The Center for Economic and Social Rights was the first organization founded to focus exclusively on economic, social and cultural rights.

For over 15 years CESR has worked towards its goal of promoting social justice through human rights. The organization was founded in 1993 by Roger Normand, Sarah Zaidi and Chris Jochnick, with a vision to contribute to a fundamental rethinking in the human rights community about the need to return to the interdependent vision of all human rights, as established in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This rethinking and advocacy work has been pursued through various strategies over the years.

From 1993-1996, research and advocacy projects were designed to demonstrate the viability and effectiveness of an economic and social rights practice. This was undertaken with very few precedents and models, in part because of the misconceptions about the limited scope of human rights. These misconceptions were addressed on two fronts. First, CESR started a project on health and environment in Ecuador. Second, CESR convened a set of discussions and workshops with human rights, development and social justice groups aimed at challenging the conceptual perspective that economic and social rights were not integral and equal components of the human rights framework (ie: just as important as political and civil rights).  

From 1997-2000, CESR consolidated its project work in Latin America, the Middle East and the United States. Offices established in Latin America soon became leaders on economic and social rights in the region. CESR's sister organization based in Quito, the Centro de Derechos Economicos y Sociales, branched off to become an independent organization, with local staff and an international board. CESR also worked with local human rights activists in Gaza to establish the women's rights organization, Mashraqiyat. 

During this time CESR worked on consulting, coalition-building and networking with the wide range of groups who began to incorporate economic and social rights into their work. Up until then these organizations had only dealt with political and civil rights or, at the other end of the spectrum, development work.  CESR devoted significant resources to building relations with organizations such as Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, Oxfam International, CARE and various UN agencies. 

From 1998-2004, coalition-building continued. A major success was the establishment of the now independent International Network on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net). Other economic and social rights networks and projects, such as the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) and the Women's Economic Equality Project, were also established. These networks and projects were focused on using economic and rights to support advocacy, share strategies and develop solidarity.

From 2004-2008 CESR adapted its approach in response to the increased recognition of economic and social rights by the international community, and in light of the progress still needed to respect, protect and fulfil these economic and social rights obligations. By implementing rights monitoring techniques that combine socioeconomic, legal and qualitative analysis, CESR helped bring about concrete policy changes to improve economic and social rights.

Ignacio Saiz was appointed executive director in 2009. Since then, CESR has raised its profile as a leading voice not only on human rights and the economic crisis, but also on the linkages between human rights and economic policy-making more broadly, including in efforts to make human rights relevant to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) process. The organization works with human rights and development organizations on ways to hold governments accountable on the human rights obligations underpinning their MDG commitments. CESR’s work on the links between fiscal policy and human rights has also awakened interest in the implications of tax and budget policies amongst human rights organizations.

Current program areas include Rights in Economic Crisis, International Accountability, Development & Human Rights and Poverty & Inequality.