One of the earliest political controversies about human rights was over their prospective division into distinct categories. The relatively recent consensus that rights should collectively be considered interdependent and indivisible has resulted in greater attention to economic, social and cultural rights.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) makes no distinction among sets of rights, nor does it establish any implicit hierarchy of rights. The treaties that followed, however, did differentiate some categories of rights. By the early 1950s, Cold War politics and doctrinal differences led UN deliberative bodies to distinguish between civil and political rights, on one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other. As a result, two parallel “covenants” form the bedrock of international human rights law – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The two Covenants do share some common provisions (namely, with regard to self-determination, non-discrimination, and gender equality, as reflected in Articles 1, 2 and 3), but differences in provisions about implementation leave a clear impression that civil and political rights should be pursued more energetically.
The 1951 decision to split the covenants was a pragmatic solution for a particular political moment, but it was not uncontested and it was not without controversy. By the mid-1980s, there were many challenges to a quasi-exclusive focus on civil and political rights within the UN system and in the foreign policy of Western states. After UN member states agreed in 1989 to convene a global conference on human rights, the division of rights into different categories became one of several focal points. Among other things, the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna, examined the relationship between development and the full array of rights. Informally, the conference was understood as a test of the nascent rhetoric around cultural relativity and “Asian values.” In light of such concerns, the Vienna Declaration’s assertion that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated,” was seen as an important reaffirmation of the universality of human rights.
The Vienna Conference was sponsored by UN member states but as David Petrasek relates, human rights advocates and their counterparts in development NGOs also engaged the process and the arguments. By the late 1980s, proponents of human rights in the Global South were challenging Amnesty International and other human rights organizations to work on issues related to all the rights included in the UDHR, and not simply a subset of civil and political rights that relate directly to political opponents and political prisoners.
Such concerns were among the considerations that eventually led Amnesty International to replace its narrow prisoner-focused mandate with a commitment to work on the full spectrum of human rights. Most human rights organizations today recognize and actively promote economic and social rights (ESC rights) as well as political rights, and rights as a body are considered interdependent and indivisible. In work related to ESC rights, they increasingly draw on the authoritative General Comments issued by the ICESCR treaty body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
For more information:
David Petrasek has worked on human rights research and policy at Amnesty International, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Council on Human Rights Policy. In “The Indivisibility of Rights and the Affirmation of ESC Rights,” Petrasek recounts how human rights organizations and development NGOs contributed to the debate on economic rights.
International Standards — Treaties and Other Human Rights Instruments
- Three core human rights instruments form the bedrock of international human rights law and together comprise what is known informally as the International Bill of Rights:
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “What are Human Rights?”
- United Nations General Assembly. “Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.” 12 July, 1993. (Note: See paragraph I.5 for the assertion of interdependence and indivisibility.)
- Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. “ESCR Committee, Fact Sheet 16 (Rev 1)”
Mechanisms for Implementation of Legal Standards and International Policy
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Manual on Human Rights Monitoring, “Chapter 20: Monitoring Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”
- For authoritative commentary on economic, social and cultural rights, see ESCR Committee General Comments.
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Thematic Mandates.” Official Record. (Note: See UN Human Rights Special Procedures, most of which are mandated to consider the interdependence of rights as they carry out mandate on particular themes. See for example, the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, mandated to consider the right to non-discrimination.)
Reports and Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Annual Reports to the Human Rights Council.” Official Record. (Note: Includes a wide range of rights.)
- United Nations Human Rights Sustainable Development Group. “Human Rights Based Approach.” (Note: Web portal for the UN’s Human Rights Based Approach, which emphasizes the interdependence and indivisibility of rights.)
- Nickel, James W. “Rethinking Indivisibility: Towards A Theory of Supporting Relations between Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 30, no. 4 (2008): 985-1001.
- Roth, Kenneth. “Defending Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Practical Issues Faced by an International Human Rights Organization,” Human Rights Quarterly 26 (2004): 63-73.
- Sen, Amartya. “Human Rights and Asian Values.” Carnegie Council Morganthau Lecture. New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, 1997.
- Sen, Amartya. “Freedom and Needs: An Argument for the Primacy of Political Rights.” The New Republic (January 10, 1994) : 31-38.
- Whelan, Daniel. Indivisible Human Rights: A History. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
- The Center for Economic and Social Rights. “History of CESR.”
- The Geneva Academy on International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. “#ESCR and #SDGS: Practical Manual on the Role of UN Human Rights Mechanisms in Monitoring the SDGs that Seek to Realize Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”
- Amnesty International. “Optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Questions and Answers.” 5 February, 2013. (Note: example of contemporary advocacy on ESC Rights)
- Right to Food. “Training on Understanding ESC Rights.”
- Amnesty International. “Demand Dignity.” 2009.
- McChesney, Allan, for AAAS. “Promoting and Defending Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: A Handbook. Huridocs, 2000.
Case Studies and Examples
- Khan, Irene and David Petrasek, The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights (W. W. Norton, 2009).
- Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. “Annual Report 2018.”