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About Rights


When CESR wasestablished in 1993, the field of economic and social rights hadsuffered from decades of neglect, leaving few examples of effectiveadvocacy. Moreover, Cold War politics had created the false impressionthat economic and social rights were "aspirations" rather than rights,and impossible to measure or to enforce legally, and required massivegovernment expenditures.

The Right to Work

What is the Right to Work?
The right to work gives everyone the opportunity to earn a living wagein a safe work environment, and also provides for the freedom toorganize and bargain collectively. The right to work does not guaranteethat every person will have a job; rather, it means that governmentsare required to take effective steps to realize the right over time.States violate the right when they either fail to take those steps orwhen they make the situation worse. This right prohibits the use ofcompulsory or forced labor.

The Right to Housing

What is the Right to Housing?
The right to housing is much more than simply a roof over one's head.Housing requires a habitable space that fulfills the basic needs ofhumans to personal space, security, and protection from the weather.The right to adequate housing means people must have equal access to asafe, habitable, and affordable home. It also means people must beprotected against forced evictions.

Cultural Rights

What does the right to culture include?
There is no simple definition for the right to culture. However, theright to express and enjoy one???s culture does exist. Internationalorganizations and documents are quick to name ???culture??? as an importantright, even though what that means hasn???t been fully developed byinternational law. The Covenant on ESCR recognizeseveryone's right to take part in cultural life, to enjoy the benefitsof scientific progress, and encourages the development of internationalcontacts and co-operation in the area of science and culture. Therights of indigenous peoples is a first step towards legal recognitionof cultural rights.

Basic Primer

Activist???s Manual on the ICESCR[pdf 1.25 mb]
CESR's Guide to the Legal Framework of ESCR
Justiciability of ESCR
Optional Protocol to the ICESCR
Other Resources and Links
Workshop Report: Developing a Common Framework for the Promotion of ESCR[pdf 123.81 kb]

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 tosocial security, the right to a healthy environment, and the right toeducation. For more information on a specific ESC right, click one of the links on the left.

ESCR are part of a larger body of human rights law that developed in the aftermath of World War II.Human rights law includes all economic and social rights, plus civiland political rights like the right to free speech and the right to afair trial. These rights are deeply intertwined: for example, the rightto speak freely means little without a basic education. Similarly, theright to work means little if you are not allowed to meet and assemblein 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, and 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:

The U.N. human rights system is rooted inthe International Bill of Rights, but also includes additional humanrights treaties. Each of the treaties is governed by a Treaty Body thatprovides authoritative interpretations of its terms. The Treaty Bodiesalso publish General Comments, which elaborate on specific articles ofthe treaties. For a list of General Comments to the ICESCR, click here. For more information on the U.N. human rights system, click here.

CESR has prepared a Guide to the LegalFramework of economic, social, and cultural rights that elaborates onhow those rights exist in international law. Click here for the Guide. In 1995, CESR hosteda set of workshops that explored the theoretical and practical concernssurrounding economic, social, and cultural rights advocacy andpractice. Click here for the Workshop Report[pdf 123.81 kb].

Why are they called "rights"?
All the world's great religious and moral traditions, philosophers, andrevolutionaries, recognize that human beings deserve to live infreedom, justice, dignity and economic security. The International Billof Rights grew out of these traditions, and calls for all governmentsto make sure their citizens have human rights -- civil, political,social, cultural and economic. Referring to economic, social andcultural issues as "rights" uses the legal framework developed underinternational law, and gives individuals legitimate claims againststate and non-state actors for protection and guarantees.

During the Cold War and trickle-down economics theory, ESCR werefrequently mis-labled as "benefits," meaning individuals had no basicclaim to things like food and shelter. After the Covenant came intoforce in 1976, jurisprudence around economic and social rights began todevelop and great progress following the formation of the UnitedNations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

Economic and social rights require governments and other powerfulactors to ensure that people have access to basic needs, and thatpeople have a voice in decisions affecting their well-being. Povertyand injustice are neither inevitable nor natural, but arise fromdeliberate decisions and policies, and the human rights legal frameworkprovides a way to hold public officials accountable for developmentpolicies 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 availablefoodstuffs for the population, essential primary health care, basicshelter 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?

Adequate Standard of Living

Two boys at the Maslakh Refugee Camp (Herat, Afghanistan)
Photo courtesy of Sarah Zaidi (June 2002)

Right to Health

What is the Right to Health?

Health is one of the components of an adequate standard of living.Historically, the protection of public health has been accompanied bylegal regulation - health law is as old as law itself. Its developmentdemonstrates that the state of an individual's health is oftendetermined by factors beyond a person's medical condition.

The right to health includes access to adequate health care(medical, preventative, and mental), nutrition, sanitation, and toclean water and air. It also includes occupational health consequencessuch as chronic injuries and diseases resulting from unhealthy andhazardous working conditions. This does not mean that an individual hasthe right to be healthy since no government can assure a specific stateof health. The state of health depends on the person's genetic makeup,and is molded by environment and health interventions.

CESR Work on Health
International instruments on the Right to Health
Resources and links on the Right to Health

Right to a Healthy Environment

What is the Right to a Healthy Environment?

The Right to a Healthy Environment requires a healthy human habitat,including clean water, air, and soil that are free from toxins orhazards that threaten human health.

The human contribution to environmental degradation has long beenrecognized by international environmental law. The environmentaljustice and international human rights movements are increasinglyapplying a rights-based strategy to confront global environmentaldevastation, environmental racism, and to protect ecological habitatsand the planet for future generations. The most developed human rightsstandard-setting in this area involves the right to water.

Water is a critical component of health and a healthy environment.The right to water includes access to adequate amounts of clean water,for both consumption and sanitation.

CESR Work on the Right to a Healthy Environment
International Instruments on a Healthy Environment
Resources and links on the Right to a Healthy Environment

The Right to Food

What is the Right to Food?

The right to food guarantees all people the ability to feedthemselves. It also obligates states to cooperate in the equitabledistribution of world food supplies. As part of the more general rightto an "adequate standard of living," the right to food contributes to abroader question of whether people live in basic dignity. People have aright to the basic amount of food necessary for survival, but they alsohave a right to food of high enough quality and quantity to live inadequate dignity.

CESR Work on the Right to Food
International Instruments on the Right to Food
Resources and links on the Right to Food


What is the Right to Education?

The right to education is twofold: it requires free and compulsory primary level education, and it requires that there is equal access to every levelof education. A basic education is a right inherent to being human, andthus constitutes an end in itself. However, education is also a meansto an end: it is required to ensure all people can participateeffectively in a free society, and to promote understanding, toleranceand friendship among all nations and groups.

CESR Work on the Right to Education
International Instruments on the Right to Education
Resources and links on the Right to Education

What does the right to education include?
There are several components to the right to education:

Available: There must be adequateschool facilities and buildings. Schools must be healthy and safephysical environments with access to potable water.

Accessible: Education must available to all andfree from discrimination. Schools must be in physical proximity tostudents, and education must be affordable for all students.

Acceptable: Schools must have trained teachersreceiving domestically competitive salaries and good quality teachingmaterials that respect cultural differences. Discipline must respect achild???s dignity.

Adaptable: Schools must adapt or change to meet theneeds of children from different communities, children who do not speakEnglish in their homes, and children with disabilities.

All four of these areas are important to ensuring the right toeducation. However, international law recognizes that some countriesmay not have the resources to fully implement the right immediately.For those countries, there are two rules: first, consistently work toimprove the right, and second, always provide at least the minimum core content.The minimum core content includes (1) the right of access to publicinstitutions without discrimination, and (2) free choice of educationwithout inteference by the state or a third party.

Finally, as with every human right, all countries have the followingobligations when it comes to implementing the right to education:

  • Respect ??? the obligation to respect requires governmentsto refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoymentof the right to education.