A False Dichotomy

September 17, 2009

There are a number of arguments which are used to define economic, social and cultural rights as a separate category of human rights and sometimes even deny them the status of genuine human rights. The most prominent of these arguments are based on the assumptions that economic, social and cultural rights have a historical origin different from that of civil and political rights and that they are not capable of being universalized in both theory and practice.

The former asserts that what is to be properly understood as the source of human rights is the natural law theory, “which is concerned with individual autonomy and freedom, and provides a justification for civil and political rights but not for economic, social and cultural rights.”[1] In this sense, the demand for the status of human rights for the economic, social and cultural rights works against the basis of human rights, namely individual autonomy and freedom. As Steiner and Alston summarise it, this view claims that “treating them as rights undermines the enjoyment of individual freedom, distorts the functioning of free markets by justifying state intervention in the economy, and provides an excuse to downgrade the importance of civil and political rights.”[2] The latter argument, on the other hand, claims that, since economic, social and cultural rights are specific to a distinct group of people, they are not universal human rights and cannot in any way be universalized in practice due to factors such as scarcity of resources.

The first argument is refutable even on the grounds on which it is based. If we claim that the modern concept of human rights is solely derived from the writings of natural law theorists such as John Locke, we must have an extremely narrow approach to the subject. The International Bill of Rights was not agreed upon by States simply because they all suddenly decided to agree upon one ideology. What resulted in the International Bill of Rights was an attempt to deal with serious problems and seek solutions for the protection of human dignity. “Human rights, in this sense, is a name given to ‘plural and divergent ideologies’, such that a search for an immutable or universal foundation is bound to fail.”[3] We can thus say that the various ideologies combined in the International Bill of Rights have similar bases, namely the ideas of human dignity, equality, tolerance, etc. Therefore, far from emphasizing only individual autonomy and freedom, the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts the determination “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”[4]


[1] Matthew Craven, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. A Perspective on its Development (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 10.
[2] Henry J. Steiner and Philip Alston (eds.), International Human Rights in Context. Law, Politics, Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 237.
[3] Craven, 11.
[4] Ghandhi, 22.

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