Research Report

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: International Legal Obligations - An Explainer

Alternative title Briefing - Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Part One



Flegg A & Boyle K (2022) Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: International Legal Obligations - An Explainer [Briefing - Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Part One]. Nuffield Foundation. Access to Justice For Social Rights: Addressing The Accountability Gap. London.

This briefing document has been prepared for the Nuffield Foundation project on ‘Access to Justice For Social Rights: Addressing the Accountability Gap’, led by Dr. Katie Boyle. It forms the first part of four briefings that explore and explain the international legal obligation to provide the rights to food, housing and social security. These rights form part of the UK’s international legal obligations to protect economic, social and cultural rights (ESC rights). In 1976, the UK government ratified the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICESCR requires States, including the UK, to progressively realise an array of ESC rights. This can be demonstrated at an international level but should also be realised through the States domestic legal system. The rights it contains are broad and range from the rights to housing, food, health, education, social security, to labour rights and the right to cultural identity. At their heart lies the notion of human dignity. However, despite innumerable UN conferences, international committees, state reports, and a wealth of legal commentary on the extent of the obligations contained within the ICESCR, there remains a perceived lack of clarity as to what the obligations mean in practice. Often the nature of the obligations under this treaty are misunderstood and erroneously side-lined as of lesser status than civil and political rights, such as the right to vote or the right to a fair trial. This is evident in the UK where many core civil and political rights are incorporated via the Human Rights Act 1998 with no corresponding legislative framework for ESC rights. It is approaching 40 years since the UK’s ratification of the ICESCR and yet none of the rights it contains have been placed on a legislative footing, nor incorporated in the domestic legal system via other means to ensure legal remedies are available. Other international treaties the UK has signed up to also include protections for ESC rights but the focus of this briefing is to better understand the obligations under ICESCR. In so doing, it becomes easier to navigate the broader international and regional framework in connection with ESC rights and what steps are required to ensure their protection at the domestic level.

FundersThe Nuffield Foundation
Title of seriesAccess to Justice For Social Rights: Addressing The Accountability Gap
Publication date31/05/2022
Place of publicationLondon

People (2)


Professor Katie Boyle
Professor Katie Boyle

Chair of International Human Rights Law, Law

Mr Aidan Flegg
Mr Aidan Flegg

Lecturer, Philosophy

Projects (1)