Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The United Nations Covenant


The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16th December 1966.

The Covenant commits its parties to work toward the granting of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) to its citizens. This includes labour rights, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living. As of September 2018, the Covenant has 169 parties including St Helena. A further four countries, including the United States, have signed but not ratified the Covenant.

The ICESCR (and its Optional Protocol) are part of the International Bill of Human Rights, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The Covenant is monitored by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

History of the ICESCR

The ICESCR has its roots in the process that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Declaration on the Essential Rights of Man had been proposed at the 1945 San Francisco Conference which led to the founding of the United Nations. Early on in the process, the document was split into a declaration setting forth general principles of human rights, and a convention or covenant containing binding commitments. The former evolved into the UDHR and was adopted on 10th December 1948.

Drafting continued on the convention, but there remained significant differences between UN members in the relative importance of negative civil and political versus positive economic, social and cultural rights. These eventually caused the convention to be split into two separate covenants, one to contain civil and political rights and the other to contain economic, social and cultural rights. The two covenants were to contain as many similar provisions as possible, and be opened for signature simultaneously. Each would also contain an article on the right of all peoples to self-determination.

The State Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.

The first document became the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the second the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The draft were presented to the UN General Assembly for discussion in 1954, and adopted in 1966.


The Covenant follows the structure of the UDHR and the ICCPR, with a preamble and thirty-one articles, divided into five parts.

Part 1 (Article 1) recognizes the rights of all people to self-determination, including the right to freely determine their political status, pursue their economic, social and cultural goals, and manage and dispose of their own resources. It recognizes a negative right of a people not to deprive of its means of subsistence, and impose an obligation on those parties still responsible for non-self-governing and trust territories (colonies) to encourage and respect their self-determination.

Part 2 (Articles 2-5) establishes the principle of progressive realization. It also requires the rights be recognized without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. The rights can only be limited by law, in a manner compatible with the nature of the rights, and only for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society.

Part 3 (Articles 6-15) lists the rights themselves. These include rights to:

  • Work, under just and favourable conditions, with the right to form and join trade unions (Articles 6,7 and 8);

  • Social security, including social insurance (Article 9);

  • Family life, including paid parental leave and the protection of children (Article 10);

  • An adequate standard of living, adequate food, clothing and housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions (Article 11);

  • Health; specially the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Article 12);

  • Education, including free universal primary education, generally available secondary education and equally accessible higher education. This should be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and enable all persons to participate effectively in society (Articles 13 and 14);

  • Participation in cultural life (Article 15).

Many of these rights include specific actions which must be undertaken to realize them.

Part 4 (Articles 16-25) governs reporting and monitoring of the Covenant and the steps taken by the parties to implement it. It also allows the monitoring body - originally the United Nations Economic and Social Council, now the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - to make general recommendations to the UN General Assembly on appropriate measures to realize the rights (Article 21).

Part 5 (Articles 26-31) governs ratifications, entry into force and amendment of the Covenant.

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