The European Convention on Human Rights protects fundamental rights, called civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right not to be tortured and many others.
But there are other rights, such as the right to food and water, to have a roof over your head, to adequate healthcare. These basic necessities for human life are known as economic, social and cultural rights. They have sometimes been treated differently from civil and political rights, as explained below.
So, how are these economic, social and cultural rights protected?
In the 1940s and 1950s, The United Nations thought that this category of rights was very important. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises both categories of rights. In fact, it doesn’t distinguish between the two groups at all.
However, because of political tensions during the Cold War, in 1951 The United Nations thought it was better to separate the groups of rights into two different covenants. Civil and Political Rights are protected internationally by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while Economic, Social and Cultural rights are protected by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Hang on, why exactly are there different groups of rights?
At the time the European Convention on Human Rights was written, the world was not only trying to recover from the horrors of World War II, it was also in the middle of the Cold War. This stand-off between the Soviet Union and Eastern European states against the United States and Western Europe, affected the development of human rights and how they were perceived. Economic, social and cultural rights were widely seen as being intertwined with communist ideology. Western countries decided that civil and political rights were more important and focused their efforts in protecting those. Therefore, the European Convention on Human Rights was written with only civil and political rights in mind.
If they were just separated for political reasons, how different are the two groups really?
Civil and political rights ensure that people are free to live, act and express themselves as freely as possible without the government interfering or stopping them. Economic, social and cultural rights are all to do with promoting and protecting people’s development and livelihood, with the assistance of the government.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights identified these rights as “those human rights relating to the workplace, social security, family life, participation in cultural life, and access to housing, food, water, health care and education.”
It is commonly thought that economic, social and cultural rights are harder for states to commit to because their protection requires a lot of resources. Civil and political rights, on the other hand, are thought to need a lot less resources in order to be protected, as they simply require the state to not interfere.
However, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that this is not true. Even though economic, social and cultural rights do need a lot of investment, much of the time so do civil and political rights. For example the state needs to invest in a good court system and well-run prisons, in order promote both kinds of rights.
Many now think that the distinction between the two groups of rights is actually artificial and that there is no reason to have separate groups. More recent international treaties and conventions have stopped distinguishing between them, for example the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
So, can we take legal action if our economic, social and cultural rights are breached?
The UK has committed to protecting economic, social and cultural rights by signing up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As this is an international treaty, these rights are not enforceable in court, as the Covenant doesn’t provide the legal mechanisms for enforcement in the way the European Convention on Human Rights does.
But we do have the Human Rights Act 1998, which obliges all public authorities, including National Health Service (NHS) organisations and local authorities, to respect the human rights in the European Convention on Human Rights. This means we have an increasingly rights-based approach to providing public services like healthcare and public housing, which emphasises the importance of protecting human dignity, vulnerable groups and equality.
This means the Human Rights Act 1998 has helped to protect economic, social and cultural rights in cases involving healthcare, public housing, workplace rights and welfare benefits – have a look at any of these RightsInfo posts where we have talked about how these rights are protected.
Block of flats image, Berlin in Cold War image and School children image all: Pixabay.com. Image of running water © Marina Shemesh Public domain pictures.