Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

Economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR), such as the rights to adequate housing, water, education and work, are key components of international human rights law. These rights complement—and are indivisible from—rights that protect individuals from encroachments on their individual freedoms, known as civil and political rights. Recognized by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and also by regional and national human rights laws, human rights advocates have called for the fulfillment of ESCR to address issues as diverse as poverty, inequality, development and the legacies of conflict.

Staff in the International Human Rights Clinic have worked in close collaboration with non-profit organizations to seek protection of ESCR for years. The Clinic has partnered with NGOs and universities on behalf of communities across the globe to protect and fulfill ESCR, as well as worked on policy recommendations, research, and advocacy on global and comparative ESCR issues. In South Africa, International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director Susan Farbstein has led clinical projects that focus on the rights to education, land, housing, food, and water, including a multi-year project seeking to address historical inequities in the education system even decades after the end of apartheid. Clinical Instructor Aminta Ossom has worked on the right to work and the intersection of climate change and ESCR.

Right to Work
  • Aminta Ossom examined how labor in the informal economy can expose workers to harassment, discrimination, or other types of abuses. In partnership with the Solidarity Center and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), her clinical team researched the types of rights violations faced by informal workers and how international and regional human rights law could be invoked to further protect these workers.

  • On May 15, 2020, Aminta Ossom convened a panel “Rethinking Essential: Business, Work, and Human Rights in the Covid-19 Pandemic,” for the COVID-19: Advancing Rights and Justice during a Pandemic series. The panel, which featured  Anita Ramasastry (UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights), Alison Kiehl Friedman (ICAR), Kim Cordova (UFCW), and Janhavi Dave (Homenet South Asia), sought to examine how vulnerable workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic whilst providing essential services.

  • Right to Food, Water, and Health

  • Aminta Ossom led a clinical team to explore how human rights law could be used to address climate change, including to protect the rights of communities to water, food, health and adequate livelihoods. Susan Farbstein and Aminta Ossom have partnered with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as it investigates a North Carolina community’s lack of access to running water. The project touches on the broader crisis of clean water access in the United States, where communities of color and those living in rural and low-income areas are disproportionately affected.

  • In conjunction with both EELC and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, Susan Farbstein worked on a project at the intersection of the rights to education, food, and health. Over eight million South African schoolchildren rely on school feeding schemes as their main source of nutrition, but these programs are subject to corruption and manipulation and often fail to deliver nutritious meals. The team researched and analyzed South Africa’s national and provincial legislative frameworks, international and South African legal frameworks, and comparative examples from India and Brazil, to identify areas for improvement and propose policy reform and litigation responses.

  • Right to Education

  • In a multi-year collaboration initiated in 2012, Susan Farbstein partnered with the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) to protect the right to education enshrined in South Africa’s constitution. Decades after the end of apartheid, the education system is still characterized by poor quality and widespread inequality that disproportionately impacts historically disadvantaged communities. Through a combination of litigation, advocacy, legislative reform, and community engagement, the Clinic supported EELC in efforts that led to the promulgation of binding national norms and standards for school infrastructure, a national scholar transport policy, and delivery of buses and other vehicles to rural schools visited by the clinical team.

  • Right to Land

  • Susan Farbstein collaborated with the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in South Africa on a number of projects, including one related to the right to land for communities that were forcibly displaced during apartheid. The Clinic also worked with the LRC on the challenge of sexual violence committed against students in schools, proposing a multi-faceted strategy of school-based reforms to dramatically reduce such violence.

  • Right to Adequate Housing

  • Susan Farbstein worked in partnership with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at the University of the Witwatersrand on the right to housing in South Afruca, conducting legal research and interviewing individuals to support CALS’ representation of communities in inner-city Johannesburg. This work helped advance arguments about the state’s obligations with regards to family separations during evictions.


Experts: Susan Farbstein and Aminta Ossom

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