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Published on 14 November 2022


As the world lurches from crisis to crisis, we are witnessing a flurry of proposals to establish a more just status quo. These range from green new deals[1] which centre environmental and climate justice, to red deals[2] from indigenous communities which centre indigenous and decolonial demands and feminist proposals centred on a care economy.[3] What unites these divergent proposals is their shared premise: namely, that the neo-liberal economic paradigm which has dominated the economic policy landscape for the last four decades has only entrenched poverty and growing inequalities while contributing towards the existential threat of climate change which threatens humanity’s very survival. They therefore acknowledge that there is a need for a new model, system or social contract grounded in the lived experiences of marginalised communities around the world and which is rooted in principles that can tackle the many crises the world faces today. These crises include a spiralling debt crisis in the Global South, increasing inequality and poverty linked to the growing cost of living crisis, the looming climate catastrophe, as well as a crisis of democracy with authoritarianism on the rise. There is no doubt that in all these crises it is women in their diversity who are disproportionately affected.

So far, human rights have largely been on the margins of these proposals, for a variety of historical and political reasons. There has traditionally been a perception by many – including those in the human rights field such as major international human rights NGOs – that economic, social and cultural rights were somehow inferior to civil and political rights, or at the very least less achievable and less justiciable.[4] Part of this tension is rooted in Cold War geopolitics: the Communist-aligned countries were in favour of strong economic, social and cultural rights protections while Western countries insisted on prioritising civil and political rights (in part as a mode of critiquing their foes). Even in recent years, some have contended that human rights are irrelevant to questions of economic policy which remain entirely within the purview and discretion of the state; in other words that such decisions are entirely political and should not be burdened by legal standards. Economics was therefore for many years perceived by most as a ‘rights-free zone’.

These arguments against economic, social and cultural rights however obscure the fact that all rights are interdependent, indivisible and interrelated and there is no ‘hierarchy’ of rights. In our view, it does not make sense that human rights are marginal in discussions around reforming the economy when human rights are often called the ‘lingua franca’ of justice, and that human rights embody shared values and principles which the majority of the world’s states have committed themselves to – such as dignity, equality, justice, participatory democracy and solidarity. In the case of gender justice, it has been more than four decades since UN member states came together to adopt the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).[5] Some have described CEDAW as ‘the lynchpin of a broader human rights framework which ensures gender equality and women’s rights in all government activities.’[6]

Importantly, CEDAW was not couched in universalist language which eschews the differences that many women face based on their structural positions as a result of their race, sexual orientation, class, social origin, nationality and so on. Instead it was expressly grounded in intersectional terms by acknowledging that gender equality cannot be achieved without enabling racial justice and decolonisation as well. The preamble of CEDAW acknowledged as much in these terms: ‘Emphasizing that the eradication of apartheid, all forms of racism, racial discrimination, colonialism, neocolonialism, aggression, foreign occupation and domination and interference in the internal affairs of States is essential to the full enjoyment of the rights of men and women.’

CEDAW is complemented by other human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Taken together these international human rights embrace concepts such as human dignity, substantive equality and the obligation on states to devote their maximum available resources to the progressive realisation of economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. Moreover, the essence of these human rights norms is that the purpose of both fiscal and monetary policy should be to enable an equitable redistribution of resources to enable substantive equality; tackle historical intersecting oppressions based on race, gender and other grounds; eliminate poverty and ensure everyone can live a dignified life.

Despite the progressive vision of society embodied by these human rights treaties, gender equality, especially in its substantive sense, remains largely illusory for billions of women, girls and sexual and gender minorities all over the world. This begs the question of whether human rights are capable of tackling the multiple intersecting crises which the world faces today unless directly supported by aligned economic policies.

Despite scepticism from some quarters, we believe that human rights holds a transformative power to radically transform our economies and societies into ones where every person can enjoy a dignified life within planetary boundaries. We have channelled this idea through our Rights-Based Economy framework.[7] In this essay we will demonstrate why human rights hold the key to the socioeconomic transformation which is necessary to build a truly feminist social contract which ensures respect for both people and planet.


Human rights impacts of the neoliberal economy, especially on women

The impact of the neoliberal economic paradigm – and its component policies and dogmas – on the enjoyment of human rights is well documented. When we use the term ‘neoliberal’ we refer to a broad set of policy prescriptions which both powerful and influential Global North states and international financial institutions generally regard as the hallmarks of ‘sound economic policy’. These policy prescriptions include freedom of the market and deregulation of financial markets, labour flexibilisation and weak labour rights, austerity and fiscal consolidation, public–private partnerships and the commercialisation of public services. For example, research in different contexts has shown how women’s rights are undermined by dominant tax policies[8] and illicit financial flows,[9] fiscal consolidation[10] and sovereign debt.[11]

Austerity is a particularly striking case study when looking at the human and women’s rights impacts of the prevailing (neoliberal) economic paradigm. For example, Ortiz and Cummins have documented several emerging and deeply troubling trends around austerity since the Covid-19 pandemic and their disproportionate impact on women.[12] These include 1) targeting and rationalising social protection, 2) cutting or capping the public-sector wage bill, 3) eliminating or reducing subsidies such as on energy (food and fuel), food and agricultural inputs, 4) privatisation of public services especially state-owned enterprises, 5) reducing employers’ social security contributions and 6) cutting health expenditure despite a global pandemic which has not yet ended. In each case, these measures affect women disproportionately especially women facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and oppression. Notably these trends are occurring in both low-income and high-income countries. Recent research has found for example that austerity is linked to more than 330,000 excess deaths in the UK,[13] with death rates among women living in the most deprived areas of England increasing by 3% after a 14% decline over the previous decade. Meanwhile, in South Africa, disinvestment in healthcare worsened maternal mortality[14] which is high compared to other upper-middle-income countries. The doomed logic of austerity is captured well by Ortiz and Cummins when they point out that: ‘Pro-corporate policies accompanied by a small safety net targeted to the poorest do not serve the mainstream population; they are detrimental to the majority of citizens, especially women.’

In a report on the impact of austerity on women’s rights,[15] the then Independent Expert on Debt and Human Rights, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, illustrated how women face a ‘triple jeopardy’ when cuts are made to public services. This is so because ‘cuts to social services often intensify the demand for unpaid care work, which is disproportionately carried out by women and girls’ (as much as 75% of unpaid care work is done by women); women are more likely to be employed in public service jobs particularly in health and education; and, due to poverty and other structural factors, women rely more on public services especially healthcare and social services than men. He concludes that the triple jeopardy refers to the phenomenon that: ‘Women suffer simultaneously as public-sector workers, service users and the main recipients of social security protection benefits.’

Over the years, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and partners and allies have documented the impact of austerity measures on women around the world. For instance, in Brazil, CESR and partners INESC and Oxfam Brasil analysed the impact of austerity measures as a result of the Expenditure Ceiling Act which disproportionately impacted women especially afro-descendent and rural women.[16] Our work noted that between 2014 and 2016, women’s rights programmes sustained a 40% budget reduction – with predictable impacts on the fight against gender-based violence in the country which disproportionately impacted black women. Meanwhile, our work in Spain demonstrated how austerity measures programmes to fight gender violence and promote gender equality were reduced by 22% and 18% from 2009 to 2016, respectively.[17] This had an impact on women’s enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights such as contraception and abortion services for vulnerable women, particularly low-income women and undocumented women.

As well as documenting the human rights impacts of austerity, human rights actors and mechanisms have produced normative guidance on the issue. For example, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has noted the impact of austerity measures on human rights and put forward a set of guidelines in response.[18] According to the Committee, austerity measures must be temporary, legitimate, reasonable, necessary and proportionate. Moreover, when implemented they must neither be directly nor indirectly discriminatory and must accord priority attention to disadvantaged groups. Furthermore, they must protect the minimum core content of rights, based on transparency and genuine participation of affected groups and subject to meaningful review and accountability procedures. Needless to say, this is rarely the case.

Austerity is just one example of how the logic of neoliberalism with its emphasis on ‘fiscal consolidation’, efficiency and small government has a detrimental impact on the rights of women especially women suffering intersectional disadvantages due to their race, class, migration status and so on. The dogma of austerity is indeed inimical to a society which values human dignity, economic and social rights and substantive gender equality.


How are human rights obligations relevant to the economy?

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and CEDAW – and other human rights treaties – contain several obligations which place constraints on economic policy. [19] Perhaps their most significant aspect is that they recognise public goods such as healthcare, food, water, housing and social security as fundamental human rights which governments are obligated to make a reality. Thus, they contradict the neoliberal logic that such goods and services should be subject to the whims of state resources or ‘the market’. In addition, they require governments to ensure a ‘minimum core’ enjoyment of rights. This means that governments must provide at least a minimum essential level of rights to enable people to live with dignity, on a non-discriminatory basis. Moreover, governments are prohibited from taking ‘retrogressive steps’. In other words, they must not roll back measures which people rely on to enjoy their economic and social rights.[20] For instance, governments that have introduced supposedly temporary social security measures in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic would be prohibited from abolishing those measures without an adequate replacement to enable people to live with dignity and enjoy an adequate standard of living.

The human rights framework also includes a central commitment to equality and non-discrimination. Importantly, ‘equality’ in human rights law does not mean simply formal equality or equality of opportunity. Rather, the human rights framework (most explicitly in CEDAW and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) directs states’ obligations to achieving substantive equality.[21] This means that in some cases equality might necessitate special measures targeted at improving the rights of women in particular, taking into context women’s different circumstances, gender norms and the legacies of historical oppression. Substantive equality also means being alive to manifestations of indirect discrimination and how laws and policies which are seemingly neutral such as fiscal or monetary policies might still be discriminatory because they have a disproportionate impact on women and other marginalised groups.

Intersectionality is also a core component of equality and non-discrimination. We know that current economic systems and paradigms create particular disadvantages for groups and individuals who endure multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination.[22] Therefore even though women are a disadvantaged group, not all women are on the same footing. Instead, based on their race, sexual orientation, gender expression, nationality and other markers of oppression, women might face at times distinct or even compounded vulnerabilities. So, viewing economic policy through the lens of human rights obligations and intersectionality points us towards understanding the impacts on distinct groups, and may point towards different policy levers. As Crenshaw and others have argued, we need to interrogate the structural drivers of gender equality and propose solutions which take into account ‘the intersectional location’ of vulnerable groups in creating new transformative economic policies. [23]

Human rights also require governments to devote their maximum available resources to the progressive realisation of rights.[24] Among other things, this obligation contains three dimensions. First, resource generation which refers to how governments raise money. Second, resource allocation which refers to what governments earmark money for in their budgets. Third, resource expenditure, which refers to how allocated money is actually spent and who benefits. In addition, when governments borrow money, they must avoid loan conditions (such as structural adjustment measures) that harm human rights. They must also make sure repayment costs don’t eat up finances needed to guarantee people’s rights or unfairly burden future generations.

Furthermore, this obligation means that human rights norms impose constraints on fiscal and monetary policy. Following the logic of neoliberalism means, for example, tax breaks for companies and high-net worth individuals, increasing reliance on regressive taxes such as VAT and loosening regulation on corporations. Instead, governments are obligated to have rights-aligned fiscal and monetary policy which enable the realisation of rights; the reduction of poverty and inequality; and the redistribution of resources to enable substantive equality for racialised groups, women in their diversity and other marginalised groups. A group of experts in Latin America supported by CESR and partners have developed a set of principles[25] which enumerate what rights-aligned fiscal and monetary policy might entail. These principles have been deployed, for example, to use fiscal justice as a tool for racial and gender justice for afro-descendent women in Latin America.[26] They embody the notion that fiscal and monetary policy should have substantive equality as its end goal which calls for expressly race-conscious and gender-sensitive measures which tackle multiple intersecting discrimination.

Human rights also act as an instrument for global solidarity by establishing extraterritorial obligations.[27] This refers to the obligations which states owe persons living beyond their borders. For example, this might mean that before raising interest rates, the US Federal Reserve Bank should consider what impact an increase on interest rates might have on the burgeoning debt of countries in the Global South (which is largely denominated in foreign currencies) and how this would impact their fiscal capacity to give effect to women’s rights. Another example is the extraterritorial obligations which Switzerland owes women in the Global South[28] due to the opacity of its tax laws which facilitate illicit financial flows that have a detrimental impact on women’s rights. Extraterritorial obligations are significant because they bring into question the conduct of global economic governance institutions such as the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and how global rules on debt and tax reproduce colonial-era gender and racial hierarchies which frustrate the achievement of human rights for the vast majority of the world’s people. Indeed, it is notable that the fifth UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, has argued that human rights principles require establishing a just and equitable international order premised on decolonisation. [29] Her 2022 report[30] goes further by proposing that the dominant neo-liberal economic framework is incapable of achieving substantive gender and racial justice and instead we need to provide space for alternative decolonial models.

The human rights framework is concerned with both outcome and process, as illustrated by the centrality of human rights principles such as transparency, participation and accountability. The Rights-Based Economy is rooted in the importance of ‘looking to the bottom’[31] in understanding what our vision of justice and rights should be. Participation by affected groups should thus become a central feature of fiscal policy, following human rights tenets. This not only enhances the legitimacy of such policies but improves the efficacy as well in reducing poverty and inequality, especially inequality rooted in historical legacies of oppression. Participation must be meaningful and not simply a tick box exercise, to ensure a social contract which is rooted in the lived experiences of the people at the bottom, as opposed to the top-down notion of social contract that has largely prevailed in modern democracies.

The rights-based economy takes its cue from these human rights norms and principles to guide us towards more equitable economic policies. What makes it unique is its emphasis on enabling social, racial, gender, economic and environmental justice through the guise of human rights. So far, the following five pillars have been identified as central to the Rights-Based Economy: [32]


  1. Guaranteeing dignity and wellbeing for all, at all stages of life: ensuring that every person has access to the goods and services necessary to thrive, such as housing, healthcare, food and water.
  2. Pursuing substantive equality, dismantling intersecting inequalities and systems of oppression: addressing historical legacies of oppression and the drivers of structural inequality, creating greater equity in opportunity and outcomes.
  3. Tackling power imbalances in the economy: fundamentally shifting power from corporations to communities and rewriting the rules which make the playing field so uneven and create massive obstacles to social mobility.
  4. Working in harmony with nature, not exploiting it: pursuing a developmental pathway which values the intrinsic worth of nature and nurtures respect for the earth’s natural systems, learning from indigenous knowledge and practices.
  5. Democratising and decolonising the global economy: radically transforming institutions and systems of global economic governance to overturn asymmetries between the Global North and the Global South in accessing and controlling resources.


What are the potential points of alignment and tension between the rights framework and other visions for economic transformation?

The Rights-Based Economy has been proposed not to ‘crowd out’ other progressive alternative visions for how our economic systems could and should work, but rather to ‘crowd in’ those visions, to learn from them and build on them. Indeed, in the initial outlining of the rights-based economy we drew from ideas like buen vivir, the wellbeing economy, the feminist economy, the caring economy, degrowth and more.[33]

However, it’s important to acknowledge that the rights framework has been fairly marginal to debates about economic alternatives (with important exceptions like the work of Balakrishnan, Elson and Heinz).[34] In this section, we discuss the most commonly cited ‘limitations’ of the human rights framework in this regard and explain why we think that a progressive vision based on human rights can overcome them.


The idea that human rights are individualistic

This is a common (mis)perception, and very linked to the fallacy that rights therefore have nothing to say about structural or systemic problems. In fact, human rights are fundamentally relational and require collective efforts to realise them. This is especially true for economic and social rights, where an adequate ‘remedy’ for a violation of, for example, a right to work, housing, social security or food is rarely an individual-level solution. In other words, a violation of socioeconomic rights is usually a result of large-scale policy failures or inaction, or systemic discrimination against entire groups or communities – and these rights are usually only vindicated and won when groups fight together to claim them. The right to decent work, or to freedom of association, or to substantive equality between men and women can rarely be guaranteed to or claimed by individuals acting alone. The human rights framework also explicitly includes the rights of groups rather than just individuals. For example, at the international level many UN treaties deal with systemic discrimination against groups (see the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s recent statement on vaccine apartheid),[35] and many instruments explicitly include the rights of ‘peoples’ – including the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example.

When we say something is a right, we mean it is too important to be left to chance, to the whims of the market, or to the arbitrary choices of public officials. So, if something is a right, it is so valuable that governments have a duty to provide or support it – not to leave it to individuals. On the other hand, when we say something is not a right, we mean the market or households, or individuals will take care of it. We all know how that has turned out. So, in fact, the rights framework is far more collective and premised on the idea of solidarity and group remedy for harms than we often give it credit for. This is one contribution of the Rights-Based Economy – that it is expressly pitted against one of the central ideas of our current economic model, which assumes that unrestrained ‘competition’ is good and we should be content with pitting groups against each other in a false zero-sum game. In contrast, the Rights-Based Economy is based on solidarity, meaning the expression of a spirit of unity and cooperation between:

  • different groups of people, along, for example, racial, ethnic, class and gender lines, based on the recognition of the intersectional nature of identities and inequalities
  • business/capital and workers, including through collective bargaining, worker ownership and worker representation on boards
  • countries, through recognising the different situations, starting points and responsibilities of different countries, and tackling the legacy of colonialism.

A rights-infused understanding of the economy can therefore serve as the foundation for a renewed social contract, as called for by the UN Secretary General and others. [36]

The idea that human rights are themselves part of the neoliberal or neocolonial project, or that they are too anthropocentric

Among others, Samuel Moyn (in his book ‘Not Enough’ and in a related New York Times opinion piece)[37] critiqued ‘the traditional companionship of human rights movements with neoliberal policies’. It is certainly true that much of the mainstream (especially international) human rights movement was shamefully late to the game in terms of tackling big issues of economic inequality, its causes and consequences. But, as Ignacio Saiz has argued,[38] such accounts have overlooked the extraordinarily rich diversity of human rights movements worldwide, many of whom have tackled big structural issues head-on. See, for example, the excellent advocacy around budgets and taxes by the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights in Uganda,[39] or ACIJ in Argentina,[40] or CESR’s own work on sovereign debt,[41] taxes[42] and other big economic issues.[43] As we’ve shown above, the human rights legal framework can be leveraged to address questions of distributive justice, and in fact obliges governments to be prioritising investments in people’s rights through a variety of policy measures. Indeed, the human rights framework, viewed holistically, is profoundly redistributive. Meaningfully upholding socioeconomic rights demands that governments play a proactive role in the economy, regulate the conduct of businesses and other private actors, and direct public investment towards essential infrastructure, goods and services. Human rights law also sets out a range of procedural principles, which guarantee that decisions about resource distribution are taken in a transparent, participatory and accountable manner.[44]

Similarly, there have often been critiques on how human rights reflect the imposition of colonial values and are a continuation of the ‘civilising mission’. Some have argued that human rights cannot be of any use to formerly colonised peoples because the ‘human’ in human rights does not refer to the ‘non-human black body’.[45] Others have raised the same issue around gender and how human rights have often been used to advance male power and privilege to the expense of women. Legal theorists such as Mackinnon and Crenshaw critique the use of a ‘male baseline’ to determine what human flourishing or wellbeing entails. [46]

The Rights-Based Economy helps to resolve these tensions through a progressive, more holistic interpretation of human rights with substantive equality and global justice at its core, and taking an expansive notion of human dignity. Many argue, and we agree, that rights are ‘sites of contestation’,[47] shaped through struggle as opposed to having fixed meanings; they can therefore be reclaimed from colonial co-option. For instance in South Africa, some have traced how the origins of gender equality[48] in its Constitution come from a long history of struggle by those opposed to colonial and apartheid domination. Others have argued forcefully how the progressive demands of South Africa’s Constitution are not a colonial imposition but come from the emancipatory demands of the country’s first black lawyers. [49] So the Rights-Based Economy takes on an expansive concept of human dignity – not one tied to colonial notions which erase the humanity of black people and other groups (such as women or LGBTQ+ people) whose lives have historically been deemed non-worthy or even disposable. The Rights-Based Economy thus takes an expansive view of both the economy and human dignity finding ways for the two to work in tandem and create a more just world. As we see it, to be legitimate the Rights-Based Economy paradigm has to aim at tackling historical legacies of oppression and their contemporary manifestations, including taking seriously the idea of reparations for formerly enslaved or colonised groups.

Central to this is the reclamation of extra-territorial obligations (see above) and the right to development as central to the human rights framework. These obligations have often been conveniently overlooked especially by Global North countries, but are there even in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which promises a ‘social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized’.[50] Increasingly, the right to international cooperation and extra-territorial obligations are being wielded in advocacy by civil society and in findings and recommendations from human rights mechanisms (see, for example, the CEDAW on taxes, [51] arms exports[52] and oil and gas extraction[53]).

Similarly, although the international human rights system was slow to officially recognise environmental rights,[54] many human rights advocates and systems at the regional[55] and national level have long recognised the right to a healthy environment, or even the rights of nature itself.[56] Hence, the Rights-Based Economy draws from buen vivir, and other indigenous cosmologies to recognise the interdependence of human beings with the natural world, and the need for a shift to a vision of the economy based on this interdependence and respect for nature and planetary boundaries, rather than extraction.

The idea that human rights don’t enable us to take a critical view of the structural problems in the global economy

A truly rights-based approach requires taking power relations seriously, not uncritically embracing technocratic, top-down visions of how poverty or the climate crisis can be ‘solved’. By emphasising international cooperation, extraterritorial obligations and the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ countries have, the Rights-Based Economy embraces the need for decolonisation and confronting the ‘coloniality of power’. Part of this is about disrupting power imbalances between the Global North and Global South and the transformation of global economic governance institutions like the IMF,[57] which has historically and in the present day imposes serious constraints on the fiscal and policy space of countries. The Rights-Based Economy therefore aligns with degrowth which emphasises the need to dismantle the colonial nature of the global economy whereby countries in the Global North are able to continue to extract from the South in a variety of ways, from environmentally destructive ‘development’ projects, to illicit financial flows or unbearable burdens of debt repayments which swamp the national budget



Is the Rights-Based Economy a fully-fleshed out vision? Not yet! In its current form, does it perfectly address all these crises we are facing? Emphatically no. There is still much work to do to shape the idea of the rights-based economy, and much more still to learn from other movements, especially feminist activists. However, we strongly believe that the Rights-Based Economy has deep potential to contribute to struggles for economic transformation, and to help identify and facilitate points of alignment.

In CESR’s own work – and the work of our partners and allies – we’ve found that using a human rights approach, or adopting a human rights lens when looking at the economy, is profoundly useful for a variety of reasons. First, human rights provide a normative, values-based framework with which to analyse the economic system. If we think about human rights realisation (rather than efficiency, or increasing GDP) as the primary aim of the economy and economic policy, we can shine a spotlight on whether economic policies are creating or combating deprivation, marginalisation and exclusion. Human rights, after all, guarantee us the material conditions we all need to live a life of dignity, being underpinned by norms and values that require an end to poverty. These underpinning values include a commitment to substantive equality, and therefore human rights  ensure that everyone can achieve wellbeing, realise their potential, and have the opportunity to find happiness and fulfilment. By seeing deprivations of, for example, work, food or shelter as denials of rights, rather than an inability to meet basic needs, a rights-based approach views poverty as injustice, not fate. It focuses on the relationships among groups in society, with the aim of holding the powerful accountable for the actions they take that cause, continue or worsen poverty.

Indeed, human rights create legal obligations that governments, large corporations and other powerful bodies must comply with. This is the second key reason that the human rights lens can be helpful. Recognising that public goods such as health, water and education are rights means acknowledging that they are so essential for human dignity and wellbeing that access to them must be guaranteed to all. This directly challenges the logic of neoliberalism; it gives primacy to people’s internationally recognised human rights, over the spurious ‘rights’ of investors and corporations.

Third, the universal character of human rights provides us with a widely agreed language to talk about the values that should underpin our economies. Human rights are codified in a comprehensive framework of binding standards and principles. These have been agreed by the vast majority of governments and shaped by the struggles of countless communities deprived of their rights. This makes human rights a potentially powerful and unifying framework for advancing economic justice.

Fourth, human rights give us a holistic picture of wellbeing. The human rights framework contains a broad spectrum of rights: civil, cultural, economic, environmental, political and social. Many people and organisations interpret human rights narrowly, seeing them as being mainly about civil liberties. But human rights are far more holistic than that. Rethinking our economies on the basis of this broad range of rights – from the right to a fair trial to the right to be free from hunger and the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress – helps to overcome stale ideological debates over whether civil liberties or development (both narrowly defined) should be prioritised by governments. All rights are explicitly understood as interrelated and indivisible – where the right to health is just as non-negotiable as the right to freedom of expression – and indeed, they depend on each other. This reflects a much more compelling, feminist and accurate vision of our intertwined lives, societies and economies.[58]

It is our hope that, as well as its wider effects, the rights-based economy can help put out to pasture narrow and outdated conceptions of the human rights framework. At this point in time, it is painfully clear that rights (whether civil, political, economic, social, cultural or environmental) cannot be fully or equally realised under prevailing economic policies – and nor can the goals of feminism or climate justice be realised. Moreover, the policy drivers of persistent gender inequality and climate catastrophe are fundamentally intertwined with the root causes of systematic deprivation of human rights: decades of underinvestment and privatisation of public services, corporate capture of policy-making, the myopic pursuit of corporate profits and economic ‘growth’ measured by GDP, mal-distribution of resources and the undermining and decimation of public goods. To meet the scale of these interconnected crises, the Rights-Based Economy adopts an explicitly feminist and transformative notion of human rights grounded in principles such as dignity, equality, justice, solidarity and participatory democracy.

In our view, the idea of the feminist social contract and the rights-based economy are intimately connected and can draw great strength from each other. Feminists have, after all, used the human rights framework and system to score important victories for women’s rights over the decades, and the Rights-Based Economy has drawn very intentionally on the brilliant work of feminist activists and thinkers, especially feminist economists. It is also our belief that human rights themselves are at the very core of any legitimate social contract, given that they have been shaped through struggle and committed to by the vast majority of governments in a wide variety of forms and fora. The social contract is in urgent need of renewal, but this renewal should be characterised by a deeper, more meaningful and holistic commitment to upholding human rights, with a more explicitly feminist and decolonial vision




[1] ‘What Is the Green New Deal? A Climate Proposal, Explained’, Lisa Friedman, The New York Tines, 21 February 2019,

[2] The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth, The Red Nation, Progressive International, 19 April 2021,

[3] Creating a Caring Economy: A Call to Action, Women's Budget Group, 20 October 2020, 

[4] 'Social and Economic Rights: A Critique', Aryeh Neier, Human Rights Brief, 2006, 13:2, p1-3,

[5] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, States Parties to the Convention, OHCHR, 3 September 1981,

[6] Budgeting for Women’s Rights: Monitoring Government Budgets for Compliance with CEDAW, UN Development Fund for Women, 2008,

[7] Rights-Based Economy: Imagining a system that supports a better life for all, CESR,

[8] Redistributing unpaid care work: why tax matters for women’s rights, CESR, 2016,

[9] Swiss Responsibility for the Extraterritorial Impacts of Tax Abuse on Women’s Rights, Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 65th Session, CESR et al, 2016,

[10] Gendered Austerity in the COVID-19 Era: A Survey of Fiscal Consolidation in Ecuador and Pakistan, Bhumika Muchhala, Vanessa Daza Castillo and Andrea Guillem, Third World Network, 2022,

[11] ‘Global creditors should provide debt relief to Sri Lanka: Amnesty’, Al Jazeera, 5 October 2022,

[12] End Austerity: A Global Report on Budget Cuts and Harmful Social Reforms in 2022-25, Isabel Ortiz and Matthew Cummins, ReliefWeb, 2022,

[13] 'Over 330,000 excess deaths in Great Britain linked to austerity, finds study,' The Guardian, 5 October 2022,

[14] Austerity in the Midst of Inequality Threatens Human Rights in South Africa, CESR, 2018,

[15] The impact of economic reform policies on women’s human rights, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of human rights, OHCHR, 18 July 2018,

[16] Brazil: Visualizing rights: Human Rights in Times of Austerity, CESR et al,

[17] Visualizing Rights: Spain, Factsheet No. 17, CESR,

[18] Public debt, austerity measures and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN Economic and Social Council, Statement by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 22 July 2016,

[19] For more details, see Interrogate 02: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Standards, CESR, 2022,

[20] Topic Seven | Income Support to Protect Rights, Covid-19, Recovering Rights, CESR, August 2020,

[21] Topic Eight | Governments’ Obligation to Ensure Substantive Gender Equality, Covid-19, Recovering Rights, CESR, August 2020,

[22] Intersecting Inequalities, blog, Women's Budget Group, 5 June 2018,

[23] 'Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Kimberle Crenshaw, Stanford Law Review, 1991, 43, 1241, p1249-50,

[24] Topic One | Governments’ Obligation to Invest "Maximum Available Resources" in Human Rights, Covid-19, Recovering Rights, CESR, May 2020,

[25] Principles for Human Rights in Fiscal Policy, CESR,

[26] Report: Fiscal Policy and Racial Justice in Latin America, CESR, 29 August 2022,

[27] Topic Two | Governments’ Obligation to Cooperate Internationally to Realize Human Rights, Covid-19, Recovering Rights, CESR, June 2020,

[28] Switzerland's financial secrecy scrutinized under human rights spotlight, CESR, 2 March 2016,

[29] Contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and racial intolerance, UN General Assembly, Note by the Secretary-General, 21 August 2019,

[30] 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Goals and the fight against racial discrimination. Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, E. Tendayi Achiume, UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, 50th session, 17 June 2022,

[31] Looking To The Bottom: Critical Legal Studies Anji) Reparations, Mari J. Matsuda,

[32] We are welcoming feedback at

[33] A Rights-Based Economy: Putting people and planet first, CESR, 26 October 2020,

[34] Rethinking Economic Policy for Social Justice: The radical potential of human rights, Radhika Balakrishnan, James Heintz, Diane Elson, 2016,

[35] UN: Countries blocking the TRIPS waiver guilty of racial discrimination, CESR, 29 April 2022, 

[36] New social contract needed to combat ‘inequality pandemic’, UN News, 20 July 2020,

[37] How the Human Rights Movement Failed, Samuel Moyn, The New York Times, 23 April 2018,

[38] ‘Rising inequality is a wake-up call for human rights’, Ignacio Saiz, Open Global Rights, 2018,

[41] Key Concepts: Sovereign Debt & Human Rights, CESR, 2022,

[42] Principles for Human Rights in Fiscal Policy, CESR et al, 2021,

[43] Interrogate 01: Understanding How The Economy Affects Human Rights, CESR, 2022,

[44] Rights-Based Economy, CESR and Christian Aid,

[45] ‘Human Rights and the Non-Human Black Body’, A. Kayum Ahmed, SUR, International Journal on Human Rights, SUR 28,

[46] ‘Close Encounters of Three Kinds: On Teaching Dominance Feminism and Intersectionality’, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Tulsa Law Review, 2010, 46:1, 151,

[47] Democratic constitutionalism in the time of the postcolony: beyond triumph and betrayal, Firoz Cachalia, South African Journal on Human Rights, 2018, 35, p375-397,

[48] Decolonising equality: the radical roots of the gender equality clause in the South African constitution, Shireen Hassim, South African Journal on Human Rights, 2018, 34, p342-358,

[49] The Land is Ours, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, Penguin Random House, 2018.

[50] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN, 1948,

[51] As UN criticizes Switzerland, pressure mounts over human rights impacts of tax havens, CESR, 20 November 2016,

[52] CEDAW Committee Recognises Extraterritorial Obligations towards Human Rights for Sweden, WILPF, 21 March 2016,

[53] UN Committee Calls on Norway to Revise its Energy Policy, Noting Climate Impacts of Arctic Oil Extraction, Center for International Environmental Law, 20 November 2017,

[54] ‘UN General Assembly declares access to clean and healthy environment a universal human right’, UN News, 28 July 2022,

[55] Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: “Protocol of San Salvador”: Signed at San Salvador, El Salvador, on 17 November 1988, at the Eighteenth Regular Session of the General Assembly.

[56] Buen Vivir: The Rights of Nature in Bolivia and Ecuador, Rapid Transition Alliance, 2 December 2018,

[57] Topic 12 | Human Rights and the IMF’s Covid Response, Covid-19, Recovering Rights, CESR, December 2020,

[58] Some of the text above is adapted from CESR’s Interrogate 01: Understanding How The Economy Affects Human Rights, 2022,