When most people in the United States are asked about human rights, they talk of the right to vote and the Bill of Rights, particularly the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly. Many have defended these powerful freedoms on behalf of their country, their neighbors, and themselves.

There are other rights declared in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that are not part of the human rights consciousness of most Americans. These include rights to adequate food, clothing, housing, medical care, and even education. They also include rights related to social security, marriage and family, and labor union participation and working conditions. These are among the social, economic, and cultural rights identified in Articles 16 and 22-29 of the UDHR to which everyone is entitled, regardless of who you are or where you live.

Social and Economic Justice: A Human Rights Perspective is intended to expand the conversation about human rights. It provides background information, ideas for taking action, and interactive activities to help people think about human rights in a broader, more inclusive manner. It strives to help us define issues like homelessness, poverty, hunger, and inadequate health care, not only as “social or economic problems,” but also as human rights challenges.

Placing problems such as these within the human rights framework provided by the UDHR incorporates a moral vision into public policy and personal decision making. It provides a rationale for action in the name of human dignity, peace, and justice. This publication is the Human Rights Education Series – Topic Book 1, a companion to Human Rights Here and Now: Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That book is broader in scope, while Social and Economic Justice: A Human Rights Perspective focuses on those rights found principally in the last third of the UDHR. Both books are tools for bringing the UDHR into the lives of people in the United States.

Both books are also contributions to the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, 1995-2004. They imagine a world in which everyone learns about these human rights and accepts as a personal responsibility to advocate for and defend them on behalf of oneself and one’s community: local, national, and global. It is a powerful vision.

This book is the outcome of contributions from many educators and institutions committed to human rights goals. There are some who deserve special mention.

Those who contributed activities or essays:

Alameda County Community Food Bank (sections of Hunger USA), Nancy Flowers (Martin Luther King – From Civil Rights to Human Rights), Shulamith Koenig (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Questions and Answers), and the Resource Center of the Americas (sections of Wages, Earning Power, Profit, and Responsibility).

Those who served as principal authors of activities or essays:

Sushanna Ellington (The Elderly Poor) and Gwen Willems (Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as Human Rights: Historical Background).

Those who were co-authors:

Kristi Rudelius-Palmer (Taking the Human Rights Temperature of Your School), Sherry Kempf (Economic Justice: The Scramble for Wealth and Power), and Karen Kraco (Community Research and Action Plan: Social and Economic Rights).

Those who offered editorial suggestions:

Elise Guyette, Janet Schmidt, Patrick Manson, and the more than forty educators participating in human rights workshops organized by Amnesty International USA and the Vermont Alliance for the Social Studies.

Nancy Flowers for the keen editorial eye and hand that touched every page of this book and for her tireless encouragement and assistance.

Amnesty International USA for fostering human rights education and supporting the Human Rights Educators’ Network of dedicated volunteers.

The Stanley Foundation, Joan Winship and Jill Goldesberry, for their support in the creation and publication of this book.

The Human Rights Resource Center at the University of Minnesota, Terri Kinne, Betsy Clink, Jennifer Saari, and Kristi Rudelius-Palmer for their coordination, editing, and design expertise in the final production stage.

Center for World Education, College of Education and Social Services, University of Vermont for hosting the initial writing and research institute in July 1977.

Shulamith Koenig for her vision of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education, 1995-2004.

Five publications in particular made substantial contributions to this book.

  • David Shiman, Teaching Human Rights (Center for Teaching International Relations, University of Denver, 1998).
  • Educating for Economic Justice. Human Rights Education: The Fourth R (Human Rights Educators’ Network, Amnesty International USA) Vol. 9:1 (Spring, 1998).
  • Alicia Dorosin, Courtney Geelan, Eve Gordon, and Rachel Moore, Why Is There Hunger in Our Community? (Alameda County Community Food Bank, Oakland, CA, 1997).
  • Amy Sanders and Meredith Sommers, Child Labor Is Not Cheap (Resource Center of the Americas, Minneapolis, MN, 1997).
  • Nancy Flowers (ed.) Human Rights Here and Now: Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Human Rights Educators’ Network, Amnesty International USA, Minneapolis, MN, 1998).




On December 10, 1998 the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The United States was instrumental in creating the UDHR, with Eleanor Roosevelt as head of the drafting committee and the US Constitution as a principal model. The USA joined the UN General Assembly in unanimously adopting the UDHR, accepting its exhortation that “every individual and every organ of society” should “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

Americans, through our Constitution with its Amendments, already possess many of the political and civil rights articulated in the UDHR. However, the UDHR goes further than the US Constitution, including many social and economic rights as well. The UDHR’s Article 25, in particular, guarantees everyone has a human right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” However, when most people debate issues of hunger, housing, and health care, for example, they rarely frame these as human rights questions. Americans tend to equate civil/political rights with human rights.

Economic and Social Justice: A Human Rights Perspective addresses the social and economic rights found in Articles 16 and 22 through 27 of the UDHR, which are generally not recognized as human rights in the United States. These rights were further articulated in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Although in 1948 the United States was a signatory to the non-binding Uni versal Declaration, it remains among the few nations that have not ratified the ICESCR.

In keeping with the UDHR and ICESCR, Economic and Social Justice: A Human Rights Perspective treats social and economic rights as inalienable human rights, putting them in both local and global perspective and illustrating the interdependence between social/economic and civil/political rights.

Economic and Social Justice: A Human Rights Perspective is also built on the premise that the study of human rights is also a call to action. Therefore, the activities briefly described below suggest ways in which participants can act to make this a better world.

Economic and Social Justice: A Human Rights Perspective begins with a brief history of economic, social, and cultural rights and an essay, in question and answer format, that introduces these rights. Although cultural rights are interrelated and of equal importance as economic and social rights, this book primarily addresses justice regarding economic and social components.

Part II provides nine activities to further explore and learn about social and economic rights:

  • Activity 1, Imagine a Country, introduces social and economic rights in an engaging and provocative manner;
  • Activity 2, Economic Justice: The Scramble for Wealth and Power, provides a lively exploration of fair distribution of wealth;
  • Activity 3, Wages, Earning Power, Profit, and Responsibility: International Lessons, makes a power ful connection between wages and working conditions abroad and responsible consumerism at home;
  • Activity 4, Community Research and Action Plan: Economic and Social Rights, targets human rights challenges in the community;
  • Activity 5, Hunger USA is a multi-part lesson that explores links between hunger and poverty;
  • Activity 6, The Elderly Poor uses case studies to highlight human rights concerns;
  • Activity 7, Taking the Human Rights Temperature of Your School employs a questionnaire;
  • Activity 8, Martin Luther King Jr. – From Civil Rights to Human Rights, introduces King’s broader global human rights vision;
  • Activity 9, Activists for Human Rights identifies historical figures in US history who have championed human rights and have a particular focus on social and economic rights.

The Appendix contains documents, a glossary of terms, a directory of resource organizations, and a bibliography to assist those eager to increase their understanding and/or move into action to address social and economic rights.