In the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 16 and Articles 22 through
27 encompass economic, social, and cultural rights.
Article 16 of the UDHR sets
forth the right to marry, to have free choice in marriage, and to found
Article 22 states “Everyone
is entitled to the realization of the economic, social and cultural
rights indispensable for his dignity.” Article 23 articulates the right
to work, to choose employment, and to form labor unions.
Article 24 sets forth the
right to rest and leisure and of reasonable limitation of working hours.
Article 25 includes a person’s
right to a “standard of living adequate for the health and well-being
of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and
medical care and necessary social services.”
Article 26 states that individuals
have the right to education, free and compulsory at the elementary level,
with technical and professional education generally available, and higher
education equally accessible on the basis of merit.
Article 27 describes the right
to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy
the arts, and to share in scientific advancement.
Article 28 and 29 include
the right to a social and international order that enables these rights
to be realized and refers to one’s duties to one’s community.
These rights are further elaborated
in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights. They are also articulated in specialized human rights
treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child
(CRC) and the Conven tion on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
Against Women (CEDAW), treaties that focus on
the needs of particularly disadvantaged, marginalized, and vulnerable
groups of people all over the world.
Do any of these human rights documents
have the force of law?
The Universal Declaration is a resolution
of the General Assembly of the United Nations, which creates a high
expectation that it will be taken seriously. However, a declaration
does not create obligations that are technically binding in law. Never
- the less, since the Universal Declaration is so widely used as the
primary statement of what are considered human rights today, it is often
regarded as having legal significance and considered “customary”
international law and as the authentic interpretation
of the references in the UN Charter.
The specific rights in the UDHR have
been codified into the International Covenant on Economic,
Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). A covenant
is a treaty which, under the rules of international law,
creates legal obligations on all states that ratify it.
Similarly, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Convention
on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
also are treaties that are binding on the states that
Therefore, citizens worldwide should
put pressure on their governments to ratify these treaties and to abide
by the obligations they set forth. For example, a right to health care
is mandated by the ICESCR, meaning that a basic and adequate health
care entitlement should be guaranteed to all citizens and residents
of countries ratifying the treaty.
Not all countries are in equal
positions to provide for their citizens. How is this dealt with in the
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)?
The ICESCR states that each state
party to the covenant should “undertake steps, individually
and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic
and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view
to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized
in the Covenant, by all appropriate means, including particularly the
adoption of legislative measures.”
It also states that state parties
must guarantee these rights without discrimination with respect to race,
color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, and social
Is the United States a party to
the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?
No. The United States signed
the Covenant in 1979 under the Carter administration but is not fully
bound by it until it is ratified. For political reasons, the Carter
administration did not push for the necessary review of the Covenant
by the Senate, which must give its “advice and consent” before the US
can ratify a treaty. The Reagan and Bush administrations took the view
that economic, social, and cultural rights were not really rights but
merely desirable social goals and therefore should not be the object
of binding treaties. The Clinton Administration has not denied the nature
of these rights but has not found it politically expedient to engage
in a battle with Congress over the Covenant. If the Covenant were to
be considered at this point in time, it would likely result either in
the defeat of ratification or in accompanying the ratification with
reservations that would empty it of any meaningful obligations. Several
organizations in the USA mobilized community groups to put pressure
on the Congress to ratify the ICESCR in connection with the 50th anniversary
of the UDHR in 1998.
Although the US has not ratified
the ICESCR, does it have any obligations as a signatory of this Covenant?
Yes. According to the law of treaties,
a government that has signed but not ratified a treaty (like the Covenant)
must “refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of
[the] treaty...until it shall have made its intention clear not be become
a party ....” Unfortunately, courts in the USA are not likely to attach
much importance to this rule if an action were brought before that claims
the USA is defeating the object and purpose of the Covenant.
What would it mean to ordinary
people if the US Senate gave its advice and consent and the USA ratified
It would mean four things:
1. The USA would be required to “take
steps...to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving
progressively the full realization of the rights recognized” in the
2. The USA must ensure that the rights
in the Covenant are enjoyed without discrim ination based on race, color,
sex, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,
property, birth or other status. (In most countries, “other status”
includes disability and in some countries also refers to sexual orientation.)
3. The USA would be required to report
to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on measures
adopted and progress made in achieving the observance of the Covenant
rights. The 18-member Committee, on which a US expert could have a seat
if elected, would examine this report and pose questions. The Committee
would then formulate its general observations on how the USA might do
better, if it concludes that the USA is not doing enough to realize
the rights in the Covenant.
4. Finally, the rights in the Covenant
would become part of the “Supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in
every State shall be bound thereby,” according to Article VI, Clause
2 of the US Constitution. Thus, in theory, anyone whose rights under
the Covenant were violated would be able to bring a case before the
Source: Adapted from Human Rights Education: The
Fourth R, 9:1 (Spring 1998), a publication of Amnesty International
USA's Huma Rights Educators' Network. Original work was written by Shulamith
Koenig and the staff of The People's Decade for Human Rights Education
(1998), 526 West 111th Street, Suite 4E, New York, NY USA 10025. Web