Economic, social and cultural rights

A brief introduction to economic, social and cultural rights

Economic, social and cultural rights are rights that aim to guarantee individuals a dignified, appropriate lifestyle. They cover a wide range of different domains, including:

  • The right to work, the right to a free choice of work, and the right to good working conditions;
  • the right to strike and the right to form and join trade unions;
  • the right to social security;
  • the right to an appropriate standard of living (including food, housing and adequate social services and medical care);
  • the right to a family;
  • the right to health;
  • the right to education;
  • the right to cultural identity and the right to take part in cultural life.

Historically, these rights constitute ‘second-generation human rights’, because here in Belgium they were recognised later than civil and political rights. Furthermore, most of such rights were only incorporated into Western countries’ Constitutions after being recognised in international instruments. The main difference between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights is that the latter are programmatic rights, meaning that governments must undertake to gradually strive towards their full realisation, using all the resources at their disposal. In spite of the differences between these two generations of human rights, they are utterly interdependent. For instance, the right to a private life can hardly be exercised without the right to housing. Likewise, freedom of expression and conscience would certainly be constrained if there was no right to education.

International and regional instruments

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers several economic, social and cultural rights, including - among others - the rights to social security, to work, to a free choice of work, to take part in the cultural life of the community. Belgium’s approach is based on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which has asserted and protected these rights since 1966. Since 2008 there has also been an Optional Protocol to this Covenant, which Belgium actively helped to draft. This instrument introduces the possibility of lodging complaints with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which marks a great step forward for the justiciability of these rights.

Some international organisations also draft conventions designed to protect certain economic, social or cultural rights, one example being the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions designed to protect workers, whilst the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) endeavours to promote and protect cultural rights, among other things by drafting conventions on the protection of cultural heritage and the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions.

Within the Council of Europe, economic and social rights are set out in the European Social Charter (1961) and the new Revised European Social Charter (1996).

Action by Belgium and the European Union

Respecting economic, social and cultural rights is one of our country’s priorities, since such rights are intended to guarantee the material well-being of every human being, with the rights to food, health and education embodying the basis for any dignified human life. Article 23 of the Belgian Constitution states that all citizens should be able to lead dignified lives and lists various economic, social and cultural rights, which it states are guaranteed by legislative measures. Equal attention should be paid to these rights and the other human rights, because they are all interdependent and indivisible.

In their dealings with third countries, Belgium and the European Union highlight the importance of respecting these rights. At the international level, Belgium also supports the promotion and protection of these rights and the development of standards pertaining to them. In the United Nations, Belgium contributes towards developments in this area within the various mechanisms used to deal with human rights (resolutions, special rapporteurs, and so on).

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

 Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (PDF, 47.29 KB)

(Revised) European Social Charter of the Council of Europe

International Labour Organisation (ILO)