living, to be ‘recognized’ by States. These rights were considered to require a proactive role of the State involving financial and material resources. Since these resources might not necessarily be directly available, the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights could only be undertaken progressively. The provisions of the ICESCR were formulated in a programme-type manner. States should promote these rights, but national circumstances may be taken into account. The supervisory mechanism is more modest and consists only of a reporting procedure (Article 16).

The division between the different categories of human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political, and social – does not imply that one category of human rights is more important than another. In the preamble of both 1966 Covenants, it is stated that all human rights are interrelated, indivisible, interdependent and equally important. States have confirmed this principle on various occasions, most recently in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna 1993).

However, practice shows that the different categories of human rights have not developed at an equal pace. Compared to civil and political rights, the categories of economic, social and cultural rights are less developed. This is partly due to the fact that economic, social and cultural rights have been seen for a long time as ‘secondary rights’ compared to civil and political rights. Their so-called ‘vague’ wording, programmatic nature and problematic justiciability have caused this status. There is still inadequate common understanding of these rights in terms of their content and nature of States’ obligations.

Efforts have been undertaken to strengthen implementation of economic, social and cultural rights by clarifying their normative content in more detail and by specifying the nature and content of State obligations. Contributions to this change of perspective and approach have come from academics, United Nations Special Rapporteurs with a mandate in the area of economic, social and cultural rights, and from the expert body that monitors implementation of the ICESCR, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), in particular through its General Comments.

The documents referring to economic, social and cultural rights include legal instruments, which are presented in three different dimensions: international, regional and national, as well as a selected bibliography.

Back to top