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Economic, social and cultural rights: – An integral part of international law

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Be it access to decent work or adequate healthcare – millions of people around the world are being deprived of economic, social and cultural rights. This is a question not only of resources and political decision-making, but also of the poor implementation of internationally binding rules.

Access to clean drinking water is a human right
Access to clean drinking water is a human right© dpa/picture alliance

Basis in international law: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 lists, in Articles 23 to 27, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to education, work and an adequate standard of living, including food, medical care and housing. The year 1966 saw, in parallel to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a universal and specific human rights instrument relating to ESC rights. 164 countries have signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

ESC rights – protection against interference in fundamental areas of life

For 50 years the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has been an integral part of international law and of the human rights policy debate on the same footing as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both agreements require the States parties to respect the fundamental rights of the individual and to protect them against attack or interference by third parties. This applies to civil and political rights, which provide protection, for instance, against torture or restrictions of the right to freedom of opinion, and equally to ESC rights, such as the right to free choice of employment or protection against arbitrary removal from one’s home.

People in Asore Kebele/Ethiopia filling canisters with water; the water point project is supported by UNICEF
People in Asore Kebele/Ethiopia filling canisters with water; the water point project is supported by UNICEF© dpa/picture alliance

It is frequently alleged that the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights – in contrast to civil and political rights – depends above all on the availability of sufficient resources and thus on a country’s level of development. But material resources also play a role when it comes to realising a well-functioning, well-equipped judicial system, humane prisons, a sound electoral system – prerequisites for guaranteeing civil and political rights. And finally, when it comes to guaranteeing economic, social and cultural rights, e.g. the right to food or healthcare, it is not only and not primarily a matter of distributing as many resources as possible, but rather of ensuring access or participation without discrimination.

All human rights are indivisible, universal and apply equally to all. In the Federal Government’s eyes, there is no “ranking” of human rights. The Federal Government has long been working for the realisation of ESC rights, too: the human right to water and sanitation, for example, or the right to adequate housing.

Click here for further information on WASH: Human right to clean drinking water and sanitation

Human rights and the 2030 Agenda

In September 2015, the 193 UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. During the negotiating process, the Federal Government was determined to anchor the protection and promotion of human rights firmly in the 2030 Agenda and to point out that sustainable development and human rights are mutually dependent. The move towards global sustainable development and the eradication of poverty is reflected in the 2030 Agenda’s seventeen sustainable development goals, which are aimed primarily at promoting enhanced implementation of ESC rights.

Human rights and economic interests: the National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights

At a cabinet meeting in December 2016, the Federal Government adopted the National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights, which aims to improve the human rights situation all along the supply and value chain in Germany and worldwide. To this end, the Action Plan combines the strengths of the various stakeholders from government, business, civil society and the trade unions.

National Action Plan Implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights PDF / 680 KB

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