Explainer on the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Ahead of China's review by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in February 2023, ISHR has prepared an explainer on the work done by the CESCR, which rights it protects, and how civil society can engage with the Committee.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (or ‘CESCR’) is one of the ten Treaty Bodies, the UN committees tasked with monitoring the implementation of the nine core human rights treaties and their protocols by the State parties to them. These ‘guardians’ of the UN human rights conventions are composed of international independent human rights experts. Because they emanate from binding international treaties States have voluntarily ratified, they are often considered as ‘quasi-judicial’ bodies.

The CESCR is an indispensable tool for human rights defenders and civil society groups working to promote and protect economic, social and cultural rights, including related areas such as business and human rights, environmental rights and climate justice, or land rights. 

The Committee can

  • Regularly review a country’s compliance with and implementation of the rights enshrined in the Covenant, pointing to gaps in rights protection and providing concrete recommendations
  • Develop jurisprudence and strengthen international standards on the protection, promotion and realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, through ‘General Comments’ on the Covenant
  • Adjudicate complaints from individuals or groups of individuals where all domestic remedies are exhausted, or even conduct onsite inquiries 

The core of the CESCR’s monitoring work is done through a reporting process that follows several stages – civil society has a key role to play in all of them!

  1. The State under review prepares a State report at the national level. 
  2. The Committee convenes a pre-session to prepare a list of additional questions (called the ‘List of Issues’ or ‘LoI’) it requests more information on from the government. Their consideration is based on both the State’s report and on information provided by civil society groups.
  3. After the government responds to these additional questions, the Committee convenes a formal review session – a public meeting where it assesses the State’s implementation of the rights protected in the Covenant, through a constructive dialogue with the government. Here again, the Committee considers inputs from the government, and from civil society.
  4. After deliberation, the Committee issues a list of recommendations in a summary outcome document called the ‘Concluding Observations’. Among these recommendations, the CESCR identifies up to three it considers the government should implement as a priority within the following two years.
  5. After two years, the State must submit a follow-up report on its implementation of the priority recommendations. The Committee will then consider it during one of its sessions, provide an ‘assessment’, and send a follow-up letter to the government.

Civil society plays a vital role in providing information to the Committee and monitoring implementation of recommendations.

1) Document and analyse – You can gather evidence of your government’s efforts to protect economic, social and cultural rights, but also of violations and abuses of those rights. 

II) Submit a report – You can communicate your findings to the Committee in written from, in particular on areas where government information is inaccurate or missing.

III) Lobby the Committee – In addition to written reports, you may brief the Committee orally on your findings both at the List of Issues and review stages, and encourage them to look into a specific area of rights.

IV) Disseminate & use in advocacy – Both your report and the Committee’s recommendations are important advocacy tools: after this long review process, don’t forget to make the most strategic use of them.

China ratified the ICESCR relatively late, in 2001. When doing so, the government also issued one reservation – a declaration that it does not recognise the obligation to abide by certain provisions of the treaty –, on the right to form and join trade unions. It also did not ratify the Covenant’s Optional Protocol, which would allow the Committee to receive individual and group complaints, or to conduct inquiries into grave violations.

Download our explainer in English, Chinese or Spanish, to learn more.