The international treaty on economic and social rights has positive impacts


When countries ratify the international treaty on economic and social rights, good things ensue, even for the world’s poorest nations. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on economic and social rights.  Español

Wade M. Cole
14 May 2015

Previous openGlobalRights authors have noted that we need more empirical research – and less ideological argumentation – on the impact of economic and social rights. The research literature has largely ignored these rights, however, leading Shareen Hertel to lament that economic and social rights “have remained the poor step-sister to other types of human rights research, scholarship, and advocacy.”

More specifically, few scholars have studied the empirical effects of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the main linchpin of the international economic and social rights regime.

This reluctance is part historical: during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its satellites emphasized economic and social rights, whereas the United States and its allies championed civil and political rights. It is also partly due to considerations of expense. Many believe that only the wealthier countries of the global North, and not the poorer nations of the global South, have the resources to realize economic and social rights.

In a recent article published in the American Sociological Review, I investigated whether this North-South resource argument held water. My goal was to analyze the effect of a country’s membership in the ICESCR on the extent of its domestic income inequality. I looked at 24 developed and 83 developing countries, from 1981 to 2005, and focused on the income inequality that remained after accounting for government taxes and transfers.

Lower inequality is also linked to other human rights benefits, including fewer violations of physical integrity rights. I chose to focus on inequality for three reasons. First, regardless of a country’s overall wealth, resources can be distributed more or less equitably. Government attempts to reduce inequality, in my view, demonstrate an effort to comply with the ICESCR. Second, when governments use taxes and transfers to reduce inequality, they go some way towards satisfying the ICESCR’s implied objective of equalizing resources. And finally, lower inequality is also linked to other human rights benefits, including fewer violations of physical integrity rights.

My statistical findings were clear: membership in the ICESCR reduces income inequality over time. In both developed and developing societies, the longer a country belongs to the covenant, the lower its level of inequality, controlling for a wide range of economic, political, and demographic factors.

To be sure, the effect of ICESCR membership was stronger in developed countries; after 25 years of treaty membership, income inequality in high-income nations declined by an average of 29%, controlling for other factors. In lower-income countries, by contrast, inequality declined by only 10%. Still, this latter effect is substantial and statistically significant.

What this means, then, is that while country wealth conditions the magnitude of the ICESCR’s inequality-reducing effect, it does not account for the effect’s presence. Even poor countries, in other words, can benefit from joining this crucial treaty.

Interestingly, I found no evidence to suggest that domestic political support for or against economic and social rights either promoted or derailed ICESCR compliance. The presence of ‘leftist’ governments or the size of a country’s welfare expenditure did not significantly amplify the effect of treaty membership.

These results support arguments made by other openGlobalRights authors: avoid the ideological debate, and focus on empirical impacts.


Demotix/Giuseppe Bizzarri (All rights reserved)

Does ICESCR ratification bring countries closer to acknowledging that, "Regardless of a country’s overall wealth, resources can be distributed more or less equitably"?

This non-ideological reading of the international human rights regime is justified by history. Human rights, after all, emerged not only in reaction to the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, but also to the calamities of the Great Depression. Moreover, international economic and social rights norms developed alongside the rise and expansion of the postwar Western welfare state, which sought to protect individuals from the harmful effects of global market forces.

The data show that as intended, the ICESCR has helped buffer citizens from the neoliberal agenda dominating world politics during the period covered by my analysis.

Ironically, the fall of communism may have further invigorated the ICESCR. Although the communist bloc was often seen as the primary champion of economic and social rights, the collapse of the Soviet Union actually created opportunities to re-articulate those rights.

The World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, for example, famously asserted that “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated,” suggesting that civil and political rights would no longer take pride of place in the international human rights regime.

Then, from 1997 to 2002, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson made the advancement of economic and social rights the centerpiece of her program. NGOs soon followed with their own changes. In 2001, Amnesty International expanded its mission to include economic and social rights, despite its earlier preoccupation with physical integrity rights.

These trends suggest that compliance with human rights treaties, including agreements once thought too contentious or difficult to implement, stems as much from global processes and dynamics as it does from domestic factors and conditions.

Much work in this area remains to be done. Although my study suggests that the ICESCR helps reduce income inequality, we still don’t know whether – or under what conditions – economic and social rights promote wellbeing in terms of other indicators, including mortality, food security, access to housing, medical care, education, and the like.

These are empirical questions. Finding solid, evidence-backed answers will help us advance the ongoing debate on economic and social rights.


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