Social and Economic and Cultural Rights

What are Social, Economic and Cultural Rights?

“Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” was the slogan of the French Revolution, and some writers have used the slogan as a rough guide to divide human rights into three “generations”.

The first generation of human rights, which were the first to be recognised in international law, are those concerned with “liberty”, i.e. with the right to participate in political life.  Examples of these rights are the rights to personal liberty and the protection of law, freedom of association and speech, and the right to vote in elections.

The second generation of rights are those directed at bringing about equal treatment for all members of society.  These rights are also called social, economic and cultural rights, and they include such rights as:

the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, including equal pay for equal work, and protection against unemployment;

the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay;

the right to education, which should be free at least in the elementary and fundamental stages;

the right to housing;  and

the right to social security, including social insurance.

the right of different cultural groups to maintain their cultural identity and practices.  

The third generation of rights [a broad and rather woolly category] are those directed at “fraternity”, i.e. at ensuring social harmony.  They include:

the right to a healthy environment, including the right to clean water;

the right to natural resources;

group and collective rights;

the right to self-determination;  and

inter-generational rights.

Here, when we refer to “social, economic and cultural rights” [“SEC rights”] we mean second-generation rights as well as any third-generation rights which are capable of being defined reasonably clearly. 

Several SEC rights are enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and many more in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966.


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