What is the CESCR?
CESCR is the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is one of the principle United Nations human rights treaties. It is a ‘covenant’ – but this means the same thing as treaty, here. Treaties can be sneaky and go by a lot of different names, like Charter, Pact, Covenant, Protocol, etc. – but, they are all treaties. Don’t be fooled! Why does that matter? Because treaties get dealt with in a certain way in international law. They way treaties get dealt with in international law, is also part of international law. And, there is a treaty on that! The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
But back to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). People call it CESCR, although this acronym is a little hard to pronounce.
Where can I find a copy?
You can find the text of CESCR, here: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx
Does CESCR apply to me?
You need to check to see if your country is a State Party to CESCR, before you can know if your country is obligated to implement the obligations in the CESCR, as a matter of the treaty law contained in the CESCR. That means also that only the countries that sign up to be bound by the CESCR are obligated to submit periodic State reports to the CESCR Committee. In those State reports, countries have a chance to tell the Committee (and everyone else interested) how well and what the country is doing to implement the binding obligations in the CESCR. There are some obligations that have become so widely accepted by countries, that they are now universally binding on countries – even those that did not officially sign up to implement this treaty. This is what’s called ‘customary international law’. However, this page focuses only on the obligations contained in the CESCR, as a matter of treaty law, and does not deal with customary international law.
What is this CESCR Committee of which you speak?
CESCR, the Committee, is one of the UN human rights treaty bodies. When people are talking about the CESCR Committee, they say CESCR, meaning, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. You might notice that this is the same acronym that is used when people are talking about the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. You’re correct. Although it isn’t the greatest idea, the same acronym is usually used for both. For clarity, you can say, the CESCR Committee, if you don’t want to confuse people.
CESCR (the Committee) meets periodically in Geneva to watch over the implementation of the obligations in the CESCR. This is the same idea as what the other UN human rights treaty bodies do: they also meet periodically in Geneva, but to watch over implementation of other human rights treaties.
Which articles in CESCR are of particular relevance to women and girls in STEM fields?
In CESCR, a few key articles are articles 2, 3, 13, 14 and 15. Plus, you might want to check out the typical articles at the end, which resemble those found in all of the UN human rights treaties. They differ slightly in the details. The stuff at the end is usually technical stuff, technical, but important. It’s fun to think of this part of the human rights treaties as a kind of operating manual, of instructions. The first parts of the treaties are the exciting parts where people wrote down what the rights were, and the end parts are always these functional articles about things like:
- how are we going to check on implementation? (answer: with a Committee meeting in Geneva) how’s that going to work? how often do States submit reports? (answer: this varies by the human rights treaty)
- when will this thing enter into force (EIF)? (answer: after a certain number of ratifications, like a deal that kicks in once a certain number of parties have signed up to it)
- can a country try to make reservations to the treaty, and not accept absolutely everything in there (reservations to treaties)?
So when the drafters of the CESCR wrote the end part in CESCR, it very typically was written to talk all about the Committee, how it’s going to work (and how it does work still), how States Parties have to submit reports, etc. CESCR isn’t very long; it’s got some of your great human rights in there.
1. Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.
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.
3. Developing countries, with due regard to human rights and their national economy, may determine to what extent they would guarantee the economic rights recognized in the present Covenant to non-nationals.
The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights set forth in the present Covenant.
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.
3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
4. No part of this article shall be construed so as to interfere with the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions, subject always to the observance of the principles set forth in paragraph I of this article and to the requirement that the education given in such institutions shall conform to such minimum standards as may be laid down by the State.
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.
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:
(a) To take part in cultural life;
(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;
(c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.
3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.
4. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific and cultural fields.
General comment No. 25 (2020) on science and economic, social and cultural rights (article 15 (1) (b), (2), (3) and (4) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)
In April 2020, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment no. 25 on most of article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (https://undocs.org/E/C.12/GC/25). Recognizing the importance of science on economic, social and cultural rights, the Committee explored the content of certain rights in article 15: right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications (art. 15 (1) (b)), the obligations of States parties to take steps for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science (art. 15 (2)), to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research (art. 15 (3)) and to promote international contacts and cooperation in the scientific field (art. 15 (4)). The Committee refers to article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its analysis.
In its General Comment, the Committee stressed that “States parties should remove discriminatory barriers that impede persons from participating in scientific progress, for instance, by facilitating the access of marginalized populations to scientific education” (para. 17). It calls for eliminating discrimination against individuals and groups, including women, and to protect these rights (see in particular paras. 25-33, and 43). Core obligations in article 15(1)(b) require that States parties “[e]liminate laws, policies and practices that unjustifiably limit access by individuals or particular groups to facilities, services, goods and information related to science, scientific knowledge and its applications;” and [i]dentify and eliminate any law, policy, practice, prejudice or stereotype that undermines women’s and girls’ participation in scientific and technological areas” (para 52). The Committee reiterates the obligation of international cooperation, especially in the light of rapid technological changes, and recommends national implementation that includes a normative framework, a national plan with appropriate indicators and benchmarks, including disaggregated statistics and time frame, as well as ensuring the justiciability of rights and remedies.
Select paragraphs of General Comment no. 25:
“25. States parties are under an immediate obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination against individuals and groups in their enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. This duty is of particular importance in relation to the right to participate in and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications because deep inequalities persist in the enjoyment of this right. States must adopt the measures necessary to eliminate conditions and combat attitudes that perpetuate inequality and discrimination in order to enable all individuals and groups to enjoy this right without discrimination, including on the grounds of religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, race and ethnic identity, disability, poverty and any other relevant status.
26. The duty to eliminate discrimination is a cross-cutting obligation that States should take into account when fulfilling all other obligations. For instance, the duty of States to take steps for the development and the diffusion of science (art. 15 (2)) includes the obligation to make all necessary efforts to overcome persistent inequalities in scientific advancement through culturally and gender-appropriate means of education and communication, with the aim of encouraging the widest participation in scientific progress of those populations that have traditionally been excluded from such progress.
27. The duty to combat discrimination on those grounds has implications for the design and implementation of all policies related to the right to participate in and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. For instance, States have to carefully design and implement quality scientific education programmes in order to allow all persons equal opportunities to gain a basic level of understanding and knowledge of the science and training needed to pursue careers in science, and to ensure access without discrimination to available employment in scientific research fields.
B. Special protection for specific groups
28. Without prejudice to the duty of States to eliminate all forms of discrimination, special attention should be paid to groups that have experienced systemic discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to participate in and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, such as women, persons with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, indigenous peoples and persons living in poverty. Temporary special measures might be necessary to achieve substantive equality and remedy current manifestations of previous patterns of exclusion of these groups. Owing to limitations of space, this general comment focuses on women, persons with disabilities, persons living in poverty and indigenous peoples.
29. Women are frequently underrepresented in scientific activity. Sometimes this is owing to situations of direct discrimination in access to education or professional employment and promotion. In other cases, discrimination is more subtle and is based on stereotypes or professional practices that discourage women’s participation in scientific research. In particular, women’s advancement in scientific careers, both in academia and in industry, is cumulatively limited as they climb the hierarchical ladder.
30. Unequal access between men and women to science implies double discrimination. First, women have the right to participate in scientific research on an equal footing with men; thus, unequal access to scientific education or scientific careers constitutes discrimination in principle. Second, as women are underrepresented in scientific research, it is very common that scientific research and new technologies are gender biased and not sensitive to the particularities and needs of women.
31. States must therefore immediately eliminate barriers that affect girls’ and women’s access to quality scientific education and careers. Furthermore, States must take steps to ensure women’s substantive equality in access to scientific education and careers by, for example, raising public awareness in order to eliminate stereotypes that exclude women from science or adopting policies for both men and women to balance domestic life with scientific careers. Temporary special measures, such as quotas for women in scientific education, might be necessary in order to speed up the attainment of substantive equality in the enjoyment of the right to participate in and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. The availability of kindergartens and other childcare institutions is also key to the advancement of equality.
32. A gender-sensitive approach is not a luxury for scientific research, but a crucial tool in order to ensure that scientific progress and new technologies adequately take into account the characteristics and needs of women and girls. This approach should not be relegated to the last stages of research, but incorporated from the first stage, such as the choice of the subject and the design of methodologies, and must be present throughout all steps of scientific research and its applications, including during the evaluation of its impacts. Decisions concerning funding or general policies must also be gender-sensitive.
33. A gender-sensitive approach is of particular relevance to the right to sexual and reproductive health. States parties must ensure access to up-to-date scientific technologies necessary for women in relation to this right. In particular, States parties should ensure access to modern and safe forms of contraception, including emergency contraception, medication for abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, and other sexual and reproductive goods and services, on the basis of non-discrimination and equality, as outlined in general comment No. 22 (2016) on the right to sexual and reproductive health. Special attention should be given to the protection of women’s free, prior and informed consent in treatments or scientific research on sexual and reproductive health.
Obligation to protect
43.The obligation to protect requires States parties to adopt measures to prevent any person or entity from interfering with the right to participate in and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications by, for example, preventing access to knowledge or discriminating on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation or gender identity or other circumstances. These persons or entities could include universities, schools, laboratories, cultural or scientific associations, patients in hospitals and volunteers participating in scientific experiments. Examples of this duty to protect are: ensuring that scientific associations, universities, laboratories and other non-State actors do not apply discriminatory criteria; protecting people from participating in research or tests that contravene the applicable ethical standards for responsible research and guaranteeing their free, prior and informed consent; ensuring that private persons and entities do not disseminate false or misleading scientific information; and ensuring that private investment in scientific institutions is not used to unduly influence the orientation of research or to restrict the scientific freedom of researchers.
D. Core obligations
52. Core obligations related to the right to participate in and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications require States parties to:
• Eliminate laws, policies and practices that unjustifiably limit access by individuals or particular groups to facilities, services, goods and information related to science, scientific knowledge and its applications;
• Identify and eliminate any law, policy, practice, prejudice or stereotype that undermines women’s and girls’ participation in scientific and technological areas;”
1. Is my country a State Party to the CESCR? since when?
- Go to the United Nations Treaty Collection, chapter on Human Rights: https://treaties.un.org/Pages/Treaties.aspx?id=4&subid=A&lang=en
- Click on number three, which is the text of the CESCR: https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-3&chapter=4&clang=_en
- Now, check on that page to see if your country is a State Party to the CESCR, and notice, what is the year when it became a State Party? How do you check? It’s easy: there has to be a year listed in the column on the right. If there is no date listed in that column on the right for your country, bad news: your country is not yet a Party to the CESCR and it’s time to ask your country to become a Party to the CESCR, and, to get your friends to ask them to do it, too. (We’ll ask them too.) However, if there is a date listed there, then notice that date and do a little celebration dance if you want, because since that date, your country obliged itself under international law to protect your rights that are listed in there. And, your country obliged itself to report about it periodically at the CESCR Committee. How did that happen? Well, besides dancing, or however else you choose to express yourself, it is also time to thank some mysterious people in the past who were working on your human rights. We can do the same for the people coming after us.
2. Entry into force
When does the CESCR enter into force? how many countries had to become Parties to it before it could enter into force? What article of CESCR is this information written in?