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  • Advancing Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights:The Way Forward
  • Mary Robinson (bio)

A timely and significant debate has begun on how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society actors can most effectively influence states and third party actors to progressively implement their economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights obligations. The debate is timely because too little attention has been paid in the past to this important area of human rights work. It is significant because it can help energize a human rights community worldwide that has felt battered and bruised by the erosion of international standards protecting civil and political rights in our post-September 11 world. It is even more noteworthy because the debate has begun in the United States, where skepticism about the full international human rights agenda has been strongest.

During my five-year term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I emphasized that we had entered a new era for human rights following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. We had an opportunity to move on from the sterile years when Western countries focused almost exclusively on the importance of civil and political rights and used these in their critique of Soviet bloc countries and many developing countries, while those countries in turn emphasized economic and social rights while rejecting criticism of their political structures and lack of civil rights protection. The time had finally come to take the two sets of rights equally seriously, as the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights intended, and to find the most effective ways to promote and protect them.

A number of steps were taken at the international level during this period, which helped strengthen efforts to better define and implement [End Page 866] economic, social, and cultural rights. New mandates were created by the UN Commission on Human Rights which appointed special rapporteurs in areas such as education, food, and the highest attainable standard of health as well as an independent expert on the right to development, all of whom have made substantive contributions to advancing the agenda on these issues. At the request of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) worked to develop human rights guidelines for Poverty Reduction Strategies.

Important strides were also made by UN agencies and programs following Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for human rights to be mainstreamed throughout the UN system. Key UN bodies, from the UN Development Program to the World Health Organization and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), emphasized the human rights framework in implementing their mandates. They and other UN actors adopted a common understanding of what they would mean by "a rights-based approach." As part of this effort, OHCHR has increased its cooperation with UN country teams working on economic and social development issues. Regional meetings have reviewed national case law and shared experiences of how different national courts and regional systems were addressing international commitments concerning economic, social, and cultural rights.

Meanwhile, my travels as High Commissioner brought me in contact with human rights activists and NGOs in every region that were finding innovative ways to hold their governments accountable for the commitments they had made under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified by 149 states), the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (ratified by 177 states), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by 192 states), all of which also include specific provisions concerning ESC rights. I recall, for example, the way in which a wide cross section of Brazilian NGOs prepared an alternative report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in order to bring home the government of Brazil's failure to produce a required report to the Committee within the time allowed under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This effort proved to be a turning point, resulting in more constructive debate on rights throughout Brazil, and caused the government to step up efforts to fulfill its international human rights commitments.

Major international NGOs were also expanding their work to include research, policy...


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