Human Dignity in International Human Rights Law and the Need to Focus on Economic Rights

By Matthew McManus

Published on August 31, 2017


The global challenges facing humanity are more obvious and pressing than ever before. A quick look at the headlines over the past few years readily confirms this. Whether we look at the refugee crisis, and its impact on European politics, the need to address global climate change through multi-state action, or the constant need to tackle poverty, the world faces many challenges.

I believe that international human rights law can play a fundamental role in addressing the global challenges of our time. But to do so, it must move beyond the traditionally liberal understanding of the law, including international human rights law, as oriented exclusively around promoting a standard package of liberal rights.

The challenges we face cannot be resolved by states simply taking a “negative” approach to rights. Instead, states must engage in positive action to tackle the world’s problems head on. Such an approach would strengthen the legitimacy of international human rights law, by vindicating its authority to compell states to undertake certain actions that are conducive to making the world a more just and equitable place.

One way to accomplish this is by reorienting our understanding of international human rights law, and focusing on the moral objective it intends to achieve. The most obvious moral objective of international human rights law is the realization of human dignity. As I argued in an earlier essay, this would not only help interpret international human rights law, but provide guidance on the objectives of this ongoing international project. In this essay, I will elaborate more on my proposal by focusing on how making dignity central to international human rights law can help strengthen the global commitment to securing economic and social rights for all.

References to Human Dignity in International Human Rights Law

It is easy to find salient and decisive references to human dignity throughout the text of international human rights law. It is far easier to follow Justice Aharon Barak in arguing for the realization of human dignity as a “mother right” in the international legal context than in most domestic legal systems. The conceptual link between realizing dignity and the aims of international law are very explicit in the text of many international legal codes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) itself, a non-binding but widely influential articulation of global principles, opens with the following preamble:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world… whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…” References to human dignity appear twice in the preamble. Firstly, it recognizes human dignity as one of the sources of “freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Secondly, dignity is associated with recognizing the “worth” of the individual, and is a step on the path to “social progress”, a better life in which all enjoy a “larger freedom.”

References to dignity appear twice more in the UDHR. The first is in Article 1 where dignity is tied to the Enlightenment ideals of “reason and conscience” implying that all should act towards one another in a spirit of “brotherhood.”

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. At this point, dignity is largely articulated in rather abstract and even hagiographic terms as leading to and from all good things. However, the next references to human dignity found in Articles 22 and 23 (3), are far more intriguing. Here, the UDHR explicitly links human dignity to the ability of the individual to flourish in a rich social environment.

Article 22 reads:

“Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.” Article 23 (3) is even more express in drawing an explicit connection between respect for economic, social, and cultural rights and the thriving of human dignity.

“Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” The last point comes very close to implying, as I think one should, that states have an obligation to maintain a rightful condition which involves protecting economic, social, and cultural rights. This conceptual link becomes even more express in the Covenant which is designed to protect those rights.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) comes very close to declaring that amplifying human dignity is the ideal from which all “daughter rights,” and indeed, the authority of the United Nations itself, flows. References to dignity appear throughout the text of the Covenant. The most striking are found in the preamble, which seems to go out of its way to outdo that of the UNDHR. The reference to dignity is immediately visible:

“Considering that, in accordance with the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Recognizing that these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person…” Here, we find echoes of Arendt’s famous argument on the right to have rights, and that individuals came to recognize the need for universal rights only when they were stripped of their civic rights. In an appropriate twist, this concern seems to be verified by the ICCPR text itself. After emphatically emphasizing the importance of human dignity as the source for all human rights, references to it appear once more in Article 10, which outlines the legal rights of the individual.

“All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) opens with the same dignity centric language as the ICCPR. But unlike the latter covenant, the emphasis on dignity does not disappear once we dive into the heart of the text. This is one of the reasons why I think we should increasingly focus on the ICESCR as a model for making human dignity central to international human rights law. The ICESCR makes a strikingly programmatic reference to dignity in Article 13, linking its amplification directly to a host of related goods:

“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.” Such sections are likely what the drafters had in mind when they called for the “progressive realization” of the covenant, as opposed to the ICCPR which has no such qualifications. Education is to be available to all not just as a good in and of itself, but because it fosters the “development of the human personality and a sense of its dignity” which in turn should “strengthen” and promote the respect individuals have for human rights, and thereby contribute to establishing a lasting culture of tolerance and peace.

Refocusing on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

The last point emphasized above, highlights one of the attractions of making the realization of human dignity central to international human rights law. Establishing a lasting culture of tolerance and peace through the realization of human dignity will strengthen the moral basis upon which international human rights law claims its authority to compell states into taking action. One way to pursue this moral objective, and simultaneously secure more legitimacy for international human rights law, is by seeking a just redistribution of resources and power.

As mentioned earlier, the world faces significant challenges, and the weight of these often falls on poor countries. One need only look at the sheer volume of Syrian refugees being accepted by countries such as Lebanon and Jordan relative to behemoths like the United States, the tremendous impact of climate change on poor agricultural countries like Sierra Leone, or the number of people who still live in absolute poverty, for evidence. We need to do more to secure dignity for all, and it is only by doing so that international human rights law can be seen as a legitimate force for good by the entire global community.

As highlighted above, many of the legal tools are already available to pursue the moral project of making international human rights law more focused by making dignity central. There are many instruments avilable to orient it more closely to realizing the economic and social rights of the world’s most marginalized. The focus on classical liberal rights and the associated affiliation with a crude form of legal positivism have been a barrier to emphasizing these rights. But they are crucial to the realization and amplification of dignity, and states should pay far more attention to them if international human rights law is to obtain the legitimacy it warrants. Looking to Article 13 of the ICESCR would be a good place to start.

While it lacks the striking economy of references found in the preambles to the ICCPR and the ICESCR, Article 13 programatically delineates the connection between dignity, human rights, and economic and social well being in a fairly comprehensive manner. Most importantly, it is legally enforceable.

Unfortuately, many states lack the resources to fully realize human dignity in the manner specified by Article 13. This is where rich states should assume obligations, consistent with those specified by international human rights law.

If rich countries wish to make human dignity central to international human rights law, they will need to assume obligations towards citizens of other countries which go beyond the prevention of catastrophes. They will be obliged to take in more refugees than seems politically expedient, or curb processes of industrialization that have a negative impact on the world’s poor.

Most importantly, they will have an obligation to redistribute wealth to reduce poverty, as well as realize economic, social, and cultural rights for marginalized individuals in poor countries. These steps are essential in making dignity central to international human rights law, while securing the legitimacy of the international legal system by ensuring that it works to establish a more equitable world in which every individual can develop their personality and a sense of its dignity.

The Author

Matthew McManus

Matt has a PhD in Socio-Legal Studies and is currently completing his Post-Doctoral research on low income families in Toronto. His academic interests include human rights, international law, and political/legal theory. He can be reached via email at

Article picture: SPOTSOFLIGHT via Pixabay


Law & Philosophy