Article
The Minimum Core of Economic and Social
Rights: A Concept in Search of Content
Katharine G. Young†
I.

INTRODUCTION............................................................................................................................ 113
A.
The International Role .................................................................................................... 120
B.
The Constitutional Predecessor and Its Potential .......................................................... 123

II.

THE MINIMUM CORE AS NORMATIVE ESSENCE ........................................................................... 126
A.
A Needs-Based Core: Life, Survival, and Basic Needs................................................... 128
B.
A Value-Based Core: Dignity, Equality, and Freedom .................................................. 133
C.
Questioning the Essence Approach ................................................................................ 138

III.

THE MINIMUM CORE AS MINIMUM CONSENSUS .......................................................................... 140
A.
The Core Consensus: A Positivist Inquiry ...................................................................... 142
B.
Consensus as a Normative Concept: Sovereignty and Self-Government ....................... 144
C.
The Limits of Consensus ................................................................................................. 147

IV.

THE MINIMUM CORE AS MINIMUM OBLIGATION ......................................................................... 151
A.
Supervising Core Obligations: From Typologies to Templates ..................................... 152
B.
Enforcing Core Obligations: Justiciable Complaints..................................................... 158
C.
Unraveling Cores: The Challenge of Polycentricity ...................................................... 163

V.

THE CONTENT IN SEARCH OF A CONCEPT? .................................................................................. 164
A.
Prescribing Content: Indicators and Benchmarks ......................................................... 164
B.
Justifying Limits: The Move to Balancing ...................................................................... 167
C.
Signaling Extraterritoriality: The Globalist Challenge.................................................. 170
D.
Making Claims: A Word on Language ........................................................................... 172

VI.

CONCLUSION................................................................................................................................ 174

I.

INTRODUCTION

The concept of the “minimum core”1 seeks to establish a minimum legal
content for the notoriously indeterminate claims of economic and social
rights. By recognizing the “minimum essential levels” of the rights to foo d,
health, housing, and education, 2 it is a concept trimme d, honed, and shorn of
deontological excess. It re flects a “minimalist” rights strategy, which implies
†
S.J.D. candidate and B yse Teaching Fellow, Harvard Law School. The author thanks
Sandra Liebenberg, Frank Michelm an, Vlad Perju, Henry Steiner, and Mark Tushnet for helpful
comments on a prior draft. Special thanks also to Ph ilip Alston for early prom pting. Different parts of
this paper have also benefited fr om presentations to the Project on Justice, Welfare, and Economics at
Harvard University, the Byse W orkshop at Harv ard Law School, and the Graduate W orkshop at
Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics. All errors remain the author’s own.
1.
See U.N. Econ. & Soc. Council [ECOSOC], Comm. on Econ., Soc. & Cultural Rights,
Report on the Fifth S ession, Supp. No. 3 , Annex III, ¶ 10, U.N. Doc. E/1991/23 (1991) [hereinafter
General Comment No. 3].
2.
Id.

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