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HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS ADDRESSES COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS ON ENTRY INTO FORCE OF OPTIONAL PROTOCOL
The Danish Institute for Human Rights and Non-governmental Organizations Brief Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Denmark and Rwanda
6 May 2013

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this morning heard a statement from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on the occasion of the entry into force on 5 May of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on individual communications.  It also heard a briefing from the Danish Institute for Human Rights and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on how Denmark and Rwanda, whose reports are being considered this session, are implementing the provisions of the Covenant. 

The High Commissioner said the entry into force of the Optional Protocol brought the United Nations full circle on the normative architecture of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  By allowing the Committee to receive individual communications a historic gap had been closed and allowed the Committee to undertake inquiries to get to the root causes of violations.  The entry into force underlined the importance of treaty body strengthening, and a meeting of the Chairs of the treaty bodies in New York to liaise with States involved in the intergovernmental process would cover important issues. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was ready to support the Committee in its tasks as it helped make the justicability of economic, social and cultural rights a reality. 

Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Chairperson, said the introduction of legal remedies in cases of violations of economic, social and cultural rights benefitted rights holders.  The Optional Protocol becoming operational allowed victims that had exhausted domestic processes to submit a request to the Committee, and in doing this, allowed it to affect the development of economic, social and cultural rights.  Progress on this would depend on ratification and civil society’s role in raising awareness of the protection mechanism could not be overstated.  State measures to allow citizens access to the Committee and the implementation of recommendations adopted were also important.  The Committee was aware of the enormous responsibility entrusted to it and would do its best to deliver objective, well-reasoned and legally sound decisions.

The Committee also met this morning with the Danish Institute for Human Rights and two NGOs that briefed it on the implementation of the provisions of the Covenant in Denmark and Rwanda, whose reports will be considered by the Committee this week.  The initial report of Togo will also be reviewed this week but there were no NGOs present from that country.

On Denmark, the Danish Institute for Human Rights said Denmark had the lowest gap between the rich and the poor, though challenges remained.  On disability issues, it was explained that in a number of municipalities the proper procedures were not being followed when cutting back on services.  An Expert Committee had been formed to consider further ratification of international human rights instruments.  Danish policy on asylum seekers had not changed, and the Institute had suffered some capacity issues due to funding cuts.  The Geneva Infant Feeding Association said the Danish rules on the marketing of breast milk substitutes were not up to World Health Organization recommendations and should be amended accordingly.

On Rwanda, the Centre for Reproductive Rights noted that although the Rwandan Government said access to services had increased, only a quarter of women used modern contraception and many others that wanted to access it could not.  Significant barriers existed to safe childbirth.  Access to abortion was also difficult and stigmatised.  Some changes had been underway and were effective; however, Rwanda would miss its Millennium Development Goal target on maternal mortality.  The big issue was unsafe abortions.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 3 p.m. this afternoon when it is scheduled to start its consideration of the initial report of Togo (E/C.12/TGO/1)

Statements on the Entry into Force of the Optional Protocol

NAVI PILLAY, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said with the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations had come full circle on the normative architecture of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  By allowing the Committee to receive individual communications a historic gap had been closed and it addressed the imbalance whereby egregious violations of economic, social and cultural rights had taken place on a daily basis, when similar acts of civil and political rights would be immediately condemned. 

The process also allowed for the Committee to undertake inquiries on rights violations and this would make if possible for it to assist States and stakeholders to get to the root causes of violations.  The entry into force underlined the importance of treaty body strengthening, which was needed to ensure the Committee's work received the appropriate support.  Later this month the Chairs of the treaty bodies would meet in New York to liaise with States involved in the inter-governmental process, this was an important moment for the treaty bodies to raise their perspective and would cover important issues such as the proposed nimble calendar and draft code of ethics. 

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was ready to support the Committee in its tasks as it helped make the justicability of economic, social and cultural rights a reality. 

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Chairperson, added that although equal in status the fact that rights were split into two Covenants (civil and political in one, economic, social and cultural rights, the other) had led to a weaker implementation system, whereas now the Optional Protocol closed that gap.

In many national jurisdictions the introduction of legal remedies in cases of violations of economic, social and cultural rights had benefitted rights holders and it was necessary to note the relatively recent advancement of public interest litigation in this regard.  These developments would have an utmost importance for the Committee when considering cases.  The Committee would also build on the experience of international courts and treaty bodies that had already dealt with claims linked to economic, social and cultural rights. 

Becoming operational allowed victims that had exhausted domestic processes to submit a request to the Committee, Mr. Kedzia said.  In doing this the Committee would affect the development of economic, social and cultural rights through its jurisprudence and further clarify the content and applicability of the Covenant’s standards.  The Committee would also offer its assessment of the cases put before it, thereby guiding the solution of the related disputes.  Progress on this was dependant on ratification, and would have limited impact if ratification was sluggish.  Raising awareness about the protection mechanism was essential for making it work and the role of civil society in this could not be overstated.  State measures to allow citizens’ access to the Committee and implementation of recommendations adopted after the examination of cases were also important.

The entry into force of the Protocol offered the Committee new opportunities to carry out its mandate, and it was aware of the enormous responsibility entrusted to it.  Its members would do their best to deliver objective, well-reasoned and legally sound decisions.

Denmark

JONAS CHRISTOFFERSEN, Director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, said Denmark had the lowest gap between the rich and the poor, though challenges remained.  On disability issues, he said that in a number of municipalities the proper procedures were not being followed when cutting back on services to persons with disabilities.  It had been necessary to offer guidance and interventions in a number of these cases.  

An Expert asked about why the municipalities were able to do this and why it was the Institute that was intervening, was there not State guidance and process on the topic?  Was there an increase in the number of cases the Institute was dealing with about economic, social and cultural rights?  Another Expert asked about migration issues, were there any new developments?  Was Denmark likely to ratify the Optional Protocol?  Could the Institute be stronger on the follow-up on the Committee's recommendations?

Mr. Christoffersen said that Denmark had a self-rule policy for the municipalities, and as long as they did not go under a certain standard, it was acceptable to make changes to services.  However, an individual assessment was supposed to be completed before changes to the services offered to a person or family were changed, and currently this was not always done.  This was an access, discrimination and rule of law issue.  He added that the Institute had been monitoring a number of economic, social and cultural rights, and also held responsibilities under the framework of the European Union.

The Government of Denmark had recently formed an expert committee to consider the ratification of more international human rights legislation, and its recommendations were to be issued around October this year.  The basic conditions to become an asylum seeker remained the same.  The issues for the country had been the disappearance of unaccompanied minors following registration and the rights of applicants to work, live and have an education outside of the centres accommodating them.  A court had recently said that the case with a person staying in a centre for five years was a contravention of the European Charter of Human Rights in relation to freedom of movement.  The Institute had suffered a number of cutbacks, though additional grants had been offered, and this had limited its ability to follow-up on the recommendations of the Committee. 

INA VERZIVOLLI, Geneva Infant Feeding Association, said Denmark should engage in the systematic collection of data and statistics on breastfeeding, as was the norm.  The Danish rules on the marketing of breast milk substitutes were not up to World Health Organization recommendations and should be amended accordingly.  The Committee should make recommendations to support and promote breastfeeding, thereby fully realising the rights of all children to the highest attainable standard of health and adequate nutrition, 

Rwanda

STUART HALFORD, Centre for Reproductive Rights, said although the Rwandan Government had said access to family planning services had increased, only a quarter used modern contraception and many others that wanted to access them could not.  Significant barriers existed to safe childbirth, including the fact that there were only 725 doctors for the whole country, and the World Health Organization recommended that the workforce be increased by 140 per cent.  One quarter of deaths of women of childbearing age occurred through pregnancy-related issues.  Abortion was offered under certain conditions such as rape or ill-health, however a competent court was needed to reinforce the act and many women did not step forward.  Also the need for two doctors was particularly onerous in a country that had so few.  As a result this intervention was not timely.  A new bill was being proposed.  Women were routinely arrested and imprisoned for having illegal abortions, often those having sex for money having lost their family in the 1994 genocide. 

An Expert asked for concrete recommendations about how the situation could be practically alleviated?  Another wondered how responsive the Rwandan Government had been to the Centre’s work?  Rwanda had the highest representation of women in its parliament, what was the impact of these women in policy-making? 

Some changes had been underway in Rwanda, and some of these had been effective.  However, Rwanda would miss its Millennium Development Goal target on maternal mortality.  The big issue was unsafe abortion, and with so many women dying this needed urgent attention.  This high rate was mostly related to the criminalisation of the act, which pushed it underground.  The punitive punishment measures were also not helpful.  There were strong patriarchal attitudes in the country.  The new bill was more about politics than about the issue itself. 


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