The Purpose of Module 2

The purpose of this module is to provide an overview of the history of the struggle for recognition of ESC rights.

The module discusses

  • the importance of historical struggles related to ESC issues;
  • the establishment of the International Labour Organization;
  • recognition of ESC rights more broadly in the immediate post-World War II period;
  • the legal obligations assumed by states under international human rights law;
  • fundamental principles of human rights; and
  • the importance of taking the contemporary context into account.


Hunger and starvation, poverty, dangerous and often life-threatening work, ill health and il­literacy have plagued humans throughout history.  For the most part these reali­ties have been accepted as an inevitable part of life.  When it has been clear, however, that specific people or institutions were the cause of specific conditions, people have frequently resisted or rebelled.  Often the target of the rebellion has been a landowner or local ruler.  With the rise of the na­tion-state, institutions or people wielding state power have increasingly been either the prin­cipal cause of the problem or have failed in their responsibil­ity to solve it—thus becom­ing the target of popular discontent.

Unrest and rebellion induced by poverty and its attendant suffering, whether against a land­owner, local lord, king or other ruler, have for the most part gone unrecorded and thus been lost to succeeding generations.  Sometimes, the resistance has been so great or so prolonged that it has become part of the historical record.  Even where resistance or rebellion was on a  large scale, it was often beaten down.  On occasion, it has succeeded in alleviating the op­pressive situation, to a greater or lesser extent.

When populations were predominantly rural, the resistance arose principally from peasants.  The ultimately unsuccessful Tonghak Peasant Revolution in Korea in 1894, for example, be­gan in response to exploitation by a local magistrate.  “The peasants occupied the county of­fice, seized weapons, distributed illegally collected tax rice to the poor, and then destroyed a new reservoir built with their own forced labor.” [1]   History is full of stories of peas­ants re­sisting taxes imposed on them.  In China, for example, over the course of centuries peasants resisted taxes they perceived as inequitable or that had become particularly onerous as the result of a shortfall in the harvest. [2]  

Bread was a central issue in the French Revolution, a rebellion that was successful to the ex­tent that a despotic monarchy was brought down and an early declaration on human rights drafted.  The Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century focused on issues of land for peasants. 

The greatest abuses through the centuries have been experienced by those who were sub­ject to slavery.  Wherever they have lived, slaves, in addition to being deprived of their lib­erty, have suffered from hunger; miserable living conditions; ill-health resulting from poor food, overwork and inadequate medical care; little access to formal education; and hard, ceaseless work.  Slaves frequently tried to run away or otherwise resist or rebel against their condition.  However, because of the inequalities of power between slave and master, slave revolts typi­cally ended in recapture or death. [3]   The only successful large-scale slave rebellion occurred in Santo Domingo (current-day Haiti) at the end of the eighteenth century. [4]

The appalling conditions suf­fered by slaves finally pricked the con­science of large numbers of peo­ple in the mid-nineteenth cen­tury.  The 1890 General Act for the Repression of the Afri­can Slave Trade was among the first international ef­forts to address a human rights issue. [5]

Increased urbanization and the onset of the industrial revolu­tion in the eighteenth century caused the social and economic prob­lems faced by large portions of the population to shift to­wards low wages, dangerous working conditions in factories, tex­tile mills and mines for both adults and children, and ill health resulting from persistent mal­nu­trition, poor sanitation and urban pollution.  As the decades went by, these situations were increas­ingly publicized and decried, both in newspapers and in literature.  Labor leaders started speaking out about the rights of workers.  Labor spokesman William Cobbett

charged during the 1830s, for example, that the poor had been cheated of their rights, and demanded before agitated crowds: “the right to have a living out of the land of our birth, in exchange for our labour duly and honestly performed; the right, in case we fell into distress, to have our wants sufficiently relieved out of the produce of the land, whether that distress arose from sickness, from decrepitude, from old age, or from inability to find employment.”  He argued that society must assist the exploited, not necessarily out of a sense of charity, but because all individuals had a right to re­ceive such succor. [6]    

Robert Louis Stevenson tells why he left England in 1879

"Labouring mankind had in the last years, and throughout Great Britain, sustained a prolonged and crushing series of defeats. I had heard vaguely of these reverses; of whole streets of houses standing deserted by the Tyne, the cellar doors broken and removed for firewood; of homeless men loitering at the street-corners of Glasgow with their chests beside them; of closed factories, useless strikes, and starving girls. But I had never taken them home to me or represented these distresses livingly to my imagination. A turn of the market may be a calamity as disastrous as the French retreat from Moscow; but it hardly lends itself to lively treatment, and makes a trifling figure in the morning papers. We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass. It is by scenic accidents, and the appeal to the carnal eye, that for the most part we grasp the significance of tragedies. Thus it was only now, when I found myself involved in the rout, that I began to appreciate how sharp had been the battle. We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another; and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed. We were a shipful of failures, the broken men of England."7

The Emergence of Socialist Ideas

The exploitation of labor during the decades of the industrial revolution provided the material conditions for the emergence of socialist ideas.  The first reactions to the horrors of early in­dustrialization were manifest in the physical destruction of machines by workers.  Another response is reflected in the writings of Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Charles Fourier (1772-1837), and Robert Owen (1771-1858).  They all discussed the evils of capitalism and pro­posed alterna­tives to mitigate the ill effects of industrialization.  They advocated creating communities that would live by socialist rules and principles, and provide an alternative to capitalism. 

The response of the victims of exploitation was not always passive.  For example, in France  an attempt was made in 1796 to overthrow the government and  establish a society based on socialist ideas. This was referred to as Babeuf’s Conspiracy, since it was François Noël Ba­beuf who planned the conspiracy in addition to organizing a secret society named the Society of the Equals.

The work of Karl Marx synthesized these varied and fertile currents of socialist doctrine.  Marx himself developed his theory on the foundations and insights provided by other phi­losophers of his period, in particular those of Immanuel Kant and Georg W. F. Hegel.  He focused on the importance of the human being (as opposed to God) as an agent of history.  His ideas were summed up in the Communist Manifesto, which was issued jointly by Marx and Friedrich Engels, but was primarily the work of Marx.  “It is a sketch of the historical dynamics that led to the triumph of bourgeois civilisation, a celebration of the accomplish­ments of that civilisation, a scathing denunciation of its cruelties and vices, and a call to ac­tion on the part of the proletariat to speed up the historical process . . .”8

When the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, the working class was in revolt in almost every country in Europe.  These upheavals had among their goals the overthrow of autocratic governments, the establishment of democracy and, in countries such as Italy and Germany, the unification of nations.  A major social force behind these revolutions was the working class, which had been inspired by the ideas of socialism.  Although these revolutions did not succeed to a great extent, they did end traditional politics based on religion and hier­archy.

Despite the setback for the toiling classes and the antagonism generated by these revolts within the propertied classes, socialist ideas had begun to have a profound impact in Euro­pean countries.  In country after country, social welfare measures were introduced.  Several countries adopted factory laws, workmen’s compensation provisions, and health, old age and unemployment insurance for workers.  Increasingly, banking and communication were sub­ject to state regulation.  Housing and health were brought under the responsibility of the state.

The history of the twentieth century cannot be written without taking into account the direct and indirect effects of the Russian Revolution in the early decades of the century.  It is now widely conceded that “the actual revolutions made in the name of communism have ex­hausted themselves . . . The tragedy of the October revolution was precisely that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, command socialism.”9  At the same time, the Russian Revolution played a very substantial role in colonial emancipation and was key to the growth of social democracies around the world. 

The Women’s Movement

The women’s movement is a global phenomenon.  Women have had to fight in every epoch to claim their place in history.  In the seventeenth century, when enlightened Europe was de­manding equality, it was ignoring the subordination of women.  The most glaring omission was the French Revolution, which, despite the active participation of thousands of women, did not address their specific concerns.  It was left to a French woman revolutionary, Olympe de Gouges, to proclaim the “Rights of Women and the Female Citizen” to counter the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. 

Many women were involved in the movements to abolish slavery.  Indeed, the achievements and momentum of the antislavery movement added to the energy that was building interna­tionally to push for increased rights for women.  While the primary emphases of the women’s movement in these early years were civil and political rights, work issues—particularly the conditions for women in the factories of the industrial revolution—were also important con­cerns.10  Women in different countries agitated in various forms for the improvement of con­ditions for women.  While waging a struggle for their own equality, women have contributed immensely to ending slavery, economic exploitation of the working class, and colonialism.

Establishment of the International Labour Organization

During the nineteenth century reform laws related to working hours and conditions were passed in a number of countries.  However, the continuing threats and realities of labor unrest pressured industrialists and governments to consider further measures.  Between 1890 and 1905 several meetings were held in which governments and industrialists addressed the pos­sibility of standardized international labor legislation.  Finally, in 1905 and 1906, the first two international labor conventions were adopted.11 

Initiatives to draft and adopt further conventions were interrupted by World War I.  In order to maintain war-production strength and “unity” on the home front during the war, govern­ments made various promises related to social and economic rights to follow the end of hos­tilities.  During these same years, a number of international conferences of workers devel­oped a list of basic demands related to working conditions and other issues.  Furthermore, the threat posed by the Russian Revolution generated considerable pressure on governments to respond to worker demands.  Thus, during the Paris Peace Conference, governments estab­lished a Commission on International Labour Legislation, one of whose proposals was the establishment of the International Labour Organization (ILO).12  This proposal was adopted in final form as part of the Treaty of Versailles ending the war. 

The ILO was based on the following convictions, stated in the preamble to its Constitution:

  • lasting universal peace could be established only if it was based upon social justice;
  • it was urgent to improve the working conditions of large numbers of people, as injus­tice, hardship and privation produced such unrest that the peace and harmony of the world were imperiled; and
  • the failure by any nation to adopt humane conditions of labor was an obstacles in the way of other nations which desired to improve conditions in their own countries.13

Between 1919 and 1933 the ILO had drafted and submitted to governments for ratification forty conventions addressing a wide range of work-related issues.14 

In 1929, with the stock market crash in the United States, the Great Depression began.  Mil­lions of people became unemployed, and demonstrations of unemployed workers were a regular fare.  In the United States,

more consciously political demonstrations began as well.  By early 1930, unemployed men and women in New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chi­cago, Seattle, Boston and Milwaukee were marching under such Communist banners as “Work or Wages” and “Fight—Don’t Starve.”15

The depression spread rapidly to the rest of the world, with the result that large numbers of people were thrown out of work in country after country.  The increased suffering created an impetus for sustained discussion about rights, particularly social and economic rights. 

At the same time, of course, the depression wrought its toll on Germany, becoming one of the contributing causes to the rise of Adolf Hitler to power.  The oppression suffered by Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other groups in Nazi Germany and occupied countries in Europe encompassed the loss of the full range of rights—not simply loss of freedom, but loss of jobs, educational opportunities and cultural expression.  In the concentration camps, millions of prisoners suffered ill health, poor housing and ultimately, deprivation of the right to life. 

As the world was just emerging from the depression and World War II was underway in Europe, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his famous four freedoms speech to Con­gress:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential freedoms.  The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world.  The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world.  The third freedom is from want, which, trans­lated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth freedom is from fear, which translated into world terms means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.16



1. Nancy Abelmann, Echoes of the Past, Epics of Dissent: A South Korean Social Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 27.

2. Michael P. Hanagan, Leslie Page Moch and Wayne Blake, eds. Challenging Authority: The Historical Study of Contentious Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 158.

3.  Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 38-45, 52-53.  Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998), 160-66.  William G. Beasley, The Rise of Modern Japan (St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 120ff.                                         

4.  Cyril L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1963).

5.  Lauren, op. cit., 43-45.

6.  Lauren, op. cit., 53-54.

7. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Amateur Emigrant (London: Hogarth Press, 1984), 14.

8. John A. Garraty and Peter Gay, eds.,  The Columbia History of the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 704.

[9]. Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991  (New Delhi: Vintage, 1996), 498. 

10. Carol Riegelman Lubin, Social Justice for Women: The International Labor Organization and Women (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 10-15. 

11. Hector Bartolomei de la Cruz, Geraldo von Potobsky and Lee Swepston, The International Labor Organization: The International Standard System and Basic Human Rights (Boulder: Westview Press, 1966), 3-4. 

12.  Lauren, op. cit., 96-97.

13.  Bartolomei, op. cit., 5.

14. Lauren, op. cit., 115.

15. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage, 1970), 50.

16. As quoted in Virginia A. Leary, “The Effect of Western Perspectives on International Human Rights,” in Abdullahi A. An-Na’im and Francis M. Deng, eds.,  Human Rights in Africa: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990), 19.

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