What is Human Rights Economics?

by | Jul 16, 2022 | Highlighted post, Human rights economics

Human Rights Economics strives for an economic system that is just for people and respectful of the planet, that promotes social and economic justice, that integrates a plurality of views and traditions and that is human rights-consistent in both its processes and outcomes.

Core Elements

Human Rights Economics posits that economics is blind with respect to the experiences of groups and individuals who are not represented at the policy-making table. Economics’ culture-blindness and lack of attention to the experiences of different groups affect economic policy findings and policy proposals and tend to favour those who are already privileged.

It considers that private and public economic actors must respect and protect people and the natural systems on which we all depend. It seeks to expose and prevent exploitation, dominance and abuses of power – including those that stem from national and international economic structures.

As it is a new field, Human Rights Economics cannot yet be considered a completely articulated paradigm. Its emerging analytical framework is based on the human rights normative framework, shares features of Amartya Sen’s capability approach, and is informed by other fields of economics such as behavioural economics, ecological economics, feminist economics and stratification economics.

Analytical framework and normative foundations

Basic principles

Human Rights Economics is rooted in globally accepted human rights principles of dignity, non-discrimination, participation and accountability. These principles are the common point of departure for Human Rights Economics’ analysis.

Normative foundations

The normative foundations of Human Rights Economics lie in international human rights law. This international legal framework includes instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These treaties define human rights protections and entitlements that are guaranteed to all, and the obligations that these give rise to.

The human rights international legal framework has been accepted by all States in the world

Over the years national and international human rights judicial, quasi-judicial and supervisory bodies have further clarified the scope and content of these protections, entitlements and obligations. Accordingly, the human rights framework sets out guidance as to how human rights are to be applied in the economic context and offers progressive economists a widely accepted ethical language in which to pose economic questions without reducing them to simple questions of economic calculus.  Human rights do not set out absolute prescriptions for economic policies, but rather a set of tools to help economists and policy-makers choose between different policies or goals.

Analytical framework

The fundamental object of analysis of Human Rights Economics is human rights (in contrast to the notion of utility that many economists centre their enquiries on). It focuses on distribution (rather than on scarcity) and analyses economic and social power, participation, (neo-)colonialism, prevailing cultural assumptions (and sometimes capitalism, see below Delineation) as interrelated forms of dominance. Furthermore, it emphasizes institutions, uncertainty, complexity and the need to acknowledge that economics is not a tool for perfect predictions. 

Interactions between the economy and society are analysed with the goal of maintaining enjoyment of human rights, or at the very least, assuring progress towards their realization. When considering a proposed economic policy, Human Rights Economics seeks to ascertain who will benefit and who will lose. In this effort and consistent with the human rights requirement to avoid discrimination, it looks beyond aggregate national statistics or estimates, and insists that special attention be given to any worse-off regions or areas and to any specific groups or subgroups which appear to be particularly vulnerable or disadvantaged.

Human Rights Economics emphasizes the importance of qualitative as well as quantitative approaches to research. Whenever possible it bases its enquiries on disaggregated data. When data is absent, it reminds governments of their human rights obligation to collect data along lines of discrimination that may prevail in their country (such as race, gender, language, religion, property, geographical situation, or other status).

Human Rights Economics challenges mainstream economics’ concepts such as efficiency or maximization of social utility, as these can co-exist with the deprivation of (discrimination against) a sector of society and the overexploitation of natural systems. It questions the notion of efficiency against the backdrop of the need to recognize and uphold the importance of cultural practices, traditional knowledge and knowledge formation, as well as the natural systems on which life depends.

Similarly to other progressive branches of economics, Human Rights Economics highlights that many of the assumptions of mainstream economics are based on unpaid or undervalued care and natural resources and measured without heed for cultural and social roles of resources and relationships. It takes unpaid, non-market intermediated parts of the economy and society into account. It pays attention to societal, cultural and other resources, defining these more broadly than just monetary resources.

Human Rights Economics questions the concept of economic “growth” noting that as currently measured, such growth does not account for depletion of natural resources or for people’s lived experiences. Hence it joins its voice to others critical of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of economic well-being.

In recognizing that a diversity of equally valid cultural worldviews, preferences and knowledge production systems exist, Human Rights Economics highlights that the economy is not “culture-neutral” and that it discriminates de facto against those who are less visible in economic and political processes. As knowledge is connected to power, the production of knowledge has to be critically scrutinized.  

At the heart of Human Rights Economics is he notion that economic actors must take responsibility – be accountable – for economic processes and the impacts of their economic proposals, policies and practices. It finds that those who wield economic power are too seldom required to face the consequences of adverse impacts of their actions, and economic power is often abused. Human Rights Economics is rooted in evidence, drawing on the strength and long experience of the human rights movement in fact-finding, bringing evidence to bear, and using legal means for accountability. Human Rights Economics emphasizes the need for economic decision-making to be participatory and consistent with human rights principles, and requires feedback loops to permit adapting economic policies as new evidence emerges.

Accountability of economic actors is at the heart of Human Rights Economics

It recognizes the paradoxical nature of the State, which can be both an enabler and a denier of human rights, and recognizes that economic policies can both harm and further the realization of human rights. This reinforces its claim that policies and proposed policies must be examined in the light of evidence, with reference to their impacts on different groups within society, nationally and internationally. Indeed, the international human rights framework recognizes extra-territorial impacts, obligations and recourse mechanisms, thus reflecting concepts of national and international solidarity and collective action.

Specific questions that Human Rights Economics asks include: In what way do proposed economic policies constitute deliberate, concrete and targeted measures towards the realisation of human rights? How are economic decisions made (who was consulted, what evidence was relied on, what assumptions underlie the decisions)? Who stands to benefit and who stands to lose out from a proposed economic policy?

More broadly, Human Rights Economics draws attention to the facts that mainstream economics is not ethically or ideologically neutral, and that its general absence of normative foundation tends to reinforce the economic status of those who hold power. In this context, it asks questions like What is the purpose of the economy? What are its key institutions? How is power brokered?

Human Rights Economics speaks more frequently of the lack of enjoyment of human rights than of human rights violations. It analyses the conditions, processes and systems that may hinder realization of human rights not only as an individual problem, but as a systemic, structural issue.

Human rights economics is closely related to Amartya Sen’s capability approach which posits that instead of preferences, the starting point should be “capabilities” i.e. what people are actually able to do and be. It therefore also shares many of the features of the closely-related concept of human development. It adds to these by bringing in the legal framework to support and advance these in policy.

At this point in its existence, rather than propose an overarching framework for explaining the workings of the economy, Human Rights Economics points out weaknesses and blind spots of mainstream economics, and proposes legal strategies and advocacy approaches to support efforts in favour of a economic outcomes that are just for people whilst also upholding natural systems on which life depends.

Relation to other fields of economics

As an emerging branch of economics, the analytical framework of Human Rights Economics’ is informed by other fields of economics such as behavioural economics, ecological economics and feminist economics.  

For instance, it shares much of ecological economics’ analysis of interactions between the economy, society and the environment, its goal of transitioning towards a more just world and a more holistic view of social-ecological systems, and the focus on intra- and inter-generational justice. Like ecological and feminist economics it critiques how mainstream economics has tended to treat nature and women’s traditional work as infinite, undervalued resources that can be exploited.

Human Rights Economics shares feminist economics’ focus on reproductive labour and care and its analysis of relationships between state policy, language, growth and gender relations. It also shares many feminist economists critique of the homo economicus according to which humans are rational, independent individuals with fixed preferences..

Human Rights Economics has features in common with institutional economics, being also concerned with social institutions linked to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. It also has commonalities with stratification economics in that it incorporates the importance of social hierarchies and structures in shaping economic outcomes studies disparities across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, caste, sexuality, nationality, or other social markers which are often grounds for discrimination.

Human rights economics also shares many of the features and objectives of alternative economic discourses and movements such as New Economic Thinking, ReThinking Economics, Wellbeing economy, doughnut economics and decolonial or post-development economics. All of these put forward challenges to mainstream economics’ mindset or assumptions.

It adds to these not only in bringing the international human rights legal framework to bear on economic policies but also in pushing the boundaries of their thinking. For example human rights draws attention to the fact that private property ownership is not the only means of holding, using or managing resources. Recasting property rights could have a transformational impact on economics  reminds us that that not every thing of value (whether tangible goods or intangible objects such as skills) will necessarily have one private owner, and even if it does the powers of control of that owner will not necessarily correspond to the motivational assumptions of orthodox economic theory.

Human Rights Economics embraces pluralism and plural approaches, and challenges monist presentations of economics.


Human rights advocates have approached economics in different ways and with different objectives. And there is no consistent approach to human rights within economics, with significant misunderstandings and divergences in what economics and economists consider human rights to be.

The emergence of Human Rights Economics signals a more concerted and consistent way of approaching economic thought and practice, rooted in the human rights normative framework and accompanying practice.

As Human Rights Economics is a newly emerging field, it is too early to identify sub-schools or to point to marked differences in perspectives and currents. One might nevertheless note some variance in approaches. 

  • Heterodox economists: have proposed systematic examination of macroeconomic strategies based on the conceptual framework and the underlying commitments of Human Rights Treaties – and the norms, standards, responsibilities and procedures that have been developed around them – and by using analytical and developmental tools of progressive economic policy.
  • Closely aligned fields of economic thinking including those mentioned above in Relation to other fields, plus elements of work of leading economics concerned with distribution and social and economic justice. Although these do not use the term Human Rights Economics, much of their analysis and approach resonate strongly with it.
  • Human rights advocates critical of mainstream economics. An increasing amount of human rights work involves advocacy on economic issues. Some of this is issue-specific (see below Practice). There is also a growing community of practice working to define what Human Rights Economics (or a human rights economy) would be and how to operationalize its concepts.

Whilst thinking and approaches within this community are largely aligned, at the current juncture there are also differences within it.  Some would “incorporate human rights as a guiding normative framework for progressive economists to use in contesting economic decision-making” whilst others have a broader view seeing human rights as “the necessary guiding normative framework for all economic decision-making.”[1]

Some see human rights as politically neutral, The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has for instance stressed human rights’ neutrality as to the economic model a State adopts. The Committee affirmed that human rights principles cannot be said to be “predicated exclusively upon the need for, or the desirability of a socialist or a capitalist system, or a mixed, centrally planned, or laissez-faire economy” and can be realized “within the context of a wide variety of economic and political systems, provided only that the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights is recognized and reflected in the system in question.

In contrast, others see human rights as an ally of those contesting neo-liberalism. Whilst some go so far as to explicitly align themselves with Marxian or heterodox economics, most critique the neo-liberal system.

It is important to stress that not all human rights-based work on economics resonates with Human Rights Economics aims and objectives. Amongst these are those claiming that property rights are human rights, and those advocating for use of economic policies as a tool to force societal change, such as via conditionalities associated with trade or development aid.


In addition to the conceptual work undertaken within the Human Rights Economics project, there are other examples of work that can be considered Human Rights Economics. Amongst these are:

  1. Analyses of similarities and differences between human rights and economics. Most relevant are Joshua Curtis’ 2016 interviews with Radhika Balakrishnan, Ha-Joon Chang and Margaret Somers, Margot Solomon and Colin Arnott’s discussion of human rights’ application to neo-classical economics, the Institute for Economic Justice’s insights from South Africa on building a field of economics and human rights, and a series of publications by Radhika Balakrishnan, Diane Elson and others. Common threads of these works are their critique of the over-extension, under-performance and tacit biases of mainstream economics. Many refer to heterodox approaches to economics and the overlaps of these with the social values inherent in human rights. The gist of this body of work is that human rights can contribute to economic policy processes and improve economic outcomes in terms of ethics and equity. Some of these works point to the form that these contributions might take. Suggestions include such as turning to human rights law and institutions to support the case for changes in economic policy, calling for joining forces between human rights arguments and heterodox economic perspectives, changing the educational environment in economics and human rights law and calling out the supposed value neutrality of economics.
  • Efforts to embed human rights into economic activity or inform economic policy. This category includes human rights impact assessments of trade and investment agreements and the methodological guides for carrying these out. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) is arguably the human rights instrument most cited by economic actors. Many business enterprises and other international instruments have incorporated these, indicating acceptance that businesses do have responsibilities to avoid, mitigate and remedy human rights violations caused by their operations.[2] Whilst this is a welcome step towards accountability, Human Rights Economics does not consider this sufficiently transformational as it uses human rights to legitimize business as usual.

The global nature of human rights law and advocacy is one of the biggest strengths of Human Rights Economics.

  • Litigation, social movement activism, and international advocacy are hallmarks of human rights advocacy. These can be said to aim to facilitate ‘new forms of democratic action’, which enable the public ‘to contest, constrain, and respond to’ the structures that create ‘hierarchies of subordination’. [1] The legal and quasi-legal processes of international human rights reporting and adjudicating offer arenas in which to contest dominant economic ideology and policies incompatible with the sustainable development goals the world has set itself, and the planetary boundaries which permit life to exist.
  • Human Rights Economics brings together (progressive) economists and human rights advocates to develop the capacities of policy-makers, civil society and business leaders to draw on human rights norms, standards, obligations and procedures and provide human rights guidelines to macroeconomic policy in order to effectively challenge to the existing economic policy paradigm.

Ideology and political goals

Human Rights Economics’ goal is to achieve enjoyment of human rights for all. It seeks to effect fundamental change to the dominant economic system, so that the process and aims of economic policy-making be guided by well-defined and clearly articulated purposes that the human rights framework offers.

Institutions and think tanks

Centre for Economic and Social Rights

Institute for Economic Justice

International Association for Feminist Economics

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Surge Initiative

[1] Alison Corkery, Gilad Isaacs & Carilee Osborne (2022) Pushing Boundaries: Building a Community of Practice at the Intersection of Human Rights and Economics, Nordic Journal of Human Rights.

[2] Peter Muchlinski (2021) The Impact of the UN Guiding Principles on Business Attitudes to Observing Human Rights. Business and Human Rights Journal.

[3] See also Kalwinder Sandhu & Mary-Ann Stephenson (2015) Layers of Inequality – a human rights and equality impact assessment of the public spending cuts, Feminist Review.


Radhika Balakrishnan, Diane Elson & Raj Patel (2010) Rethinking Macro Economic Strategies from a Human Rights Perspective

Radhika Balakrishnan, James Heintz & Diane Elson (2016) Rethinking Economic Policy for Social Justice – The radical potential of human rights.  

Alison Corkery, Gilad Isaacs & Carilee Osborne (2022) Pushing Boundaries: Building a Community of Practice at the Intersection of Human Rights and Economics, Nordic Journal of Human Rights.

Joshua Curtis (2016) Economics and Law in Conversation. Merging Socio-Economic Rights and Heterodox Economics: Emancipatory and Transformative Potentials, London School of Economics Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

William Darity (2022) Alternatives to the scarcity principle, The Journal of Economic Education.

Caroline Dommen (2022) Human Rights Economics – An Enquiry.

Caroline Dommen & Magdalena Sepulveda (2017) The Obligation to Mobilise Resources: Bridging Human Rights, Sustainable Development Goals, and Economic and Fiscal Policies.

Gillian MacNaughton, Diane Frey & Catherine Porter (2021) Human Rights and Economic Inequalities.

Network for Pluralist Economics (Netzwerk Plurale   Ökonomik e.V.) Discover the perspectives of economics

Carilee Osborne et al. (2021) Building a Field of Economics and Human Rights: Lessons from South Africa.

Dani Rodrik & Stefanie Stantcheva (2021) Policy Matrix for Inclusive Prosperity, Economics for Inclusive Prosperity Research Brief.

Pedro Rossi, Graciela David & Sergio Chaparro (2020) Fiscal Policy and Human Rights: Redefining Fiscal Responsibility.

Margot Salomon & Colin Arnott (2014) Better Development Decision-making: Applying International Human Rights Law to Neoclassical Economics, 32 Nordic Journal of Human Rights.



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