General Writings

A book, a house, and a meal: Rights for all?

A closer look at socioeconomic rights. 

by Allyna Ng


What are socioeconomic rights?

Wikipedia (read: the most ‘reliable’ source of information) defines socioeconomic rights as economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to education, right to housing, right to adequate standard of living, right to health and the right to science and culture. These rights are codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), part of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).


The debate: Socioeconomic rights vs. Civil and political rights

So what’s the big deal about socioeconomic rights? How and why are they different from other forms of human rights?

A distinction is usually made between socioeconomic rights and civil and political rights. Civil and political rights include the right to life, freedom from torture and inhumane treatment, and the right to a fair trial. Most countries agree that civil and political rights should be immediately and urgently protected. But they disagree when it comes to socioeconomic rights.

The separation of socioeconomic rights from civil and political rights is partly a result of ideological rivalry between the East and West.[1]

The roots of the rights debate lie in Cold War ideological conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA. Image source:

Basically, the East (Soviet Union and other socialist nations) were strong supporters of socioeconomic rights (unsurprisingly so, since left-wing movements are all about equal opportunity) while the West (America, the UK and other largely capitalist nations) believed that civil and political rights were more important (liberty and democracy FTW!). This caused a split during the drafting of the International Bill of Rights, which resulted in two separate conventions: the ICESCR (above) and its counterpart, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Interesting history aside, the end result is that socioeconomic rights today are often called ‘second generation’ rights – in effect, second-class rights. The argument has been made that socioeconomic rights are not rights at all, and should not be justiciable (i.e. people shouldn’t be able to go to court and demand that the state provide them with education, healthcare and employment).

The main objections to socioeconomic rights are underpinned by two factors: positive obligations and resource allocation.

Socioeconomic rights are opposed because they are said to give rise to positive obligations. This means that if governments were to recognise socioeconomic rights, they would be obligated to take positive action to provide for those rights – for example, by providing adequate healthcare services, ensuring access to education, and facilitating participation in trade unions.

In contrast, civil and political rights are said to impose only negative obligations. Protection of these rights seems only to require that the state refrain from interfering with those rights – for example, not imprisoning individuals without trial, and not restricting freedom of expression. Basically, if you have a right to education and healthcare, then the government must do something to provide you with access to those services, whereas the right to freedom of expression or freedom of religion requires only that the state not do anything to prevent you from exercising those rights.

Negative obligations: Hands-off my rights! vs. Positive obligations: Help me get my rights!
Image source: (1) (2)

A corollary to positive obligations imposed by socioeconomic rights is that rights enforcement necessitates resource allocation.

Provision of healthcare services, or free education, or welfare benefits for the unemployed would obviously eat up lots of state resources. Those against socioeconomic rights thus argue that the government should have discretion to distribute resources, and though socioeconomic provisions are no doubt desirable, they are not human rights that citizens are entitled to. It’s easy to see why politicians, governments and countries are sometimes reluctant to recognise socioeconomic rights as fundamental human rights, especially where resources are scarce.

The case for socioeconomic rights: why it matters

You may or may not agree with the categorisation of rights set out above. Arguments have certainly been made against the distinction between civil and political rights and socioeconomic rights –for example, the right to a fair trial can be seen as a positive obligation that requires resource expenditure on an efficient justice system. [2] Greater recognition of socioeconomic rights is not insignificant, and has practical consequences – rights if recognised, can be enforceable through law as well as pressure by international bodies. If it is universally accepted that individuals are inherently entitled to education, healthcare, employment, and an adequate standard of living, governments must take greater action to ensure these are provided for, and may face international consequences for violating these rights.

Putting aside the rights debate, however, socioeconomic considerations remain fundamental. Even if socioeconomic needs are not recognised as rights, they are crucial to the exercise of other human rights. As Amal de Chickera says:

“If you are serious about freedom of expression, you have to be equally serious about the right to education – it isn’t a repressive regime, but illiteracy which is the biggest threat to free expression.

If you are serious about freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, you have to be equally serious about freedom from hunger and poverty. More people suffer the indignity and degradation of sleeping rough, acute hunger and health endangering poverty, than torture at the hands of the police.

 If you are serious about the right to privacy, you have to be equally serious about the right to housing, for not having a shell in which you can ensconce yourself is the biggest invasion of your privacy.

 If you are serious about the right to life, you have to be equally serious about the right to access healthcare, for people dying or being debilitated by preventable and treatable illnesses is unacceptable…”[3]

To the blind beggar in India, the right to vote means next to nothing, but medical attention may mean everything.

In Malaysia, we argue about political corruption and racial discrimination, but to the homeless in Kuala Lumpur, it’s difficult to care about Bersih when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.

500,000 unemployed,[4] 1.9 hospital beds per 1000 people,[5] 2000 homeless in KL.[6] Let’s address the problem.



ASASIkini tries its best to share reliable content from third parties without prejudice and with a firm belief in freedom of expression. All articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. ASASIkini and KPUM does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by the writers.


[1] M Craven, The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: A Perspective on its Development (Clarendon Press 1998), p. 9

[2]  Nolan, Porter and Langford, ‘The Justiciability of Social and Economic Rights: An Updated Appraisal’, CHRGJ Working Paper No. 15 (published Aug 2009)

[3] A Chickera, ‘Are Socio-economic rights, rights?’ in Groundviews,

[4] Labour Force Survey Report, Malaysia 2016 by Department of Statistics Malaysia


[6] According to a survey by Kuala Lumpur City Council (DBKL) reported in the Malaysian Digest,

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