Unwinding Retrogression: Examining the Practice of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


The doctrine of non-retrogression used by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is apt for the current moment of crisis and withdrawal from human rights standards. It addresses instances where the State is responsible for backwards steps in human rights protection. However, the doctrine has rarely been used by the Committee as it is paralysed within conceptual confusion and practical ambiguity. This article unravels those difficulties and highlights ways forward. It gives a brief history of non-retrogression and identifies what backwardness the doctrine seeks to regulate, which actions and inactions of the State it defines as culpable, how the multiple steps of the doctrine are to be proved and where the doctrine fits within the Committee’s processes of scrutiny. Overall, it is argued that the significant potential of the doctrine is constrained by its confusions and that urgent reforms are needed to ensure its use and effectiveness.