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

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    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.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.