What are human rights? How do they relate to the economy? Why are they a powerful tool for systemic transformation? Here, you can find short, digestible answers to commonly asked questions about human rights and the economy.
Economic, social, and cultural rights (or ESCR) are a type of human rights that guarantee us the conditions we need to live a life of dignity—where everyone can achieve wellbeing, realize their potential, and have the opportunity to find happiness and fulfilment. They include a range of protections and entitlements, such as:
The right to an adequate standard of living, which (among others) includes aspects such as food security, adequate housing, and access to clean water and dignified sanitation.
The right to health, which includes guarantees such as access to healthcare, healthy environmental conditions, and protection against epidemic diseases.
The right to education, which includes the obligation to provide free and compulsory primary education, and accessible secondary and higher education, among other aspects.
The right to social security, which includes adequate protection in the event of unemployment, sickness, maternity, disability and old age or other limits on livelihood in circumstances beyond one’s control.
Workers’ rights, which includes freedom from forced labor, fair wages and equal pay, safe and healthy working conditions, and the right to organize and unionize.
Cultural rights, which includes the right to participate in cultural life and to share in and benefit from scientific advancement.
The right to a healthy environment.
Human rights are a multidimensional concept. As moral claims, human rights give force to universal values such as dignity, equity, and justice. They assert that there are certain needs—including material needs—that are so essential for human beings to flourish that they must be guaranteed to all. As political demands, human rights argue for the prioritization of people’s wellbeing when making hard choices and trade-offs about how policies are designed and resources distributed. In this way, they’re a tool that can be leveraged to build people power in political debates. As legal obligations—flowing from international treaties, national constitutions, and other legislation—human rights call for compliance with “binding” rules and accountability when those rules are broken. For these reasons, recognizing economic, social and cultural rights as human rights helps to highlight that poverty and inequality are neither inevitable nor natural. They arise from deliberate political decisions and policy choices—decisions and choices that policymakers and public officials must be held accountable for.
Just like civil and political rights (such as freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to a fair trial), economic, social, and cultural rights are part of the body of international human rights law. This means they also give individuals legitimate claims against state and non-state actors when they fail to uphold the protections and entitlements that these rights guarantee.
They are both also deeply intertwined: for example, the right to speak freely can be exercised more meaningfully if you’ve had at least a basic education, and the right to vote may mean little to you if you are suffering from starvation. Similarly, the right to decent work may be impossible to enjoy if you are not allowed to meet and assemble in groups to discuss work conditions. In technical terms, this is known as the “interdependence” and “indivisibility” of human rights. This means, essentially, that human rights come as a package, so cannot be cherry-picked. This reflects a much more compelling and accurate vision of our intertwined lives, societies and economies.
To meaningfully ensure that we can all enjoy our human rights—in particular economic, social, and cultural rights—we have to overhaul the dominant economic system. Time and time again we’ve seen that the realization of these rights cannot be left to the whims of an unregulated market. It demands an active role for government in providing public goods and essential services that deliver for everyone, not just those who can pay; in mobilizing resources for this purpose, including through responsible government borrowing; in redistributing resources to support the care work performed in households, including through comprehensive social protection schemes; and in regulating the conduct of the private (financial and non-financial) sector to protect the rights of workers, consumers, and communities affected by their business.
For a long time, prominent actors in the human rights community had sought to remain “neutral” on economic systems. For example, in the early 1990s United Nations experts asserted that international law principles ‘cannot accurately be described as being predicated exclusively upon the need for, or the desirability of a socialist or a capitalist system, or a mixed, centrally planned, or laissez-faire economy’. This position should be understood in a political context in which ESCR were under attack on several fronts: they were demonized as a threat to the liberal political order, on the one hand, and dismissed as being too vague and aspirational to be enforced, on the other.
But, in an effort to defend economic and social rights—to make them palatable to countries with both a neoliberal or a more social democratic orientation—the human rights community ceded a lot of political ground. The legacy of this position is a still commonly held belief that governments deserve a much wider margin of discretion in economic policy making than they do in other areas. This has stunted the development of the analytical tools needed to critique economic policies that harm people’s rights.
But there can be no doubt that the way our economies are designed can make it easier or harder to realize rights. Plus, the human rights framework does contain very relevant principles and standards to guide economic policy. Rights realization is inextricably linked to the particular economic model in place. In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis—and even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic —there’s growing awareness that questions of unjust resource distribution, and the socio-economic disparities it causes, can no longer be veiled from human rights scrutiny.
We see human rights as an inherently redistributive, egalitarian agenda. But, to tap into the potential of this agenda, we need to take a holistic approach to rights. Such an approach shows how poverty and inequality are both a cause and a consequence of human rights violations. It unpacks the economic system—how it works, what is wrong with it, and what can be done to change it. It specifically connects the dots between—and attributes responsibility for—unjust distributions of political and economic power and unjust distributions of the infrastructure, goods, and services necessary to realise rights. Importantly, to avoid fatalism, it outlines how human rights values and legal standards can “scaffold” progressive policy alternatives. In particular:
Rights provide a holistic picture of wellbeing. Many actors interpret human rights narrowly, as being mainly about civil liberties. But they are far more holistic than that. Rethinking our economies on the basis of this broad range of rights – from the right to a fair trial to the right to be free from hunger and the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress – helps to overcome stale ideological debates over whether ‘civil liberties’ or ‘development’ (both narrowly defined) should be prioritized by governments.
Rights provide a widely agreed language to talk about the values that should underpin our economies. Intuitively, universally, demonstrated by the practice of everyday struggle, we know that people ought to be free from hunger; to be able to choose their own government; and to enjoy all the other conditions for human flourishing. These values are codified in a comprehensive framework of binding standards and principles. These have been agreed by the vast majority of governments.
Rights create legal obligations that governments and other powerful actors must comply with. Ensuring that all people can enjoy their human rights on an equal footing demands action to redistribute resources, remedy inequalities, and rebalance power. This directly challenges the logic of neoliberalism, giving primacy to people’s human rights, as internationally recognized, over the spurious ‘rights’ of investors and corporations.
Learn more about how to advance justice through a Rights-Based Economy here.
Human rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in numerous international treaties and regional conventions that have been widely ratified by governments around the world. The Declaration did not make a distinction between civil and political rights and ESCR, recognizing both equally. But Cold War politics meant, arbitrarily, two separate treaties were developed: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Economic and social rights are also included in numerous other international and regional human rights instruments, including those setting out the rights of particular groups.
ESCR are also widely recognized in domestic legal systems. Although not always to the same extent as civil and political rights, there are a number of ways that national constitutions and legislation can and do address ESCR. This includes through prohibitions on discrimination, whether for employment, housing, or service delivery.
These rights guarantee much more than a minimum level of basic subsistence. In international law, their “full realization” must be “progressively” achieved. In other words, they set a floor, not a ceiling. They demand continuous improvement and must be guaranteed for all, prioritizing the needs of disadvantaged groups facing systemic and intersectional forms of discrimination.
ESCR are not open-ended, aspirational goals to be achieved at some undefined time in the future. They set out the protections and entitlements that people should be able to expect in a society that guarantees their rights. They also set out what governments must, and must not, do to deliver on those guarantees. The latter are governments’ human rights obligations. A helpful distinction made is between obligations of conduct (what governments must do) and result (what governments must achieve).
It’s common to describe obligations of conduct using the following typology:
to “respect” peoples’ rights—treating people fairly and humanely;
to “protect” peoples’ rights—taking action to prevent, investigate, and punish abuses committed by others, notably the private sector; and
to “fulfill” peoples’ rights—taking steps to facilitate access to the goods and services necessary to realize rights and providing those goods and services when people can’t otherwise access them.
This recognizes there are multiple ‘policy levers’ governments can use to deliver on its human rights obligations.
Under international law, the steps governments take to guarantee people’s rights must use the maximum of their available resources. There’s wide agreement that the obligation has three dimensions to it:
Resource generation: i.e. how governments raise money;
Resource allocation: i.e. what governments earmark money for in their budgets; and Resource expenditure: i.e. how allocated money is actually spent and who it is benefitting.
Importantly, government obligations do not stop at their own border. They extend to guaranteeing the rights of people abroad affected by their conduct, including when they act as members of international organizations (such the International Monetary Fund or World Trade Organization). These are known as extraterritorial obligations.
Human rights treaties are signed by—and enforced against—governments. But this doesn’t mean that non-state actors are free to violate people's human rights. The obligation to protect rights means taking action to prevent, investigate, and punish human rights abuse committed by other actors—including businesses. This includes regulating the real estate market and enacting a living minimum wage, for example.
In 2011, governments and business, by consensus, adopted the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These state that companies must respect human rights. This means taking adequate measures to prevent, mitigate, and remedy the negative impacts their operations have on people’s rights. Business should not undermine governments’ abilities to fulfill human rights.
To date, implementation of the Guiding Principles has been slow. Currently, an important process is underway to agree on a treaty which would impose binding human rights obligations on businesses. The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined why such a step is long overdue.
As noted above, when governments act as members of international organizations that have decisive influence over other governments’ ability to realize human rights, their extraterritorial obligations are triggered. There are a number of ways that international human rights law can also apply directly to the international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank:
Institutions that are specialized agencies of the United Nations must comply with the human rights provisions in the United Nations Charter.
Elements of human rights law—in particular the Universal Declaration on Human Rights—have become part of customary international law. This means they are “generally accepted” as having universal application, including binding specialized agencies.
It’s been argued that the constitutions of these institutions (e.g. the IMF Articles of Agreement) should be interpreted as directing them to take into account human rights concerns in carrying out their work.
The scope of the human rights obligations that apply to international financial institutions may be more limited than for governments (given its more limited mandate and powers). But, at a minimum, respecting human rights by taking measures to ensure they “do no harm” is essential. This can be interpreted to include not interfering with governments’ ability to invest in rights, given the severe harms such measures can cause. Loan conditions that constrain fiscal space, regressive policy advice that fails to assess social impacts, and onerous debt burdens that squeeze public budgets are examples of such interference.
In the past, there’s been debate about whether ESCR can be justiciable (that is to say, judicially enforceable). The concern raised by some jurists and legal scholars was that these rights are too vague for judges to determine whether or not they had been violated. But there are now countless examples of courts around the world applying domestic and international law to protect ESCR.
In December 2008, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Optional Protocol establishes mechanisms for hearing individual complaints, for inter-State communications and for addressing grave or systemic violations of ESCR. It came into force in May 2013. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has begun issuing decisions under the Optional Protocol, offering another source of jurisprudence on ESCR.
Accountability is a cornerstone of the human rights framework. It has both a corrective and preventative function. It addresses individual and collective grievances and sanctions wrongdoing, on the one hand. It also helps improve policymaking and service delivery, on the other.
But our ability to hold states to account for their commitments to realize economic and social rights has been weakened by several factors. The exact scope of state obligations—and how these play out in economic policy—are often contested. Major shifts in the globalized economy have led to a proliferation of actors above, below, and beyond the state, all of whom impact on the realization of economic and social rights. This, in turn, makes it less clear who should be responsible for what. This leaves people whose economic and social rights deprivations have been harmed with fewer channels to seek redress.
For human rights to advance economic justice, international norms must be translated into well-defined standards, against which the policies of states and other actors can be judged. Affected groups and those supporting them need tools to make the case that these standards haven’t been met. Strengthening the enforcement of ESCR by local, national, regional or international accountability mechanisms, whether they be formal or informal, claim their rights is also critical.
In practice, governments around the world routinely flout their human rights obligations. The policy trends that have accompanied the spread of neoliberal globalization include the commodification, privatization and financialization of public goods and essential services. The role of government in public provisioning has been drastically reduced in many contexts—often at the behest of international financial institutions. Even in the pandemic, the World Bank is still financially supporting the private health sector instead of strengthening public health systems, for example.
These trends are symptoms of the deeply entrenched narrative that the free market is better equipped than the state to distribute resources in the economy efficiently. This narrative is underpinned by the repetition of powerful metaphors (e.g., the government must manage its budget responsibly like a household), language (e.g., austerity is a necessary evil, we can’t blame the medicine for the disease), and stories of heroes and villains (e.g., hardworking entrepreneurs and lazy welfare recipients). Despite mountains of evidence proving it false, this narrative has stuck.
The human rights community has, for the most part, struggled to effectively contest this narrative. For many, economics is perceived to be both too technical and too political. There’s been a reluctance to tackle economic orthodoxies head on. Instead, the focus has been on addressing concerns related to policy making (such as transparency and anti-corruption) by strengthening formal accountability channels. But, to tackle the root causes of human rights violations, we have to move from addressing symptoms to interrogating systems. Understanding the configurations of power that have enabled this system is an essential precondition for changing them.