Icon Our Work

Can you picture the right to social security?


By Alexandra Barrantes (Development Pathways), and Anna Bulman and Ria Singh Sawhney (Picture Human Rights)


Development Pathways and Picture Human Rights have collaborated on a new mini-series on the human right to social security that seeks to demonstrate, through illustration, the importance of framing social protection debates and policy discussions around entitlements, and not charity or handouts. Only in this way can the problems causing vulnerable situations be tackled. Human rights law is fundamental in shaping inclusive and lifecycle social protection systems.

 Yes, social security is a human right.

The human right to social security is enshrined in a number of international human rights law instruments[1], making it legally binding on those States that have ratified the relevant covenants. Many countries have also entrenched the right to social security in their constitutions[2].

This means the State is the duty-bearer and individual are rights-holders and agents of change, representing an important shift from being passive agents on the receiving end. It also means that individuals of all ages are deemed to be of equal worth as rights holders are acknowledged as being vulnerable to shocks throughout their entire lifecycle.

At the very core of the right is human dignity. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights[3]. Social protection[4] policies must therefore take account of social and structural dimensions that may impact a person’s vulnerability and ensure programme implementation and service delivery centres the inherent dignity of the rights holder.

What does the right to social security entail?

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explained in its General Comment number 19[5] that the human right to social security must be ensured in a way that is adequate, available, accessible, and covers all social risks and contingencies (health care, sickness, old age, unemployment, employment injury, family and child support, maternity, disability, and survivors and orphans).

Freedom from poverty is also a fundamental human right. Indeed, poverty is a political choice; it is not inevitable[6]. Poverty should rather be seen as both a cause and a consequence of multiple violations of civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights[7].

So, what does a State need to do to ensure its citizens enjoy this right to social security? Among other measures, it must ensure that the constitutional enshrinement of social rights is backed up with adequate legislative recognition, a regulatory framework, appropriate institutional arrangements, strong accountability mechanisms, and proper internalisation of social rights norms to promote and facilitate realisation.

Bringing human rights standards and principles to the table in the design and implementation of social protection programmes.

So how can this be broken down into practical guidelines for the design and implementation of social protection programmes? Incorporating a rights-based approach into the design, implementation and evaluation of social protection programmes is both achievable and desirable. The following are some of the key principles and standards[8]:

Equality and non-discrimination. Social protection schemes must be available to all. States should ensure that nobody is directly or indirectly excluded from programmes and services, based on factors such as age, race, gender, or locality. Social protection must promote substantive gender equality and women’s rights and take into account the different experiences of men and women, and the lifecycle risks they face.

Accessibility. Social protection systems should be barrier-free and inclusive, and structured in a manner which ensures that everyone has equal opportunities to access social protection schemes, which may require special measures for particular categories of the population who may face additional barriers, such as those living remotely and/or with disability.

Adaptability. States must guarantee that social protection programmes, services and materials are adapted to the needs of individuals, including persons with disability, as well as to local contexts and deprivations. They should also be culturally acceptable.

Adequacy of the benefits provided. States should ensure that social protection schemes provide quality services and benefits of an adequate amount and duration to enable all beneficiaries to enjoy an adequate standard of living, including ensuring that persons with disability enjoy equal opportunities to access the same standard of living as other citizens.

Ensuring the right to privacy. Social protection schemes must respect people’s right to privacy and international standards on confidentiality when collecting and storing information identifying programme beneficiaries.

Transparency and access to information. Social protection systems must provide transparent and comprehensive access to information and communications on all aspects of programme delivery and services provided. In the case of persons with disability, information is to be accessible according to specific needs. It must also be culturally appropriate and available in all relevant languages and forms.

Accountability. States must ensure access to accountability mechanisms, independent and effective complaints procedures, and effective remedies. States and responsible parties in social security systems are to be held accountable for decisions and actions that might have a negative impact on the right to social protection for all. Institutions’ responsibilities need to be clearly defined and stipulated in a legal and regulatory framework to ensure accountability.

Participation. All citizens should have the right and ability to participate in all stages of social protection schemes – from design to implementation, and specific measures must be put in place to actively encourage and enable the participation of those experiencing structural discrimination.

It is also about the process…

One of the dominant paradigms that has an outsized impact on shaping social protection systems around the world is fiscal austerity and the “efficient” use of scarce resources[9]. Those technocrats who are guided by typical fiscal austerity principles in their social protection policy design tend to favour a focus on programme outcomes, and completely ignore the whole design, implementation, and service delivery process. This is particularly the case in terms of what is deemed to be the best mechanism towards poverty reduction and means that the root causes of poverty are completely overlooked, thus perpetuating the cycle and not solving the problem.

Policies based on human rights laws and principles stress the importance not only of the outcomes of programmes, but of the implementation process as a way of working towards the progressive achievement of economic and social rights. A rights-based approach encourages universal social protection policies, based on holistic realisation of social rights and non-discrimination for all, and not just achieving the “best possible” results. Human rights principles and standards must be taken into account at every stage of the design and implementation of social protection schemes.

So, what does an inclusive and rights-based system look like (versus poor relief)?

All people of all ages are vulnerable to shocks and risks. Yet many social protection systems around the world fail to recognise that. Instead, they are built on prevailing concepts of “poor relief” and “charity,” both of which are based on unequal relationships and targeting services to the “deserving poor.” Language around “deservingness” entails a one-sided relationship, with resources flowing from the state or private organisations to individual recipients. It puts emphasis on citizens deemed to be undeserving because of certain characteristics, or “otherness”, and thus invites certain social ills to be attributed to the “the others”. It reinforces discrimination and entrenches privileges held by the main/dominant group.

No one who is facing poverty deserves it. It is a measure of society how we treat our most vulnerable and marginalised. One of the best ways we can shape ourselves into societies that genuinely recognise the inherent dignity of all human beings is to demand of our governments inclusive, rights-based social protection systems that are based on solidarity and ensure an adequate standard of living for all people.

[1] Including: Universal Declaration of Human Rights articles 22, 25; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights articles 9, 10, 11; Convention on the Rights of the Child article 26; International Labour Organisation Social Protection Floors Recommendation, No. 202, and regional human rights instruments.

[2] See more here.

[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1.

[4] Social protection entails both social security (contributory schemes and tax-financed schemes) as well as personal social services (including child and adult social services, and social care).

[5] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment No. 19: The right to social security (Art. 9 of the Covenant), 4 February 2008, E/C.12/GC/19.

[6] Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights London, 16 November 2018.

[7] Report on Poverty and Human Rights in the Americas, IACHR, 2017.

[8] These principles are adapted from Sepúlveda and Nyst (2012), Recommendation 202/2012 of the International Labour Organisation and UNRISD’s Social Protection & Human Rights Platform.

[9] The word “efficiency” has been co-opted to be synonymous with minimising spending. However, this limited understanding of the word completely fails in by its own, albeit limited, instrumentalist logic, by overlooking long-term economic analysis. For example, ensuring a child has an adequate standard of living, a sound education, and equal opportunities all cost money, but ultimately the child is going to be of more value to society than if they had been left high and dry by the State in conditions of poverty.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *