Economic and Social Rights in Nowadays International Regime

From an international politics perspective, Economic and Social Rights (ESR) are provided for by virtue of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as various UN legally binding documents, notably the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR). The existence of such international legal covenant makes the ESR part and parcel of the 21st century international regime.

One is tempted to ask: what pushes countries to adhere to ESR and abide by them, especially when we consider the fact that some of them are reluctant to the ESR concept? This question is what the current paper tries to answer. In what follows an examination of the issue. The paper shall be organized along the following points: putting ESR within the context of international human rights regime, the difficulties to carry out ESR, and the significance of ESR nowadays.

ESR as Part of an International Regime

Economic rights refer to the rights to work, rest, leisure, and social security (Donnelly 607). As to social rights, they refer mainly to the right to education (607). They are part of an international human rights regime. Indeed, Economic and Social rights pertain to a body of human rights that the United Nations has established. This institution has been setting up norms as early as the 1940’s. It is largely accepted within academe that “the most important statements of the norms of the international human rights regime are the Universal declaration of Human rights, 1948…and the International Human Rights Covenants, 1976)” (606).

Attitudes to ESR sway from underestimation to overestimation of the value of these rights but most countries fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. There is a view that does not consider ESR as rights in the first place because on the one hand, they undermine individual, civil and political freedoms, on the other hand, ESR can lead to governmental interventionism in the economy (Steiner, Alston, and Goodman 263). Another view, on the contrary, perceives ESR as prior in importance to civil and political rights. They are somewhat a prerequisite because the right to speech freedom would be to no avail to a starving or illiterate person, for instance (263).

A good number of countries, 155 countries (263), adhere to ESR by virtue of their adherence to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR) show that many countries acknowledge their importance. They are slightly outnumbered by the number of adherences to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which shows some sort of medium way in the view towards the importance of ESR (263).

Nevertheless, the numerical adherence to it does not necessarily reflect the degree of the implementation of ESR. It proves only that there is some convergence on the general idea that countries should uphold some economic and social rights; that they are part of the duties of central governments towards their constituencies.

Difficulties to carry out ESR: ideological issues

One problem that forces itself is that ESR as all the human rights stipulated in UN documents are built on the premise that human rights are somewhat universal. The issue of universality of human rights is deemed as deceptive because there is substantial normative divergence.

As a normative statement, ESR reflects concern about such issues as education, food security, the right to exercise a job, and so on and so forth, in their human facet as elements that are needed for the fulfillment of an individual’s pursuit of happiness. A further examination betrays some vagueness that scholars like Arieh Neier find to be problematic; there is a concern that ESR reflect “broad assertions” and lack of specification of what a given right (shelter for example) entitles as governmental obligation (Steiner, Alston, and Goodman 283).

Another problem is how much the adherence to ESR is nation-bound and whether the obligations related to them trespass the national sphere to become an international commitment. One scholar, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, points out that in view of the UN focus on G8 Millennium Goals, whereby the UN “commits to strengthen partnership for poverty reduction, and defines benchmark targets and indicators of progress” (Parr 284), this particular question of national vs. international liability is coming to the fore ground (287).

Yet another issue with ESR is that they may ideologically clash with other types of rights or concepts that are peculiar to the socio-political system of a given country. Under this point, one may draw the attention that it is hard to locate individual freedom within a welfare system- a system that is based on the perception of state obligations towards providing the people with a number of ESRs, because individual freedom is anchored in an individual political philosophy whereas the welfare system reflects a communitarian ideology (Steiner, Alston, and Goodman 287).

One can also imagine that for liberal countries that uphold a laissez-faire philosophy, giving the market the upper hand in defining and conducting the economy, it is hard to reconcile with economic rights. Providing for jobs in a liberal economy is not really the task of the central government. Prescribing policies in this regard could be accused of being governmental interference in the economy. One ought to note that, in the light of the current global economic crisis, this is going to be less and less of a problem. Governments worldwide, including the US, are called for to “bail out” the economy and help restore it. Individuals are putting pressure on governments to step in to absorb the rising joblessness problem.

ESR in practice: mixed record and the internalization of ESR

To the above problems- the list is not exhaustive- one can still mention the problem of resource allocations. Unlike political and civil rights, the commitment of governments to ESR has economic implications. Countries like India complain about not being able to provide for child schooling, being at the top of countries with high number of working children paralleled with low child schooling (Steiner, Alston, and Goodman 296).

How much the financial issue plays a role in the weak compliance with ESR is beyond the scope of this paper. There are economic costs to ESR no matter how one argues that they are manageable. Providing for jobs, shelter, health, they all require money as much as enthusiasm about them, although not only that.

Financial implications and the afore-discussed ideological problems do not nullify the significance of ESR. They have, indeed, been fairly internalized, despite the reluctance of some countries. As all human rights issues, the record varies depending on countries. Unlike other forms of human rights issues, the degree of endorsement of ESR does not demonstrate the degree of internalization of the norms.

The intuitive assumption is that Western countries would be advanced in the field as opposed to the developing countries. One might dare confirm the assumption. Paradoxically, it is the developing countries which are most vocal about ESCR and Western countries have proved notoriously reluctant to adhere to them.

Besides the financial component and the ideological set of problems, examined in the previous section, some scholars perceive that the reluctance of Western countries stems from the fact that “rights are often not accorded constitutional or other recognition right per se” (Steiner, Alston, and Goodman 282). This fosters ambivalent attitudes on the part of such countries as the US who adhered to ESR in the 1960’s but has been implementing at various paces, according the president in office. In this respect, one finds that ESR reached momentum under Carter administration but not at George Bush’s Sr. and Jr.

In Europe, there has been fair internalization of ESCR illustrated in the existence of various systems of welfare state. In fact, the underlying concepts can be found to be existent before 1976. In Britain, for instance, one might trace that well before the formulation of the ICESR, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, back to the 19th century (Whelan, Donnelly 9).

The British Welfare system was reinvigorated between and after the World Wars (11). It was probably a response to the socio-economic strife that the Wars generated. The then major political parties have been working on expanding welfare.

In the US, also, there was a notion of economic rights as early as the 1930’s under Roosevelt presidency. In 1944, at the State Union Address, he declared that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence” (Whelan, Donnelly 11).

Therefore, one explanation for why countries in the West would be supportive of ESR simply because the concept of economic and social rights has been part of their systems before the more explicit and global formulation of IESCR, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

In developing countries there is still work to be done. India, as previously mentioned, is the country with highest rate of children not going to school. Still, India and countries of the like have all the benefits of adhering to it. ESR can help in their endeavors to overcome problems related to their development rank, notably literacy and poverty. Amnesty International pertinently points out that “while access to food, health services and quality education are the top of any list of development goals, to speak of them as rights turns the citizens of developing countries into objects of development rather than subjects in control of their own destiny” (Amnesty International 1).

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) puts forth that such issues as poverty are indeed better dealt with if the strategies applied to it have a normative anchor in human rights. Accordingly, “the considered and consistent application of human rights to poverty reduction reinforces some of the existing features of anti-poverty strategies. Hence the view of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: “Anti-poverty policies are more likely to be effective, sustainable, inclusive, equitable and meaningful to those living in poverty if they are based upon international human rights””(2).

Finally, in the light of the current global economic problem, one can expect a further focus on ESR –a point mentioned earlier but worth stressing. It is undeniable that when the crisis has occurred, the pressure exerted by the citizens onto their governments to interfere has been growing. Citizens who have lost their jobs or witnessed deterioration in their livelihoods have been more and more vocal. The fact that governments respond, notably illustrated in the US “bail out” plan, show that even the most liberal countries cannot afford to overlook social and economic strife of their citizens. These, in the American experience, have exerted some leverage to focus not only on helping the SEOs but paying attention also to the individuals who have been affected by the crisis.


ESR are important components of nowadays international regime. They have been incorporated to the international human rights regime in 1976, by virtue of the UN’s ICESCR, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. They reflect a concern about the individual but as much as this normative concern is straightforward, the details of its application are not. Adding to this, the economic cost creates difficulties. For this, countries have been reluctant to implement it but, on the whole, there has been fair internalization in the West of the concept of ESR (economic and social rights) to be taken as a model by developing countries. This has been facilitated by the fact that notions of economic and social rights existed prior to 1976. One also expects there would be further internalization in the future, notably in the light of the current global economic crisis.


Amnesty International. “Reclaiming economic, social and cultural rights”. 2009. Web.

Donnelly, Jack. “International Human Rights: a regime analysis”, International Organization 40.3 (1986): 559-639.

Hertel, Shareen and Minkler,Lanse. “International obligations for economic and social rights – the case of Millennium Development Goal 8” In Economic Rights: Conceptual, Measurement, and Policy Issues. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

OHCHR. “ Human Rights and Poverty Reduction: A Conceptual Framework”, New York and Geneva: United Nations. 2004.

Steiner, Henry , Alston, Philip, and Goodman, Ryan. International Human Rights in Context Law Politics Morals, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press. 2007.

Whelan, Daniel and Donnelly, Jack. “The West, Economic and Social Rights, and the Global Human Rights Regime: Setting the Record Straight”, working paper no. 40, human rights & human welfare, 2006. Web.

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