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Key concepts on ESCRs - What are the obligations of States on economic, social and cultural rights?

The obligations of States in relation to economic, social and cultural rights are expressed differently from treaty to treaty. For example, in its Article 2 (1) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires States “to take steps” to the maximum of their available resources to achieve progressively the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights. The Covenant also requires States to guarantee the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights without discrimination and to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of these rights. Other treaties or constitutions word obligations differently and even include specific actions that States must take, such as the adoption of legislation or the promotion of these rights in public policies.

The obligation to achieve progressively the full realization is a central aspect of States’ obligations in connection with economic, social and cultural rights under international human rights treaties. At its core is the obligation to take appropriate measures towards the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights to the maximum of their available resources. The reference to “resource availability” reflects a recognition that the realization of these rights can be hampered by a lack of resources and can be achieved only over a period of time. Equally, it means that a State’s compliance with its obligation to take appropriate measures is assessed in the light of the resources—financial and others—available to it. Many national constitutions also allow for the progressive realization of some economic, social and cultural rights.

“Progressive realization” clauses found in other United Nations human rights treaties are article 4 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and article 4 (2) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Even though States may realize economic, social and cultural rights progressively, they must also take immediate action, irrespective of the resources they have, in five areas: elimination of discrimination; economic, social and cultural rights not subject to progressive realization; obligation to “take steps”; non-retrogressive measures; and minimum core obligations.

Furthermore, in order to clarify the meaning of States’ obligations, they are sometimes put under three headings: to respect (refrain from interfering with the enjoyment of the right), to protect (prevent others from interfering with the enjoyment of the right) and to fulfil (adopt appropriate measures towards the full realization of) economic, social and cultural rights.

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