What are economic, social and cultural rights, and why do they matter?
Amnesty International promotes the upholding of economic, social and cultural rights, sometimes referred to as “ESC rights”. These rights are protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many human rights treaties, but what are they, and how are they interlinked?
ESC rights include protections for the basic things we need to live: food, water, sanitation, health, housing and social security. It also covers things we need to live a dignified life like education, workers’ rights, and rights affected by the ongoing climate crisis. All ESC rights can intersect with and impact each other – for example, bad sanitation can lead to poor health outcomes.
Why do these rights matter?
We all need safe homes to live in. We need food to eat; water to drink, wash, clean and cook with; and sanitation to make sure we stay healthy. When we get sick, we need healthcare. Our children need education, workers need fair treatment and pay, and those who can’t work need a social security system which will allow them to overcome adverse circumstances and live a dignified life.
Gross economic and social inequality is an enduring reality in countries of all levels of development. Billions of people across the world live without many of these basic rights. Even wealthy and powerful governments have failed to meet their obligations to end hunger and preventable disease, and to eliminate illiteracy and homelessness. Overlapping crises, like war and climate change, lead to increases in poverty, inequality and discrimination worldwide.
Governments around the world have obligations to guarantee ESC rights, and Amnesty International holds them to account to respect, protect and fulfil these rights.
What are economic social and cultural rights?
Economic, social and cultural rights include:
- Water and sanitation
- Workers rights
- Social Security
The right to food
The right to food is more than just the right to eat enough to not die of starvation. Food should be available in sufficient quantities and be of high enough quality to satisfy everyone eating it, both in terms of health and dietary needs and within a given culture. It should also be affordable and accessible in a way that is sustainable.
In reality however, although there is enough food grown, produced and manufactured around the world for no one to go hungry or suffer from malnutrition, millions of people cannot access adequate and nutritious food on a daily basis due to government failings and multiple crises such as conflict and climate.
There are many ways in which the right to food can be affected by inadequate actions by governments. Food insecurity might be caused by huge rises in prices, or crisis situations might cause humanitarian aid (such as food and water supplies) might be blocked, for example in Ethiopia.
Rights to water and sanitation
The right to water is vital for every living thing – without it we would die. We need water to drink and clean ourselves with, and for cooking and sanitation, which is also a right. Water is essential in the enjoyment of all other human rights including the right to life. It is also key in food production.
The right to sanitation enables people to access a clean and healthy environment, without it there are barriers to other rights, such as health and education.
Water must be available and accessible to all people in sufficient quantity and of adequate quality for all of the reasons it is needed. However, there are many ways in which the rights to water and sanitation are violated.
Pollution can make water unsafe. Water scarcity can lead to devastating drought. The climate crisis can often make this worse, exacerbating the lack of accessible, clean water. Governments and companies might control water supplies in ways which ensure people do not have adequate access to it. Human rights defenders have even been threatened with death for speaking out for this right.
The right to health
The right to health is closely interwoven with all other human rights. We all have the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. This includes what we call the “social determinants of health”, such as a healthy environment, freedom from violence and discrimination, food, housing, sanitation, water, and education and social security.
The right to health is not a right to be healthy, but to entitle everyone access to a health system that allows you to maintain and secure your health. Different groups of people – women, children, older persons, and people living with disabilities – might have specific needs, and governments should ensure these are understood and adequately addressed.
Despite this there are still many instances of health inequity, where some people are not able to access healthcare as easily as others. During the Covid-19 pandemic for example, there was widespread vaccine inequality, when the pharmaceutical industry restricted access to lifesaving vaccines from lower-income countries. Health inequity can also be caused by things like medication shortages, when governments have failed to adequately prepare for healthcare needs by not ensuring supplies are available, or by expensive fees which make accessing care and medicines unaffordable.
Governments can also fail to uphold the right to health by mismanaging public health crises, such as was also seen during the pandemic.
The right to housing
All of us have the right to adequate housing: a safe and secure place to call our home. You should be legally allowed to live there, and your housing should have access to basic services and infrastructure, such as water and sanitation. It must be affordable, and it must be adequate to protect you and your family from bad weather, disease and pollution.
Nobody should be homeless. According to international human rights law and standards, homelessness is an extreme violation of the right to adequate housing (among other rights).
Unfortunately, there are many other ways in which this right is violated, such as people being displaced in conflicts, and via practices such as forced evictions, like those of indigenous people like the Maasai, and by corporations, such as mining companies in the DRC.
The right to education
We all have the right to education. Education is vital for human fulfilment and personal development, and it also enables us to access and better enjoy other rights, such as work, adequate housing, and a decent standard of living.
The right to education includes lifelong education at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary), in either formal or informal settings. Primary level education is compulsory and must be provided for free to everyone. At higher levels governments must work towards making it free as well whilst still ensuring it is available and affordable to all.
Governments must prioritize and budget for free, affordable and quality public education, using and maximizing their resources to fund public schools, which are physically accessible and of adequate quality.
When this doesn’t happen, it can cause great inequality, such as what Amnesty International found when it investigated in South Africa.
We all have the right to work, which includes both the rights to work and a set of rights at work (which are sometimes also called “labour rights”). All workers are protected by these rights whether you work in the formal or informal sector, are a migrant worker, a temporary worker or are self-employed.
Although the right to work is not the right to a job, it is a right to opportunities and conditions that can secure you decent work, enabling an adequate standard of living for you and your family.
Governments should provide support services to help people access work opportunities, and they must also develop ways to increase the number and range of opportunities available. Work opportunities must be available to all people without discrimination. Workers must also be able to form and join unions and engage in collective action.
No one should be forced in any way to work.
However, there is widespread violation of workers’ rights. Millions of people are forced to work against their will, or work in degrading and unfair conditions, such as in some Amazon warehouses. Others, due to lack of opportunity, have little choice but to take jobs in the “gig economy”, often meaning long hours, precarious contracts and unreliable pay.
Migrant workers are often among the worst exploited, and people can be manipulated into doing difficult and dangerous jobs with no protections from unscrupulous employers. This can lead to scenarios of what we call forced labour, which is a form of modern slavery.
Case Study: holding sports behemoth FIFA to account in Qatar
When Qatar was declared host of the 2022 men’s Football World Cup it made headlines around the world. But Qatar has a history of systemic labour abuses and exploitation of migrant workers, and sadly for many thousands needed to work on preparing and delivering this historic event this occasion proved to be no different.
Despite knowing this FIFA awarded the multi-billion-dollar tournament to Qatar without imposing on it any conditions to ensure labour protections for migrant workers, despite the foreseeable risk to their human rights.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers hired for projects related to the World Cup were exploited and abused, subjected to unpaid wages, forced labour, and conditions which for some tragically led to their deaths.
Alongside other organizations, Amnesty International is campaigning for FIFA to compensate migrant workers who were affected by these abuses, calling for their workers’ rights to be upheld by establishing a compensation fund and putting a stop to the practices violating their rights.
Right to a remedy
Despite all of the above, the reality for millions of people is that governments often fail to uphold some or all of these rights. This is where the right to a remedy comes in. When we talk about having the right to a remedy, it means that everyone must be able to seek legal recourse when their rights have been violated.
The remedy must be accessible, binding, effective, and capable of delivering justice. It should both provide appropriate reparations for victims and prevent further violations of rights.
Although the right to a remedy ensures the ability to seek remedy from the state directly, international cooperation and assistance is vital in upholding this right. States should work together to ensure people can seek justice, as part of their extraterritorial obligations. This means that human rights obligations do not just stop at states’ borders when their actions impact those living in other countries.
The right to a remedy applies to all rights, for example when somebody has suffered torture or in the case of ESCR been forcibly evicted from their home. it can also apply when a business has abused their rights such as happened in Qatar.
Case Study: Holding Shell to account in Niger Delta
In Nigeria, communities used their right to a remedy to bring oil giant Shell to justice.
In 2021 Shell announced plans to sell its assets in the Niger Delta after 60 years of profit. However, the company did not explain how it planned to address the widespread and systemic pollution of Nigerian communities linked to its operations before it sold its operations and left the country.
For decades Amnesty International has documented grievous and enduring human rights abuses resulting from oil contamination in the Niger Delta. This has had a devastating effect on people’s lives, meaning they can no longer farm or fish, access clean water, or even live in a healthy environment.
Residents from the Ogale and Bille communities took Shell to the UK Supreme Court. On a technical point relating to the responsibility that the UK-based parent company had, they demanded the company cleans up spills which wrecked their livelihoods, poisoned their wells, and polluted their land and water. And they won.
This landmark ruling allows the communities to take the case back to the High Court, and could spell the end of a long chapter of impunity for Shell, and for other multinationals who commit human rights abuses overseas. It is a significant step in ensuring Shell cleans up the damage caused and compensates communities for their lost livelihoods. As such, it provides a good illustration of people using their right to a remedy to seek justice from even the most powerful opponents.
How do austerity policies affect economic, social and cultural rights?
Economic policy is a huge factor in affecting ESC rights. When governments implement “austerity” this can have a deeply adverse effects on human rights.
Austerity is when governments use measures to try to decrease public debt usually through spending cuts. This affects people’s rights as it often means funding is cut or reduced for services essential to ensure people can access their rights. In practice this might mean things like longer waiting times for vital healthcare, or no longer ensuring things like refuse removal, which leads to worse sanitation. Social security payments may be cut, leading to greater poverty and hunger.
Before implementing austerity, governments should consider the human rights impacts and consider alternative measures. These might be in the form of negotiating debt relief with creditors, taxation reform to ensure a fairer system, or diversion of funds from other areas towards more essential services, such as education and healthcare.
Human rights in a world of overlapping crises
Currently humanity faces an unprecedented scenario of serious and overlapping crises, which intersect, fuel and worsen each other.
For example, the ongoing climate crisis might mean that people are displaced from land they can no longer farm – this puts them at risk of suffering from inadequate housing and access to food and water/sanitation. If their government is operating austerity measures, there may not be enough funding to adequately help them.
Conversely, the global cost of living crisis might mean that states are unable to tackle the effects of climate change, so for example if a school is destroyed by adverse weather there may not be any money to rebuild it, and children go without education.
These intersecting crises lead to increases in poverty, inequality and discrimination worldwide.
Case Study: Sri Lanka’s economic crisis
Decades of unstable government, economic mismanagement and huge tax cuts had already weakened Sri Lanka’s economy when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2019.
Much of Sri Lanka’s revenue comes from tourism, which was virtually wiped out overnight. Money coming in from nationals working abroad also slowed to a trickle, and the government was forced to draw on foreign exchange reserves, plunging the country into an economic crisis.
Fuel shortages meant long queues and electricity blackouts, affecting basic services such as sanitation and healthcare, with hospitals running out of medicine and power. For some access to drinking water and adequate food supplies became much harder. The deteriorating conditions led to widespread protests, to which authorities often reacted with violence.
The crisis exacerbated poverty and decimated social security systems, overwhelmingly affecting the government’s ability to guarantee human rights. When one ESC right is violated it can have a far-reaching and overlapping effect on all of the other rights.
What is Amnesty International doing to fight for economic, social and cultural rights?
Amnesty International advocates for the full realization of ESCR to ensure that everybody can lead a dignified life, free of discrimination and poverty.
Our Protect the Protest campaign calls on governments to allow people to exercise their right to protest, whether that be against poverty, inequality, unsafe working conditions, health inequity, lack of education, or any of the other areas where they cannot access ESCR.
We help workers stand up for their rights, exposing illegal working conditions and practices which violate their right to work.
We fight for children to have better access to adequate schooling, and for everyone to have a safe and healthy home with enough food and water.
We call on governments to ensure nobody falls into poverty despite obstacles such as an economic crisis, fulfilling their obligations to social security.
And we lobby hard to make sure that when rights are violated, the perpetrators are brought to justice.
Across the world there are many challenges on the horizon. Climate change and the cost-of-living crises have exacerbated many of the difficulties people face in accessing their economic, social, and cultural rights. But it is essential that these rights are respected, protected and guaranteed to everyone without discrimination, as they are inseparable with what it means to live a meaningful life, and we won’t stop fighting for them.
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