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Updated 06/23/2006

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), along with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is one of two major human rights covenants in the UN that became active in 1976. The covenant calls on states to protect the social and economic security of its citizens. 

The rights guaranteed in the ICESCR include the right to work and to have decent working conditions and the right to unionize. The articles regarding workers’ rights in the covenant are largely taken from the standards of the International Labor Organization. The covenant also ensures an adequate standard of living for citizens of all member states including adequate food, clothing, and housing. Other entitlements include the right to decent health care, access to education, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.   

Unlike the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the ICESCR creates no supervisory mechanism to which individuals can complain, although in 1987, the UN Economic and Social Council established a committee that monitors states’ compliance with the covenant. The ICESCR calls on states to use all “available resources” to provide economic, social and cultural rights to its citizens; thus, states can easily claim to have insufficient resources to protect such rights. 

The Vienna Declaration on Human Rights (1993) asserts that all human rights are “universal, indivisible and interdependent and inter-related.” Nevertheless, the relative importance of certain rights over others is debated in the international community. Some argue that civil and political rights, such as the right to life, are fundamental and therefore the most important while others question the utility of the right to vote when a person is starving.

For more information

Full text of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights