Skip to Content

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights entered into force on 3 January 1976. It commits states parties to promote and protect a wide range of economic, social and cultural rights, including rights relating to work in just and favourable conditions, to social protection, to an adequate standard of living, to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health, to education and to enjoyment of the benefits of cultural freedom and scientific progress. It obliges states parties to respect and ensure that all individuals subject to their jurisdiction enjoy all the rights included in the ICESCR, without discrimination. Click to go to more information on each of the following:

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Relevant provisions

Interpretation of the provisions  

Government reporting obligations  


The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

An Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Counsil in 18 June 2008. This momentous decision by the Human Rights Council brings the possibility of an international remedy mechanism for violations of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) one step closer.  

A draft Optional Protocol

Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights

This Committee consists of a panel of 18 independent experts that meets twice a year.

Uniquely amongst international human rights treaty bodies, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was not directly established by its corresponding instrument. It was the Economic and Social Council established by Article 16 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that in turn created the Committee.

Unlike its Civil and Political counterpart, there is currently no mechanism for taking individual complaints to the Committee. However, the UN Human Rights Council has established a working group to begin negotiating the text of the protocol:

For more details on the work of the coalition of NGOs leading the calls for specific procedures to be allowed by the protocol see

It should be noted that the Committee has already developed two practices that have been characterised as ‘informal petition procedures’.
Firstly, during the regular reporting procedure, the Committee has examined concrete cases of violations of the Covenant, determined that the situation is not in compliance with the Covenant and made recommendations to the government with regard to remedying the violation. These recommendations have included the repeal of laws, halting threatened violations and providing compensation. The Committee has also made recommendations to governments to ensure that the arguments of governments in court cases conform to the Covenant.

Secondly, the Committee has occasionally been willing to take action on ad hoc requests from non-governmental organisations and others who have complained of serious, imminent and massive violations of the rights in the Covenant. For example, the Committee has written letters to governments concerning planned forced evictions and the repeal of constitutional guarantees.

For further details of the mandate of the committee, when you might use the Committee and how to use the Committee and its decisions and General Comments, see the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions page ‘About the UN Committee on ESC Rights’.

Interpretation of the Provisions

General Comments made by the treaty bodies are constructed with the purpose of clarification of how a given treaty provision is to be interpreted. They are a valuable source of guidance in this regard. 

General Comment No.13 - The right to education

This general comment is especially useful as it provides a most detailed account of the right to education. For further explanation of the content of this general comment, follow the link to the excellent Litigating Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:
Legal Practitioners Dossier released by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) p.109

General Comment No.11 - Plans of action for primary education

General Comment No.9 - The domestic application of the Covenant
‘[W]hile the Covenant does not formally oblige States to incorporate its provisions in domestic law, such an approach is desirable. Direct incorporation avoids problems that might arise in the translation of treaty obligations into national law, and provides a basis for the direct
invocation of the Covenant rights by individuals in national courts. For these reasons, the Committee strongly encourages formal adoption or incorporation of the Covenant in national
law.’ Paragraph 8

General Comment No. 3 - The nature of States parties obligations (art. 2, para. 1 of the Covenant)
The preamble to a treaty is useful in ascertaining the purpose of the law, and therefore as a guide as to how it might be interpreted.
See the preamble here

Government Reporting Obligations

 Article 17

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant shall furnish their reports in stages, in accordance with a programme to be established by the Economic and Social Council within one year of the entry into force of the present Covenant after consultation with the States Parties and the specialized agencies concerned.


As of October 2010: Signatories 69, Parties 160.

To see the status of ratifications, as well as declarations and reservations, click here.

Relevant Provisions

Article 13

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

2. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, with a view to achieving the full realization of this right:
(a) Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all;
(b) Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;
(c) Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;
(d) Fundamental education shall be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those persons who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education;
(e) The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.

Article 2

2. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to guarantee that the rights enunciated in the present Covenant will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 14
Each State Party to the present Covenant which, at the time of becoming a Party, has not been able to secure in its metropolitan territory or other territories under its jurisdiction compulsory primary education, free of charge, undertakes, within two years, to work out and adopt a detailed plan of action for the progressive implementation, within a reasonable number of years, to be fixed in the plan, of the principle of compulsory education free of charge for all.