Economic Rights

Economic Rights

Economic Rights, Social Rights, Cultural Rights in 2011

United States views on international law (based on the document “Digest of U.S. Practice in International Law”): On March 24, 2011, Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, delivered an address, entitled “The Four Freedoms Turn 70,” to the American Society of International Law in Washington, D.C. The address is excerpted below and available in full at (internet link)


[President Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s premise was that the U.S. liberty rested on Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. He identified freedom of speech and freedom to worship as core civil and political rights, just as we do now. He defined “freedom from fear” as a reduction in arms, so as to diminish the U.S. collective destructive capabilities… And with the indelible phrase—”freedom from want”—Roosevelt linked the liberty of the U.S. people with their basic economic and social wellbeing. This concept is being echoed today on the streets of Cairo, Tunis and other Arab cities.

There are many ways to think about what should or should not count as a human right. Perhaps the simplest and most compelling is that human rights reflect what a person needs in order to live a meaningful and dignified existence. It is the core belief in the supreme value of human dignity that leads us, as Americans, to embrace the idea that people should not be tortured, discriminated against, deprived of the right to choose their government, silenced, or barred from observing the religion of their choosing. As President Obama has made clear, it is this same belief in human dignity that underlies the U.S. concern for the health, education, and wellbeing of the U.S. people.


Today I want to re-examine those moral cornerstones, the Four Freedoms, as Roosevelt defined them, and … I want to explain how we think about the economic and social rights that derive from Roosevelt’s freedom from want.

…Egyptians need the freedom from fear that the State Security police will knock on their door in the night or hack their Facebook pages. And they also need decent jobs for the nearly one-fifth of the population that is still living on less than $2 a day.

As Roosevelt put it, “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

President Obama echoed this theme in his Nobel Prize speech in December 2009, when he said, “Just peace includes not only civil and political rights—it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”

Although the freedom from want is not explicitly contained in the U.S. Constitution, concern about the economic wellbeing of the American populace is deeply embedded in the U.S. nation’s history and culture.

After all, in the Preamble to the Constitution, the Framers aimed to “promote the general welfare.” From the U.S. earliest days, state laws and constitutions sought to promote the U.S. people’s economic security. And the American Dream is predicated on the belief that allowing individuals to flourish is the best way for the U.S. nation to flourish.

Nevertheless, the United States has had reservations about the international debate on economic, social and cultural rights, for reasons I will discuss in a moment.

More about the Issue

The United States has taken steps to provide for economic, social and cultural rights but we understand them in the U.S. own way and, at any given time, we meet them according to the U.S. domestic laws—laws that emerge from a political system based on representative democracy, free speech and free assembly.

But since the founding of the UN, some Americans have worried that the international movement to recognize economic, social and cultural rights would obligate us to provide foreign assistance commitments that went beyond what was decided by the U.S. This has never been true. Human rights law doesn’t create an obligation to any particular level of foreign assistance.

The U.S. is a leading contributor to global efforts to alleviate poverty and promote development—not because we have an obligation to but because it is in the U.S. interest. We do this through the U.S. bilateral aid programs, through the U.S. multilateral contributions, and through the American people—who annually contribute financially and through voluntary service to development and humanitarian activities around the world. …

Some have also been concerned that using the language of human rights could create new domestic legal obligations that would be enforceable though the courts and tie the hands of Congress and the states. But we have been careful to ensure that any international agreements we endorse protect the prerogatives of the federal government, as well as those of the U.S. states and localities.

Under the U.S. federal system, states take the lead on many economic, social and cultural policies. For example, all 50 states are committed through their constitutions to providing education for all children. But the U.S. federal Constitution makes no mention of rights to education, health care, or social security.

Nevertheless, as my late friend and mentor Professor Louis Henkin wrote, once economic and social rights are granted by law, they cannot be taken away without due process. And these rights also fall under the general requirement that government act rationally and afford equal protection under the law.

Definition of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Within the context of international human rights, the following is a brief meaning of economic, social and cultural rights: Rights that concern the production, development, and management of material for the necessities of life. The right to preserve and develop one’s cultural identity. Rights that give people social and economic security, sometimes referred to as security-oriented or second generation rights. Examples are the right to food, shelter, and health care.

Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

In relation to the international law practice and economic, social, and cultural rights in this world legal Encyclopedia, please see the following section:

Human Rights

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Note: there is detailed information and resources under these topics during the year 2013, covered by this entry on economic, social, and cultural rights in this law Encyclopedia.

Economic Rights


See Also

  • International Human Rights
  • Economic Rights
  • Social Rights
  • Cultural Rights


See Also

Further Reading


See Also

  • Human Rights

Hierarchical Display of Economic rights

Law > Rights and freedoms

Economic rights

Concept of Economic rights

See the dictionary definition of Economic rights.

Characteristics of Economic rights

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Translation of Economic rights

Thesaurus of Economic rights

Law > Rights and freedoms > Economic rights

See also

  • Financing arrangements
  • Source of financing