News / Africa

    UN Mechanism Helps Defend Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

    Hakijamii and other Kenyan partners in favor of the Optional Protocol meet in Nairobi in September, 2012. (Photo: NGO Coalition for the OP-ICESCR)
    Hakijamii and other Kenyan partners in favor of the Optional Protocol meet in Nairobi in September, 2012. (Photo: NGO Coalition for the OP-ICESCR)
    William Eagle

     
    Over the past five decades, 161 countries have ratified the UN-backed treaty called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  As a result, some regional bodies and national courts have adopted laws protecting rights that are sometimes taken for granted.  They include the right to work, and the right to basic levels of education, food, shelter and health care. 

    Today, human rights activists are calling for the signing of a side-agreement to the treaty. It would allow individuals to appeal to the international community if member states of the covenant do not take action to resolve their complaints.

    Last recourse
     
    Most of the time, complaints are settled by national courts.  However, in exceptional cases the new mechanism, called the Optional Protocol to the covenant, would allow individuals to appeal to a treaty committee in Geneva.  The 18-member independent panel is called the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
     
    Odindo Opiata is the executive director of the Economic and Social Rights Center [or  “Hakijammii” in Swahili] in Nairobi.  It’s a national human rights organization that works to create awareness of these rights, and advocates for their implementation both domestically and internationally.
     
    "The Optional Protocol," he says, "provides quite an important alternative for those individuals who are dissatisfied or find it inadequate in terms of the level of protection, level of enforcement that is available at the domestic level.   Quite a number of African countries now have constitutional recognition of many of those [economic, social and cultural] rights, with domestic tribunals to enforce them. But, there is still quite a bit of a gap in [the domestic jurisprudence on economic and social rights that would help] ensure these rights [yield] tangible benefits [for the victims of violations]."

    Widespread effects

    Individual cases could have ramifications for a whole community.
    Opiata says for example that a poor resident from an informal settlement  in an urban area might complain before the national courts – or to the committee -- about unequal access to adequate housing, health, water and sanitation.
     
    "The conditions in which they live attract quite a bit of attention," he explains, "because they are much lower than one would expect in any other urban setting. So it’s one area that could be of some interest in terms of trying to find out the extent to which the state obligation can be determined… whether the government is doing enough …putting  maximum resources trying to improve the livelihood of people living under these conditions."
     
    He adds that domestic courts are not always willing to order government to take specific actions to remedy such situations.  The Optional Protocol, he says, is an ideal way for individuals to seek justice at the international level, where extensive jurisprudence has been developed. 

    He adds that the protocol can also help governments take preventive measures by allowing an inquiry into systematic violations of social, economic and cultural rights.  He says the procedure will assist governments and policy makers in clarifying the meaning and scope of their obligations under the treaty.

    Ian Seiderman, the legal and policy director of the International Commission of Jurists,  says that according to the rules, an individual can appeal to the treaty’s committee for up to one year after exhausting all domestic remedies.  
    He explains the procedure followed by the committee after it has investigated a case and has found a violation of economic, social, or cultural rights.

    Recommendations and remedies
     

    "If a violation in their opinion had occurred," he says, "they might recommend broad means of remedying it, but I would be surprised to find them getting into the nuts and bolts of, for instance, spending [a prescribed] number of dollars on health in [a government’s] budget. They might recommend that more resources generally are made available, but not at the level of exact prescriptions."
     
    Seiderman says the findings of the committee are not legally binding but a government that has signed the Optional Protocol would probably take them seriously.   A state that has ratified the protocol is legally obligated to respect committee resolutions and recommendations.

    Supporters say the existing treaty – and its protocol – could help lift living standards – by ensuring that states address systemic violations of economic, social and cultural rights that contribute to poverty.  They note that in many countries national courts and regional bodies have ordered remedies for equal access to education or for a cessation of forced evictions for disadvantaged groups.   

    For example, in 2009, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights found that forced evictions from Darfur, Sudan, violated several rights, including the right to adequate housing.  And in 2001, the African Commission ruled that the Nigerian government failed to protect the rights of the Ogoni people to have a healthy environment not preventing Shell oil company from polluting.

    Undue burden denied

    Some critics say the treaty and protocol usurp the role of governments and legislatures in setting policies.  And they say a remedy imposed by the committee could mean a financial burden for states.  But supporters say the treaty panel only looks at whether a government is using available resources to meet its obligations under the covenant. 

    "For the poorer countries of the world," he says, "this means that the states have to move toward the progressive realization of all the rights, because some are not in a position to immediately realize the rights in their entirety. There are some core obligations all states can meet like providing primary education to children, but for other obligations, like secondary education, some states may not be able to cover that adequately in all areas. So that would be realized progressively."
     
    Supporters also say the protocol does not set policy and leaves it up to states to decide how to comply with the treaty.  They add that a lack of resources may not be the cause of a violation.  Instead, it may be due to the failure of government policies or legislation to consider the needs of marginalized groups. 

    The Optional Protocol came into force last year after ratification by 11 countries. 
    The states that have ratified so far are Argentina, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mongolia, Montenegro, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Uruguay.
     
    However, several African countries are among the 45 that have signed the Optional Protocol with the intent of ratifying:  Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa),  the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), Gabon, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Madagascar, Mali, Senegal, and Togo. 
     
    African countries that have not joined the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are Botswana, Comoros, Mozambique, Sao Tao and Principe and South Africa.”
     
    Supporters say the protocol’s complaints mechanism empowers the individual, and is an example of justice “from the bottom [grass roots] up.”   So far, no one has presented a petition to the committee. 

    Listen to report on Optional Protocol to Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
    Listen to report on Optional Protocol to Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.i
    || 0:00:00
    ...    
     
    X

    You May Like

    Turkey, US Splits Deepen Over Support for Kurdish Militants

    Ankara summons American ambassador to protest remarks by State Department spokesman who said Washington does not consider Syria's Kurdish Democracy Union Party (PYD) a terrorist organization

    Obama Seeking $19 Billion for National Cybersecurity

    Move, touted as attempt to build broad, cohesive federal response to cyberthreats, calls for increase in cybersecurity spending across all government agencies

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire, who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.