CESCR General Comment No. 19: The Right to Social Security

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 19, The right to social security (art. 9) (Thirty-ninth session, 2007), U.N. Doc. E/C.12/GC/19 (2008).
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Year of adoption: 2008
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1. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Covenant) provides that, ‘The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.’ The right to social security is of central importance in guaranteeing human dignity for all persons when they are faced with circumstances that deprive them of their capacity to fully realize their Covenant rights.

2. The right to social security encompasses the right to access and maintain benefits, whether in cash or in kind, without discrimination in order to secure protection, inter alia, from (a) lack of work-related income caused by sickness, disability, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, old age, or death of a family member; (b) unaffordable access to health care; (c) insufficient family support, particularly for children and adult dependents.

6. The right to social security has been strongly affirmed in international law. The human rights dimensions of social security were clearly present in the Declaration of Philadelphia of 1944 which called for the “extension of social security measures to provide a basic income to all in need of such protection and comprehensive medical care”. Social security was recognized as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which states in article 22 that “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security” and in article 25(1) that everyone has the “right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”. The right was subsequently incorporated in a range of international human rights treaties and regional human rights treaties. In 2001, the International Labour Conference, composed of representatives of States, employers, and workers, affirmed that social security “is a basic human right and a fundamental means for creating social cohesion”.


A. Elements of the right to social security

2. Social risks and contingencies

12. The social security system should provide for the coverage of the following nine principal branches of social security.

(a) Health care

13. States parties have an obligation to guarantee that health systems are established to provide adequate access to health services for all. In cases in which the health system foresees private or mixed plans, such plans should be affordable, in conformity with the essential elements enunciated in the present general comment. The Committee notes the particular importance of the right to social security in the context of endemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and the need to provide access to preventive and curative measures.

(b) Sickness

14. Cash benefits should be provided to those incapable of working due to ill-health to cover periods of loss of earnings. Persons suffering from long periods of sickness should qualify for disability benefits.

(c) Old age

15. States parties should take appropriate measures to establish social security schemes that provide benefits to older persons, starting at a specific age, to be prescribed by national law. The Committee stresses that States parties should establish a retirement age that is appropriate to national circumstances which take account of, inter alia, the nature of the occupation, in particular work in hazardous occupations and the working ability of older persons. States parties should, within the limits of available resources, provide non-contributory old-age benefits, social services and other assistance for all older persons who, when reaching the retirement age prescribed in national legislation, have not completed a qualifying period of contributions or are not otherwise entitled to an old-age insurance-based pension or other social security benefit or assistance, and have no other source of income.

(e) Employment injury

17. States parties should also ensure the protection of workers who are injured in the course of employment or other productive work. The social security system should cover the costs and loss of earnings from the injury or morbid condition and the loss of support for spouses or dependents suffered as the result of the death of a breadwinner. Adequate benefits should be provided in the form of access to health care and cash benefits to ensure income security. Entitlement to benefits should not be made subject to the length of employment, to the duration of insurance or to the payment of contributions.

(g) Maternity

19. Article 10 of the Covenant expressly provides that “working mothers should be accorded paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits”. Paid maternity leave should be granted to all women, including those involved in atypical work, and benefits should be provided for an adequate period. Appropriate medical benefits should be provided for women and children, including perinatal, childbirth and postnatal care and care in hospital where necessary.

(h) Disability

20. In its general comment No. 5 ((1994) on persons with disabilities, the Committee emphasized the importance of providing adequate income support to persons with disabilities who, owing to disability or disability-related factors, have temporarily lost, or received a reduction in, their income, have been denied employment opportunities or have a permanent disability. Such support should be provided in a dignified manner and reflect the special needs for assistance and other expenses often associated with disability. The support provided should cover family members and other informal carers.

4. Accessibility

(a) Coverage

23. All persons should be covered by the social security system, especially individuals belonging to the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups, without discrimination on any of the grounds prohibited under article 2, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. In order to ensure universal coverage, non-contributory schemes will be necessary.

5. Relationship with other rights

28. The right to social security plays an important role in supporting the realization of many of the rights in the Covenant, but other measures are necessary to complement the right to social security. For example, States parties should provide social services for rehabilitation of the injured and persons with disabilities in accordance with article 6 of the Covenant, provide child care and welfare, advice and assistance with family planning and the provision of special facilities for persons with disabilities and older persons (article 10); take measures to combat poverty and social exclusion and provide supporting social services (article 11); and adopt measures to prevent disease and improve health facilities, goods and services (article 12). States parties should also consider schemes that provide social protection to individuals belonging to disadvantaged and marginalized groups, for example crop or natural disaster insurance for small farmers or livelihood protection for self-employed persons in the informal economy. However, the adoption of measures to realize other rights in the Covenant will not in itself act as a substitute for the creation of social security schemes.

B. Special topics of broad application

1. Non-discrimination and equality

29. The obligation of States parties to guarantee that the right to social security is enjoyed without discrimination (article 2, paragraph 2, of the Covenant), and equally between men and women (article 3), pervades all of the obligations under Part III of the Covenant. The Covenant thus prohibits any discrimination, whether in law or in fact, whether direct or indirect, on the grounds of race, colour, sex, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, physical or mental disability, health status (including HIV/AIDS), sexual orientation, and civil, political, social or other status, which has the intention or effect of nullifying or impairing the equal enjoyment or exercise of the right to social security.

31. Whereas everyone has the right to social security, States parties should give special attention to those individuals and groups who traditionally face difficulties in exercising this right, in particular women, the unemployed, workers inadequately protected by social security, persons working in the informal economy, sick or injured workers, people with disabilities, older persons, children and adult dependents, domestic workers, homeworkers, minority groups, refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced persons, returnees, non-nationals, prisoners and detainees.

6. Non-nationals (including migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless persons)

38. Refugees, stateless persons and asylum-seekers, and other disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, should enjoy equal treatment in access to non-contributory social security schemes, including reasonable access to health care and family support, consistent with international standards.


A. General legal obligations

40. While the Covenant provides for progressive realization and acknowledges the constraints owing to the limits of available resources, the Covenant also imposes on States parties various obligations which are of immediate effect. States parties have immediate obligations in relation to the right to social security, such as the guarantee that the right will be exercised without discrimination of any kind (article 2, paragraph 2), ensuring the equal rights of men and women (article 3), and the obligation to take steps (article 2, paragraph 1) towards the full realization of articles 11, paragraph 1, and 12. Such steps must be deliberate, concrete and targeted towards the full realization of the right to social security.

41. The Committee acknowledges that the realization of the right to social security carries significant financial implications for States parties, but notes that the fundamental importance of social security for human dignity and the legal recognition of this right by States parties mean that the right should be given appropriate priority in law and policy. States parties should develop a national strategy for the full implementation of the right to social security, and should allocate adequate fiscal and other resources at the national level. If necessary, they should avail themselves of international cooperation and technical assistance in line with article 2, paragraph 1, of the Covenant.

42. There is a strong presumption that retrogressive measures taken in relation to the right to social security are prohibited under the Covenant. If any deliberately retrogressive measures are taken, the State party has the burden of proving that they have been introduced after the most careful consideration of all alternatives and that they are duly justified by reference to the totality of the rights provided for in the Covenant, in the context of the full use of the maximum available resources of the State party. The Committee will look carefully at whether: (a) there was reasonable justification for the action; (b) alternatives were comprehensively examined; (c) there was genuine participation of affected groups in examining the proposed measures and alternatives; (d) the measures were directly or indirectly discriminatory; (e) the measures will have a sustained impact on the realization of the right to social security, an unreasonable impact on acquired social security rights or whether an individual or group is deprived of access to the minimum essential level of social security; and (f) whether there was an independent review of the measures at the national level.

B. Specific legal obligations

43. The right to social security, like any human right, imposes three types of obligations on States parties: the obligation to respect, the obligation to protect and the obligation to fulfil.

1. Obligation to respect

44. The obligation to respect requires that States parties refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of the right to social security. The obligation includes, inter alia, refraining from engaging in any practice or activity that, for example, denies or limits equal access to adequate social security; arbitrarily or unreasonably interferes with self-help or customary or traditional arrangements for social security; arbitrarily or unreasonably interferes with institutions that have been established by individuals or corporate bodies to provide social security.

2. Obligation to protect

45. The obligation to protect requires that State parties prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to social security. Third parties include individuals, groups, corporations and other entities, as well as agents acting under their authority. The obligation includes, inter alia, adopting the necessary and effective legislative and other measures, for example, to restrain third parties from denying equal access to social security schemes operated by them or by others and imposing unreasonable eligibility conditions; arbitrarily or unreasonably interfering with self-help or customary or traditional arrangements for social security that are consistent with the right to social security; and failing to pay legally required contributions for employees or other beneficiaries into the social security system.

46. Where social security schemes, whether contributory or non-contributory, are operated or controlled by third parties, States parties retain the responsibility of administering the national social security system and ensuring that private actors do not compromise equal, adequate, affordable, and accessible social security. To prevent such abuses an effective regulatory system must be established which includes framework legislation, independent monitoring, genuine public participation and imposition of penalties for non-compliance.

3. Obligation to fulfil

47. The obligation to fulfil requires States parties to adopt the necessary measures, including the implementation of a social security scheme, directed towards the full realization of the right to social security. The obligation to fulfil can be subdivided into the obligations to facilitate, promote and provide.

48. The obligation to facilitate requires States parties to take positive measures to assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right to social security. The obligation includes, inter alia, according sufficient recognition of this right within the national political and legal systems, preferably by way of legislative implementation; adopting a national social security strategy and plan of action to realize this right; ensuring that the social security system will be adequate, accessible for everyone and will cover social risks and contingencies.

49. The obligation to promote obliges the State party to take steps to ensure that there is appropriate education and public awareness concerning access to social security schemes, particularly in rural and deprived urban areas, or amongst linguistic and other minorities.

50. States parties are also obliged to provide the right to social security when individuals or a group are unable, on grounds reasonably considered to be beyond their control, to realize that right themselves, within the existing social security system with the means at their disposal. States parties will need to establish non-contributory schemes or other social assistance measures to provide support to those individuals and groups who are unable to make sufficient contributions for their own protection. Special attention should be given to ensuring that the social security system can respond in times of emergency, for example during and after natural disasters, armed conflict and crop failure.

51. It is important that social security schemes cover disadvantaged and marginalized groups, even where there is limited capacity to finance social security, either from tax revenues and/or contributions from beneficiaries. Low-cost and alternative schemes could be developed to cover immediately those without access to social security, although the aim should be to integrate them into regular social security schemes. Policies and a legislative framework could be adopted for the progressive inclusion of those in the informal economy or who are otherwise excluded from access to social security.

4. International obligations

53. To comply with their international obligations in relation to the right to social security, States parties have to respect the enjoyment of the right by refraining from actions that interfere, directly or indirectly, with the enjoyment of the right to social security in other countries.


5. Core obligations

59. States parties have a core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights enunciated in the Covenant […].

60. In order for a State party to be able to attribute its failure to meet at least its minimum core obligations to a lack of available resources, it must demonstrate that every effort has been made to use all resources that are at its disposal in an effort to satisfy, as a matter of priority, these minimum obligations.

61. The Committee also wishes to emphasize that it is particularly incumbent on States parties, and other actors in a position to assist, to provide international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to enable developing countries to fulfil their core obligations.