Most Americans are familiar with their political rights — their rights to free speech, freedom of the press, assembly, a fair trial and other types of due process.

But are Americans entitled to other sets of rights?

How about a right to work?

Or a right to health care, or to education, or to an adequate standard of living?

Under international human rights law, the answer is a resounding yes.  And the basis of these rights is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”).


The ICESCR has its genesis with the founding of the United Nations.  When delegates from about 50 countries met at the end of World War II to discuss the post-war order, they agreed to produce a set of universal rights that all countries would honor.  This, in turn, led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and two human rights treaties:  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) and the ICESCR.

The ICCPR (ratified by 167 countries, including the United States), obligates countries to provide the types of political rights that Americans would consider uncontroversial — things like due process and protection of individual liberties.

The ICESCR, however, focuses on rights related to quality of life and social security.

Just as a few examples:

– Article 6 requires countries to recognize a “right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.”

– Article 7 requires that countries enforce labor rules that provide for a living wage (specifically wages that provide a “decent living”), “safe and healthy working conditions,” “equal opportunity” in employment, and “rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours.”

– Article 12 requires countries to “recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

– Article 13 requires, among other things, that countries make higher education “equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

As part of the human rights legacy of World War II, the formulation of economic and social rights are a product of the same push towards democracy and openness that characterized America’s rationale for participating and winning the war.

The principles of ICESCR follow directly from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “freedom from want”:  a promise that all people deserved the “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.”

The division between political rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other is something of a false dichotomy.  Economic and social rights do not take away from political rights — they only add and expand to them.

Freedom of speech means nothing if you don’t have the education to speak your mind.

Freedom of the press means nothing if you don’t have the critical reasoning to engage in debate.

Maybe the answer to the current economic crisis is as simple as the phrase, “more freedom”: specifically, the freedom to live in a society in which basic physical and educational needs are provided.

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