International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR)

Economic, social and cultural rights include the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to education, the right to fair wages and the right to safe working conditions.

The ICESCR contains economic, social and cultural rights, for example the right to work, the right to health, the right to education and the right to an adequate standard of living, to be ‘recognized’ by States. These rights were considered to require a proactive role of the State involving financial and material resources. Since these resources might not necessarily be directly available, the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights could only be undertaken progressively.

Article 2(1) of the ICESCR requires States to take steps, including legislative measures, to achieve the ‘progressive realisation’ of ICESCR rights. This requires that States only demonstrate in good faith the fulfilment of the rights over time within their capacities. For example, it is assumed that where States have inadequate resources to ensure free education is provided, they will work towards achieving this goal.

The supervisory mechanism is more modest and consists only of a reporting procedure (Article 16).

The United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (the CESCR) monitors compliance with the ICESCR and provides guidance on how countries should interpret the ICESCR.

The division between the different categories of human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political, and social – does not imply that one category of human rights is more important than another. In the preamble of both 1966 Covenants, it is stated that all human rights are interrelated, indivisible, interdependent and equally important. States have confirmed this principle on various occasions, most recently in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna 1993).

However, practice shows that the different categories of human rights have not developed at an equal pace. Compared to civil and political rights, the categories of economic, social and cultural rights are less developed. This is partly due to the fact that economic, social and cultural rights have been seen for a long time as ‘secondary rights’ compared to civil and political rights.