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Key concepts on ESCRs - Are economic, social and cultural rights fundamentally different from civil and political rights?

No. In the past, there has been a tendency to speak of economic, social and cultural rights as if they were fundamentally different from civil and political rights. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made no distinction between rights, the distinction appeared in the context of the deepening cold war tensions between East and West. The market economies of the West tended to put greater emphasis on civil and political rights, while the centrally planned economies of the Eastern bloc highlighted the importance of economic, social and cultural rights. This led to the negotiation and adoption of two separate Covenants—one on civil and political rights, and another on economic, social and cultural rights. However, this strict separation has since been abandoned and there has been a return to the original architecture of the Universal Declaration. In recent decades, human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have integrated all rights.

Second, economic, social and cultural rights have been seen as requiring high levels of investment, while civil and political rights are said simply to require the State to refrain from interfering with individual freedoms. It is true that many economic, social and cultural rights sometimes require high levels of investment—both financial and human—to ensure their full enjoyment. However, economic, social and cultural rights also require the State to refrain from interfering with individual freedoms, for instance trade union freedoms or the right to seek work of one’s choosing. Similarly, civil and political rights, although comprising individual freedoms, also require investment for their full realization. For example, civil and political rights require infrastructures such as a functioning court system, prisons respecting minimum living conditions for prisoners, legal aid, free and fair elections, and so on.

Finally, in reality, the enjoyment of all human rights is interlinked. For example, it is often harder for individuals who cannot read and write to find work, to take part in political activity or to exercise their freedom of expression. Similarly, famines are less likely to occur where individuals can exercise political rights, such as the right to vote. Consequently, when closely scrutinized, categories of rights such as “civil and political rights” or “economic, social and cultural rights” make little sense. For this reason, it is increasingly common to refer to civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

For more information, see the Fact Sheet No. 33. - ArabicEnglish | French | Russian | Spanish