Global Challenges
Issue no. 11 | March 2022
The Uncertain Future of Human Rights
Global Challenges
Issue no. 11 | March 2022
The Uncertain Future of Human Rights | Article 5

The Future of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Reading time: 5 min

In a world of increasing inequalities, immediate action to protect economic, social and cultural rights is essential. Not only must existing rights instruments be respected and strengthened, it may also be necessary for economic and social rights to prevail over intellectual property rights when such fundamental human rights as the right to health or to food security are at stake.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948, giving equal recognition to civil, cultural, economic, political and social human rights. The UDHR emerged from a conviction from UN member states that the atrocities resulting from World War II should never be repeated and that we need a world where all human rights are equally respected.

Since 1948, economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights have been enshrined in numerous international human rights instruments, and their monitoring mechanisms have been reinforced at national, regional and international levels. Today, ESC rights comprise, notably, the right of peoples to sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources; the human rights to work, social security, food, housing, water, sanitation, health, and education; the rights of indigenous peoples and peasants to land and seeds; and cultural rights. Most recently, in 2021, the right to a healthy environment has also been recognised by the UN Human Rights Council as a human right.

In the future we anticipate this positive trajectory to continue. We expect, for example, the human rights of the world’s urban population – through the mobilisation of the global movement for the right to the city – to be recognised by the United Nations in the same way that the rights of indigenous peoples, peasants and other people working in rural areas were recognised in 2007 and 2018. We also expect a binding treaty on the human rights obligations of non-state actors to be adopted, and a world court of human rights to be created, with the competence to receive complaints about violations of all human rights, be they perpetrated by state or non-state actors. With the advent in 2008 of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the peer review mechanism through which all human rights of every UN member state are comprehensively reviewed every five years, the recognition and importance of ESC rights have been reinforced throughout the UN system and at national levels.

In the future, we see two scenarios at opposite ends of the spectrum of ESC rights realisation and violations, with a multitude of possibilities in the middle. In the first scenario, social and economic inequalities will continue to increase; climate change, displacement resulting from conflict, disasters and development, and pandemics will not be controlled; and there will be an increasing number of armed and ethnic conflicts in the world. These phenomena will have a devastating impact on the ESC rights of people and communities across the world, in particular on the most vulnerable and marginalised. A vicious circle would be initiated, and an apartheid would be imposed, with humanity and societies being divided between those who can enjoy the full exercise of ESC rights, and those who would die or live in extremely precarious and debilitating living conditions.

In the second scenario, a virtuous circle would be created, with the enjoyment of ESC rights, the control of pandemics, the signing of peace agreements, the adoption of development policies that do not ride roughshod over people’s human rights, and the reduction of extreme events due to climate change leading to a decrease in the tensions between communities, societies and nations.

For the second scenario to unfold, a number of initiatives need to be taken on an urgent basis:

  • In addition to obligations stemming from international human rights instruments and mechanisms such as UN Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review process, state and non-state actors should implement the practical and operational guidance offered by “soft-law” instruments to protect, among other things, the human rights of internally displaced persons, those living in extreme poverty, and those threatened by forced evictions or large-scale land acquisitions.
  • International humanitarian law as well as international agreements to protect refugees (including the 1951 Geneva Convention), to protect the environment (including the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aarhus Convention), and to combat climate change (including the Paris Agreement) should be fully implemented.
  • Local and national policies, regional and international agreements (including free trade agreements and investment treaties), and the rules and activities of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should be put in conformity with human rights.
  • Intellectual property rights should not be protected if they violate the right to health or the right to seeds, which is essential both for global food security and biodiversity.
  • The SDGs should be implemented across the world in consistency with related human rights and states’ environmental obligations.
  • The relevance of global public goods and the necessity of a universal basic income should be further promoted at national and international levels.

The future of ESC rights will be defined by the choices we are making today. The future of ESC rights will be defined by the choices we are making today. Today’s orientations will determine whether the future of ESC rights will be ensured for the current and future generations, and whether they will have a meaning for all “in small places close to home” – to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt. The promise of the indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights conceptualised in the UDHR and then stressed at the Vienna World Conference of Human Rights in 1993, and subsequently reinforced in international human rights instruments and mechanisms, needs to be operationalised in all international, regional and national laws, policies and administrative actions.

Christophe Golay
Visiting Professor, The Graduate Institute, Geneva
Senior Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on ESC Rights, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

Miloon Kothari
Visiting Professor, The Graduate Institute, Geneva
President of UPR Info

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TIMELINE: Major International Human Rights Treaties

1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration)

The Universal Declaration was the first detailed expression of the basic rights and fundamental freedoms to which all human beings are entitled.

1948. Genocide Convention

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN in an effort to prevent atrocities, such as the Holocaust, from happening again. The Convention defines the crime of genocide.

1951. Refugee Convention

The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees protects the rights of people who are forced to flee their home country for fear of persecution on specific grounds.

1960. Discrimination in Employment Convention

The Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No. 111) of the International Labour Organization prohibits discrimination at work on many grounds, including race, sex, religion, political opinion and social origin.

1965. Racial Discrimination Convention

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) obliges states to take steps to prohibit racial discrimination and promote understanding among all races.

1966. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Covenant

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) protects rights like the right to an adequate standard of living, education, work, healthcare, and social security. The ICESCR and the ICCPR (below) build on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by creating binding obligations for state parties.

1966. Civil and Political Rights Covenant

Human rights protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) include the right to vote, the right to freedom of association, the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy, and the right to freedom of religion. The First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR creates a mechanism for individuals to make complaints about breaches of their rights. The Second Optional Protocol concerns abolition of the death penalty.

1979. Discrimination against Women Convention

Under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), states must take steps to eliminate discrimination against women and to ensure that women enjoy human rights to the same degree as men in a range of areas, including education, employment, healthcare and family life. The Optional Protocol establishes a mechanism for making complaints.

1984. Convention against Torture
The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment (CAT) aims to prevent torture around the world. It requires states to take steps to eliminate torture in within their borders. And it prohibits states from sending a person to another country where he or she would be in danger of being subjected to torture.
The Optional Protocol creates a system for regular inspection of places of detention.
1989. Children’s Convention
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that children are entitled to the same human rights as all other people. It also creates special rights for children, recognising their particular vulnerability, such as the right to express their views freely, and that decisions affecting children must consider the best interests of the child.
There are two Optional Protocols, one on child prostitution and pornography and another on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
1989. Indigenous Peoples Convention

The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169) of the International Labour Organization aims to protect the rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples around the world. It is based on respect for the right of Indigenous peoples to maintain their own identities and to decide their own path for development in all areas including land rights, customary law, health and employment.

1990. Convention on Migrant Workers

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families aims to ensure that migrant workers enjoy full protection of their human rights, regardless of their legal status.

2006. Convention on Persons with Disabilities

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities aims to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by persons with disability. It includes the right to health, education, employment, accessibility, and non-discrimination. The Optional Protocol establishes an individual complaints mechanism.

2007. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

This Declaration establishes minimum standards for the enjoyment of individual and collective rights by Indigenous peoples. These include the right to effectively participate in decision-making on matters which affect them, and the right to pursue their own priorities for economic, social and cultural development.

2011. Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training

This Declaration asserts that everyone has the right to know, seek and receive information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms and should have access to human rights education and training.

Based on the information produced by the Australian Human Rights Commission

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