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Key concepts on ESCRs - Myths and misconceptions on economic, social and cultural rights

  • CPRs are urgent and must be prioritized. Realization of ESCR can be tackled later.

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.

Paragraph 5, page 7, Frequently Asked Questions on ESCR - Fact Sheet N° 33, OHCHR 2008

  • ESCR will flow naturally from democracy and economic growth.

The truth is that, unless specific action is taken towards the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights, these rights can rarely, if ever, be realized, even in the long term.

Economic growth for instance, does not automatically translate into an improvement of the standard of living of the most excluded and marginalized groups, unless special measures or policies are directed to those ends. If growth leads to improved resources for free and compulsory education but there are no specific policies to ensure that persons with disabilities have physical access to schools, this would widen the gaps between sectors of the population and result in a denial of economic, social and cultural rights.

Similarly, democracy alone is often insufficient to realize economic, social and cultural rights for the poorest and most marginalized. People living in poverty and at the margins of society often find it harder to get their views reflected in laws, public policies or development efforts, because they lack a voice in parliaments and ministries. […] This may divert attention from the most marginalized to those who are more visible and have more power and more access to decision makers in a democracy.

Question 13, page 22, Frequently Asked Questions on ESCR - Fact Sheet N° 33, OHCHR 2008

  • Achieving the MDGs is the same as realizing ESCR.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and human rights standards complement each other to a great degree, but human rights go further.

1. The nature of the commitment made by States is different. Human rights, including ESCR, are legally binding commitments, while the MDGs are political commitments.

2. The scope of issues that ESCR cover is wider than those covered by the MDGs. For example, while MDG 2 requires States to achieve universal primary education, the right to education requires States to address not only primary (which must be free) but also secondary and tertiary education. Furthermore, MDGs do not address certain aspects of ESCR, such as protection against forced evictions.

3.  ESCR together with the principle of non-discrimination bring in a qualitative aspect by asking not only how many but also who is being lifted out of poverty. For instance, MDG 1 seeks to reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. But if, for example, the target is met by 2015, yet the proportion of indigenous people going hungry has increased or even stayed the same, MDG 1 might be met but the right to food of indigenous people breached.

4. The MDGs are an intermediary target with a limited time frame, while human rights require States to make constant efforts until they achieve the final goal, i.e., full realization of human rights for all. For example, MDG 7 requires States to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. The right to water requires States, including those that have met MDG 7, to continue efforts to ensure access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

5. There is a difference in geographical scope. The MDGs focus mostly on the developing world, while international human rights norms are universal and provide a means to address poverty, HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality and so forth wherever they occur, including in the developed countries.

Therefore, to realize ESCR, efforts should be made to achieve the MDGs in a way that fully integrates a human rights perspective, and to go beyond.

Adopted from Question 13, page 22, Frequently Asked Questions on ESCR - Fact Sheet N° 33, OHCHR 2008

  • In emergency situations, such as natural disasters or armed conflict, efforts to realize ESCR can be put aside.

No. There is no express permission under human rights law for States to derogate from their obligations in relation to economic, social and cultural rights during emergencies, disasters or armed conflicts. In fact, in such circumstances, more attention is often required to protect economic, social and cultural rights, in particular those of the most marginalized groups of society.

Addressing economic, social and cultural rights also helps to prevent, prepare for and recover from disasters and conflicts. Studies and investigations show that systematic discrimination and inequalities in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights may cause, or exacerbate, social and political tensions leading to conflict or worsening the impact of disasters, and placing obstacles on the road to recovery.

Question 16, page 25, Frequently Asked Questions on ESCR - Fact Sheet N° 33, OHCHR 2008