The Relevance of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

September 19, 2009

It is not sufficient to merely point out that the dichotomy between the two groups of rights (civil and political on the one hand and economic, social and cultural on the other) is based on a fallacy. In order to afford economic, social and cultural rights their proper place in the human rights field we need to put forward the arguments for the justification of their necessity. In light of new global developments and the changing of global structures, the struggle for human rights calls for the mainstreaming of the important role of economic, social and cultural rights in the achieving of social justice worldwide. It is precisely the growing need for this type of discourse that provides the best justification for these rights, rather than any arguments based on questions of historical genesis. Whether economic, social and cultural rights are negative or positive rights plays little importance if it is shown that the endorsement of these rights serves as a good tool for the protection of human dignity and the realization of social justice.

The implementation of economic, social and cultural rights may be viewed as a necessary precondition for the enjoyment of civil and political rights. A person without any form of social security will not find much meaning in freedom and personal autonomy. The State of the World’s Children Report of 1999 states: “Nearly a billion people will enter the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names and two thirds of them are women. And they will live, as now, in more desperate poverty and poorer health than those who can.”[1] This report refers to a sixth of humanity for which rights such as freedom of expression mean little more than abstract lines jotted down on paper. Can we say that the solution for this sector of the world’s population does not lie in ensuring them conditions that would make their personal development and therefore the exercise of their civil and political rights meaningful? It is especially in extreme cases that we see how the establishment of economic and social rights forms a necessary precondition for the enjoyment of most other rights.

Phenomena such as poverty must be seen in relation to human rights. “The victims of poverty are in fact denied almost all rights – not only to adequate food, health care and housing, but also to participation in political processes; access to information and education; fair legal treatment and the normal benefits of citizenship.”[2] Yet, such phenomena as poverty are usually linked to scarcity of resources and the economic situation of the region concerned. Our dedication to protecting human dignity, however, must not stop on the conclusion that a region is poor and has been throughout history and is thus simply less lucky than other parts of the globe. If we are concerned with humanity in a wider context, as we should be, then we should strive to overcome the barriers of geography.

It is a well-known fact that there are more than enough resources for the realization of economic and social rights worldwide. Thus, the failure to implement these rights is not a reflection of the physical shortage of resources, but rather of political decisions. “For example, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone; widespread hunger and malnutrition exist not because of a physical shortage of food but because of political decisions about its distribution.”[3] Figures show that in the developing world twenty percent of the population is afflicted by hunger and lives without basic human needs for survival such as drinkable water.[4] These people are marginalized from society and have very little prospect of partaking in the political life of the community. In order to improve the living conditions of these societies it would be necessary to develop strategies which would “ensure for them an opportunity to take charge of their own destiny, which is often blocked by the more powerful and assertive members of society.”[5]

The moment of realizing that the underdevelopment of certain societies, or of a part of social space of one society, is frozen and maintained by the existence of more powerful societies is the moment economic, social and cultural rights gain their proper recognition. The understanding of this cause and effect relationship and the identification of conflict is a necessary precondition for this. In such a light, these rights are completely comparable to civil and political rights, in so far as both groups have as their goal the protection of the weak from the stronger and ultimately equality between human beings.

The justification for economic, social and cultural rights does not lie only in their creating the necessary conditions for the enjoyment of other rights. Inherent in the implementation of these rights is their humanism and their consideration for the physical and mental integrity of every individual. Thus, we can say that “such rights may be considered universal human rights in so far as they relate to fundamental elements of the individual’s physical nature, whether that be their physical needs or their ability to enjoy social goods.”[6]

Failing to recognize basic human material and social needs from a human rights viewpoint is also impractical if we seek the protection of human dignity. A simple charity approach to the underprivileged will have negative consequences in the long run. It also establishes a kind of hierarchical relationship between the giver and the recipient, where the hungry becomes a passive victim. The economic, social and cultural needs of every individual “should not be at the mercy of changing governmental policies and programmes, but should be defined as entitlements.”[7] Only in this way will the change of consciousness of the abjectly poor occur and empower them as citizens. Recognition of their humanity must be the first step to be made and it can be done only with the identification of fundamental needs as rights. It is through the recognition by others of us as dignified human beings that we become aware of ourselves as such beings.


[1] UNICEF, State of the World’s Children Report 1999, [online] http://www.unicef.org/sowc99.
[2] Baehr, 239.
[3] Donnelly, 32-33.
[4] Asbjorn Eide, “Obstacles and Goals to be Pursued”, in Asbjorn Eide, et al. (eds.), Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2001), 555.
[5] Asbjorn Eide, “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as Human Rights”, in Eide et al. (eds.), Economic Social and Cultural Rights (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2001), 26.
[6] Craven, 13.
[7] Eide, “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as Human Rights”, 25.

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