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Economic social and cultural rights (ESCR) include the rights to adequate food, to adequate housing, to education, to health, to social security, to take part in cultural life, to water and sanitation, and to work.

Key concepts of ESCR

Economic, social and cultural rights — and civil and political rights 

All human rights, whether civil and political—or economic, social and cultural—are interlinked. For example, individuals who cannot read or write often have a harder time in realizing their full potentials than those who can to find work or to take part in political activity. Malnutrition and hunger are less likely to occur where individuals can effectively exercise their right to vote and influence Government priorities. 

The UDHR, ratified in 1948, makes no distinction between these rights. A distinction later appeared in the context of cold war tensions between the East and West. 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. 

In recent decades since the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights in 1993, there has been a return to the original architecture of the UDHR, reaffirming the indivisibility of all human rights. At the same time, there has been renewed attention to the importance of economic, social and cultural rights, particularly in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and addressing and preventing conflicts  crisis worldwide, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Obligations of States

States have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights.

Their specific obligations may be summarized as follows:

  • Progressive realization: States are required to progressively achieve the full realization of these rights over a period of time. Regardless of resource availability, States have an immediate obligation to take appropriate steps to ensure continuous and sustained improvement in the enjoyment of these rights over time.
  • Core obligations that are of immediate nature:  
    -Minimum essential levels: States are required, with immediate effect, to ensure the enjoyment of minimum essential levels of each right.

    -Prohibition of retrogression: The duty to progressively fulfil economic, social and cultural rights implies a prohibition of measures that would diminish the current enjoyment of rights. For example, States must ensure that their policies and measures do not undermine access to health care or social security benefits.  

    -Prohibition of discrimination: This covers laws, policies and practices which are discriminatory in effect, no matter the intent. Respecting the principle of non-discrimination requires specific measures to ensure the protection of the rights of marginalized populations as a priority. Even when resources are limited, the State has a duty to adopt measures to protect those most at risk. Such measures may include taxation and social transfers to mitigate inequalities that arise or are exacerbated in times of crisis. 

    -To take steps towards the full realization of ESCRs for all.
  • Use of maximum available resources: States have a duty to use their maximum available resources for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights. Even if a State clearly has inadequate resources at its disposal, it should still introduce low-cost and targeted programmes to assist those most in need so that limited resources are used efficiently and effectively.

Examples of violations

An individual’s economic, cultural, and social rights can be violated through various means. Violations occur when a State fails in its obligations to respect, protect and fulfil these rights. Some examples:

  • Forcibly evicting people from their homes (right to adequate housing)
  • Water treatment facilities contaminating drinking water (right to health)
  • Failure to ensure a wage sufficient for a decent living (right to work)
  • Failure to prevent starvation (freedom from hunger)
  • Denying access to information and services related to sexual and reproductive health (right to health)
  • Segregating children with disabilities from mainstream schools (right to education)

Legal enforcement

Decisions of national courts around the world as well as regional and international mechanisms covering all economic, social and cultural rights demonstrate that these rights can be subject to judicial enforcement. The judiciary has a fundamental role in developing our understanding of these rights, in affording remedies in cases of violations, and in providing decisions on test cases, all of which can lead to systematic institutional change to prevent future violations.    

Learn more about these and other key concepts in the ESCR fact sheet.

Our work on economic, social and cultural rights

We strive to strengthen the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights within an indivisibility approach to all human rights. We do this by:

  • Conducting research and analysis to develop policy positions and advocacy on ESCR
  • Providing policy, technical advice and capacity building support on ESCR to OHCHR’s field presences and stakeholders at the country level
  • Supporting the work of UN human rights mechanisms on ESCR and engaging in intergovernmental processes relevant for ESCR; and
  • Strengthening partnerships with UN agencies, cities and local governments, NHRIs and civil society to jointly promote ESCR

Learn more about the work we do to protect and promote the following ESCR: