Economic, social and cultural rights

70 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed a wide spectrum of human rights that every human being has – without discrimination. They include not only rights to freedom of expression and freedom from torture and ill-treatment, but also rights to education, to adequate housing and other economic, social and cultural rights.

Economic, social and cultural rights are a broad category of human rights guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other legally binding international and regional human rights treaties. Nearly every country in the world is party to a legally binding treaty that guarantees these rights. They include:

  • Rights at work, particularly just and fair conditions of employment, protection against forced or compulsory labour and the right to form and join trade unions.
  • The right to education, including ensuring that primary education is free and compulsory, that education is sufficiently available, accessible, acceptable and adapted to the individual.
  • Cultural rights of minorities and Indigenous Peoples.
  • The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including the right to healthy living conditions and available, accessible, acceptable and quality health services.
  • The right to adequate housing, including security of tenure, protection from forced eviction and access to affordable, habitable, well located and culturally adequate housing.
  • The right to food, including the right to freedom from hunger and access at all times to adequate nutritious food or the means to obtain it.
  • The right to water – the right to sufficient water and sanitation that is available, accessible (both physically and economically) and safe.

Who is responsible?

States – national governments – bear the primary responsibility for making human rights a reality. Governments must respect peoples' rights – they must not violate these rights. They must protect peoples' rights – ensuring that other people or bodies do not abuse these rights. And they must fulfil peoples' rights, making them a reality in practice.

Governments have widely differing resources. International law allows for the fact that making economic, social and cultural rights a reality can only be achieved progressively over time. However, the duty of governments to respect and protect these rights and to ensure freedom from discrimination is immediate. Lack of resources is no excuse.

Although governments may need time to realize economic, social and cultural rights, this does not mean they can do nothing – they have to take steps towards fulfilling them. As an initial step, they must prioritise "minimum core obligations" – minimum essential levels of each of the rights. Under the right to education, for example, core obligations include the right to free primary education.

Governments must not discriminate in their laws, policies or practices and must prioritize the most vulnerable when allocating resources.

States also have obligations when they act beyond their borders to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights. These obligations extend to action they take through intergovernmental organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "every organ of society" has human rights responsibilities. Corporations play an increasingly significant role globally in the realization or denial of human rights. Amnesty International is committed to holding businesses accountable where their actions result in human rights violations.

Despite international guarantees of these rights, across the world:

  • 923 million people were suffering from chronic hunger. Hunger is often driven by human rights violations, as Amnesty International has documented in North Korea, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. The current world food crisis, which itself has been fuelled by human rights violations, has led to an additional 75 million people being chronically malnutritioned.
  • Over a billion people live in 'slums' or informal settlements, with one in every three city residents living in inadequate housing with no or few basic services. Their situation is worsened by a global epidemic of mass forced evictions.
  • Every minute, another woman dies because of problems related to pregnancy. For every woman who dies, 20 or more experience serious complications.
  • Over 100 million children (more than half of whom are girls) do not have access even to primary education.

Find out more about our campaign to ensure access to justice for all

News and Updates

Kenya slum fires demonstrate need to ensure housing rights

23 March 2012

Fires in the Nairobi slums of Kibera and Mathare have claimed the lives of three people and destroyed up to 700 homes.

Tanzania must end HIV ‘red ribbon’ stigma in schools

16 March 2012

Several Tanzanian schools have forced HIV-positive pupils to wear red ribbons to class, claiming it excuses them from strenuous activities.

Afghans fleeing war find misery in urban slums

23 February 2012

Afghan authorities have failed to help some 500,000 displaced people who are struggling to survive in Kabul slums, a new Amnesty report says.

IOC rejection of Dow concerns leaving toxic legacy for London 2012

16 February 2012

The organizers of the London 2012 Olympics have rejected a call to terminate Dow Chemicals' sponsorship of the Games.

Urgent plan needed to tackle housing crisis in Haiti

10 February 2012

The death of a child amid a fire at an earthquake survivors' camp in Haiti highlights the authorities' need to resolve the dire housing crisis.

Video and Audio

Teargas in Egypt's Tahrir Square

29 June 2011

Amnesty International's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui reports from demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

World Habitat Day - Slideshow 2

World Habitat Day - Slideshow 2

Out of sight - In their own words

Maja was with her children on the day of the resettlement, and she describes here what conditions are like in the settlement of Rakovica...