What does the ‘human rights’ frame add to ‘human needs’?

1.      Minimum core obligations and immediate obligation to act. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that “a minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights is incumbent upon every State party. (…). If the (1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, hereafter the ‘Covenant’) were to be read in such a way as not to establish such a minimum core obligation, it would be largely deprived of its raison d’être. (…) In order for a State party to be able to attribute its failure to meet at least its minimum core obligations to a lack of available resources it must demonstrate that every effort has been made to use all resources that are at its disposition in an effort to satisfy, as a matter of priority, those minimum obligations”[1]. The obligation “to take steps” (Article 2.1 of the Covenant) towards the fulfillment of socioeconomic rights is also of immediate effect. Steps must be concrete, deliberate and targeted[2].

2.      Equality and non-discrimination. Another immediate obligation of state parties to the Covenant is the obligation of non-discrimination on any ground[3].

3.      Particular attention to most vulnerable groups, such as women, immigrants and children: “Even in times of severe resources constraints whether caused by a process of adjustment, of economic recession, or by other factors the vulnerable members of society can and indeed must be protected by the adoption of relatively low-cost targeted programmes”[4].

4.      Obligation to respect, protect and fulfill. The guarantee of socioeconomic rights has a tridimensional level of obligations: obligation to respect (that is, states must abstain from interfering in the normal enjoyment of socioeconomic rights), obligation to protect (states must ensure that non-state actors do not prevent individuals from enjoying socioeconomic rights) and obligation to fulfill (states must do whatever it takes to overcome obstacles to the full satisfaction of socioeconomic rights)[5].

5.      Privatization and basic standards of life. Even if a state decides to privatize a public service (such as prisons, schools or hospitals), it remains as the ultimate responsible for the protection of all human rights[6].

6.      Progressive achievement of socioeconomic rights. A state must take measures, “to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization” of socioeconomic rights (Article 2.1 of the Covenant). The state bears the burden of proof to show that its policies are moving forward expeditiously and effectively towards the ultimate fulfillment of these rights.

7.      All appropriate policies. Article 2.1 of the Covenant mentions a few tools, such as international cooperation and legislative measures. Yet, it broadly refers to “all appropriate means”, which opens the door for budget analysis and even judicial enforcement of socioeconomic rights.

8.      No retroactive measures. The obligation to fulfill economic and social rights prevents states from taking measures that constitute a step back in the level of socioeconomic rights of the population[7]. This obligation is of immediate effect, so it is also applicable in times of economic recession. The state bears the burden of proof.

9.      Accountability and right to remedy. International human rights law and its domestication set up a collection of mechanisms that allow individuals and groups to monitor state policies and, in some instances, to lodge individual complaints and have access to effective remedies in case of violation of their rights.

10.     Access to information, impact assessment and active participation. As a corollary of all of the above, governments are obliged to provide information about the way in which they are getting the population closer to the ultimate goal of the fulfillment of socioeconomic rights. This requires institutionalizing impact assessment and facilitating active participation to monitor state practices.

[1] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 3, The nature of State parties’ obligations, UN doc. E/1991/23, 14 December 1990, para. 10.

[2] Ibid, para. 2.

[3] Article 2.2 of the Covenant; UN CESCR, General Comment 20, Non-discrimination in economic, social and cultural rights, UN doc. E/C.12/GC/20, 2 July 2009; UN Human Rights Committee, Communication No. 172/1984, S. W. M. Broeks v. the Netherlands, Views adopted on 9 April 1987, para. 12.4; UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment 18, Non-discrimination, U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.6, 10 November 1989.

[4] UN CESCR, General Comment 3, op. cit., para. 12.

[5] Overall, see SEPÚLVEDA, Magdalena, The Nature of the Obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Mortsel (Belgium): Intersentia, 2003.

[6] For example, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Ximenes Lopes v. Brazil, Judgment of 4 July 2006, para. 86 and 87.

[7] UN CESCR, General Comment 3, op. cit., para. 9; also, SEPÚLVEDA, M., The Nature of the Obligations…, op. cit., pp. 323-332.


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