Introduction to the right to social security

Social security is a fundamental human right recognized by most international human rights instruments, reinforced by regional agreements and increasingly reflected in domestic legislation. Encouragingly, requirements to respect, protect and fulfil this right in the design, implementation and evaluation of social protection policies and programmes are affirmed and broadly recognized.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), has progressively developed the content of the right to social security. The 2008 General Comment 19 asserts its interdependent and indivisible nature, outlines the need for sustainable social security systems enshrined in law, as well as obliging states to provide adequate and accessible services in a non-discriminatory manner. The Optional Protocol to the ICESCR, which entered into force in 2013,  establishes the competence of the CESCR to receive complaints in case of violations of the rights enshrined in the Covenant, including violations of the right to social security, right to adequate standards of health and labour rights. The entry into force of the OP-ICESCR will contribute to international jurisprudence on economic, social and cultural rights.

The body of technical social security conventions and recommendations adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has often been used by CESCR to interpret the right to social security, specifically the Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102). The more recent 2012 Social Protection Floors Recommendation (No.202) calls on states to establish and maintain a nationally defined social protection floor that provides essential health care and basic income security to all residents and children throughout their life cycles; and progressively ensure higher levels of protection, as set out in ILO social security standards

Social security as an economic, social and cultural right

The right to social security is most explicitly articulated in Article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Economic, social and cultural rights are particularly complex, and are subject to a series of legal provisions that inform their implementation. States have an underlying obligation to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights.

  • The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of the human right to social security.
  • The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses.
  • The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of social security.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)  recognizes that some aspects of  respecting, protecting and fulfilling economic, social and cultural rights may require financial resources that are not always immediately available to all States, and allows for “progressive realization”, meaning the rights may be realized gradually.

This is qualified by expectations that the maximum resources available to the state will be allocated accordingly and that retrogressive measures will not be taken intentionally, as well as other obligations of immediate effect relating to non-discrimination and minimum levels of enjoyment of human rights required to maintain inherent human dignity.

In this way, the human rights framework seeks to distinguish between an inability and an unwillingness to meet the agreed responsibilities. Failure to meet the obligations of conduct discussed below may amount to a violation of the obligations assumed by signing the ICESCR.

Last updated: 13/7/2015