Regional Systems

Economic, social and cultural rights are also protected at the regional level. Apart from the universal mechanisms for protecting ESCR, there are three regional systems that protect these rights: the African System, the American System and the European System.

The African System

It is formed under the Organization of African Unity (OAU).  The African Charter on Human and People's Rights was adopted in 1981 (and entered into force on 1986) by the Organization of African States, the forerunner to the African Union. It contains provisions on civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and individual and group rights. The African Charter emphasizes the indivisibility and the interconnection of ESCR and CPR.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights was established by the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights to promote and protect human rights in Africa. One of its main activities is to review the reports on the situation of human rights in member states. Individuals or NGO who feel that their rights have been violated can file a complaint with the African Commission after all the domestic remedies have been exhausted. It does not have the power to enforce its decisions on member states.

Member States of the OAU have agreed to form in addition to the African Commission, the African Court on Human and People's Rights.  The Court however is yet to be established.

The American System
It is part of the Organization of American States (OAS). The main human rights documents in the American System are the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the Protocol of San Salvador.

The American Declaration was adopted in April 1948 by the Ninth Convention of American States in Bogotá, Colombia. It is applicable to all the members of the Organization of American States. The human rights that are set forth in the first chapter of the American Declaration include civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights. It recognizes a range of ESCR, such as the right to culture, social security, education, work, and the right to health.

The American Convention on Human Rights was adopted in 1969 and entered into force on 1978. Unlike the American Declaration, it is binding only upon the states that have ratified it. The American Convention clarifies and enforces many of the provisions of the American Declaration and concerns mainly civil and political rights, except on Article 26. This article calls upon state members to take action for the progressive achievement of the economic, social, and cultural rights that are set forth in the American Declaration. It establishes the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (the San Salvador Protocol) was adopted in 1988 and entered into force in 1999. It further defines and elaborates the ESCR found in the American Declaration and the American Convention. It sets forth a variety of rights, such as the right to work, social security, education, healthy environment, health, the rights of the child, labor laws. It recognizes the competence of the Commission to analyze cases related only to the right to education and trade union rights.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is the supervisory mechanism for human rights in the Americas. IACHR promotes and defends human rights in the Western hemisphere. It has the authority to listen to individual complains if all the domestic remedies have been exhausted, the complaint is filed within six months of the violation, and the case is not pending on any international bodies (there are some exceptions to this rules). The petitioner does not have to be the person or the organization whose right has been violated. If the IACHR decides that a violation has occurred, it makes recommendations to the member state which is obligated to take all the necessary steps to comply with the recommendation. The IACHR also has the power to produce or ask for reports on the situation of human rights in OAS member states.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights was established by the American Convention. It has a panel of seven judges that are selected from the members of the American Convention. Its field of action is restricted. Only states or the Inter-American Commission may bring cases before the Court, after the Commission has issued a decision on the case. The state bringing the case must be a party of the American Convention and must accept the authority of the Court, and the Inter-American Commission must have already completed its investigations on the case. If a state is found guilty of human rights violation the Court will demand that it refrain from continuing to do so. The court can confer compensation to the victims of abuses. While the court has recognized the indivisibility of human rights, it does not offer the same juridical protection to all economic, social and cultural rights as it does to civil and political rights.

The European System
The Council of Europe (COE) promotes and protects human rights and democracy in Europe. Its main human rights instruments for ESCR protection are the European Social Charter and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The European Social Charter (ESC) was adopted in 1961 by the members of the Council of Europe. It primary objective is to promote and protect economic and social rights. An additional protocol to the Charter was adopted in 1988. The rights that are mentioned in the Charter fall in three categories: 1. The right to work and work-related rights such as the right to association and the right to a fair wage. 2. General economic and social rights such as the right to health and the right to education. 3. Special cases such as the rights of the child and the rights of the mother.

Member states are obligated to report to the Secretary-General of the COE on the progress that they have made in the implementation of ESC provisions in their territory. These reports are examined by a Committee of Independent Experts (CIE) which evaluates them and draws conclusions on the status of the implementation of the ESC by member states. Collective complains can be filed with the COE in cases of violation or non-implementation of the ESC.

The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) was adopted in 1950. Membership is restricted to the parties of the Council of Europe. The treaty focuses primarily on civil and political rights. It also created the European Court. Some of the rights that are stipulated by the Convention, such as the right to family life, can be viewed in the light of economic and social rights.

The European Court of Human Rights came into existence with the entering into force of the ECHR in 1953. It has authority only on those members of the COE which have accepted its jurisdiction. States, individuals, or NGOs can bring cases before the Court, but the right violated must be one of those mentioned in the European Convention, the petitioner must be the victim, and all domestic remedies must have been exhausted. The decisions of the Court are binding and the state that has committed the violation must take all the necessary steps to rectify the situation. In some cases the Court has maintained that economic, social, and cultural rights are necessary for the exercise of the civil and political rights that are stipulated by the European Convention.

To gain a better understanding of the different regional systems and their functioning, please read the attached document: Heyns, Padilla, and Zwaak, “Schematic comparison of regional human rights systems,” SUR International Journal on Human Rights, Vol. 4, p. 163-172.