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.