Social Security and the Socio-Economic Floor: Towards a Human Rights-based Approach

Wouter van Ginneken


Globalisation triggers the need for frequent adjustment to national production processes, jobs and life strategies, and there are vast gaps in income and security between countries. The International Labour Organisation suggests that establishing a global socio-economic floor would improve international development and security. This article investigates the impact of taking a rights-based approach to a core element of that floor, social security, concluding that it could make a significant impact on achieving the Millennium Development Goals of poverty eradication and development, and provide a framework for the future.

Poverty is a multidimensional situation, the result of disempowerment and exclusion; human rights violations are both a cause and a consequence. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) recently adopted draft guiding principles on ‘Extreme Poverty and Human Rights’, aiming to implement existing human rights norms and standards in the context of the fight against poverty. When economic and social rights are recognised as legal rights, they become claimable and operational. Many countries have already made great progress towards achieving the right to social security; this article tracks key trends across low-, middle- and high-income countries, as they aim to reach or maintain universal coverage.

A minimum level of social protection must be accepted as part of the socio-economic floor of the global economy:

  • Economic policies alone cannot alleviate poverty. The Basic Social Security Floor would consist of a set of guaranteed social transfers (in cash or kind) granted to all residents as a matter of right; benefitting family cohesion, local development and compensating for the effects of informal/irregular work patterns, changing family structures and health risks such as HIV.
  • Social security mechanisms can play an important role in financing social services, improving people’s capacity to participate in and contribute to society and economic growth.
  • A basic social protection package of universal old-age pensions, healthcare, child benefits and social assistance (including administrative costs) is generally affordable for low-income countries, although international support will be needed.
  • HRC guidelines regarding development and poverty eradication derive their obligation from the instrumental role of human rights. This perspective would oblige state agencies and the international community to adopt appropriate policies to remove extreme poverty, and make a socio-economic floor ‘claimable’.

The human rights-based approach towards development and poverty eradication stresses accountability, identifying and enabling rights-holders and their entitlement, and corresponding duty-bearers and their obligations. Future research should include:

  • Defining the conditions under which economic and social rights could be ‘claimable’, studying countries which currently provide for this and international programmes structured in these terms.
  • Investigating the legal identity of rights-holders, such as registration with national or local government, and how such identities might enable successful claims.
  • Factoring in human rights processes and institutions to increase the transparency and accountability of the achievement of the MDGs, and to provide the framework for global policies beyond 2015.
  • Draft HRC guidelines should be adopted which include provisions for gross violations of economic and social rights and preventable poverty, requiring countries to conduct surveys on poverty conditions and take corrective measures. National and international courts and national Human Rights Commissions should be empowered and encouraged to address human rights violations affecting the poor.
  • These procedures and guidelines should be introduced into existing mechanisms within the HRC, and reporting and questioning on economic and social rights should be included in Universal Periodic Reviews in which HRC countries participate every four years.


van Ginneken, W., 2009, 'Social Security and the Socio-Economic Floor: Towards a Human Rights-based Approach', Global Social Policy, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 228-245