Committee on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights 30 April 2012
Hears Statement by High Commissioner for Human Rights, Adopts Agenda and Programme of Work
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this morning opened its forty-eighth session at the Palais Wilson in Geneva, hearing an address from Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Committee also adopted its agenda and programme of work.
In her address Ms. Pillay emphasized the centrality of the Committee’s work in the face of challenges posed by the global economy, climate, energy and food prices, as well as the escalating sovereign debt, and said they must not let those global dynamics and shrinking national budgets put at risk the fulfilment of States’ obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee had a vital role to play both in discouraging the adoption of retrogressive measures that may negatively impact on people’s social rights, and in helping to find viable responses to the crises in respect to international human rights law. The High Commissioner also updated the Committee on the treaty body strengthening process and spoke about the allocation of resources and challenges faced under the budget reductions.
In a dialogue with Committee members the High Commissioner answered questions on funding and resources, including translation, greening of the United Nations and the impact of austerity cuts by Governments to allow them to meet their obligations under the Covenant.
Ariranga Govindasamy, Chairperson of the Committee, said he was pleased to announce that for the first time the Committee session would be webcast and thanked civil society partners for arranging that.
During its three-week session, from 30 April to 18 May, the Committee will examine measures taken by Slovakia, Peru, New Zealand, Spain and Ethiopia to comply with the standards of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The next public meeting of the Committee will be this afternoon at 3 p.m., when it will meet with partners from civil society and the United Nations, and hear submissions by non-governmental organizations.
Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
NAVI PILLAY, High Commissioner for Human Rights, opened her address by emphasizing the centrality of the Committee’s work in the face of challenges posed by the global economy, climate, energy and food prices, as well as the escalating sovereign debt. The United Nations must not let those global dynamics put at risk the fulfilment of States’ obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. At a time of dwindling resources and shrinking national budgets, it must be insisted that such obligations be carried out. The Committee had a vital role to play both in discouraging the adoption of retrogressive measures that may negatively impact on people’s social rights, and in helping to find viable responses to the crises in respect to international human rights law.
A strong and well-resourced treaty body was needed to meet the challenges, said Ms. Pillay, who then updated the Committee on the treaty-body strengthening process. She urged it to endorse the outcome document of the Dublin II consultation, which had already been endorsed by several other Committees. Ms. Pillay encouraged the Committee to request further support from the Economic and Social Council for its work, and applauded the proposed reduction of the number of meetings for the consideration of State party reports from three to two, which would start in November 2012 on a trial basis. That change would send a strong signal to States that the Committee was fully aware of the gravity of the situation and was taking measures to contribute to the timeliness of the consideration of reports.
Ms. Pillay said she had been actively engaged in consultations with States about resources, and recently held informal consultations in Geneva and New York in which she stressed that resources for treaty bodies must be adequate to the task they were mandated to fulfil. States were increasingly demonstrating their engagement in the treaty body strengthening process, as marked by the General Assembly’s adoption, on 23 February 2012, of a resolution tabled by Russia to launch an open-ended intergovernmental process. The Annual Report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for 2011, which would hopefully be launched next month, would contain detailed information on activities in the area of economic, social and cultural rights. Ms. Pillay was pleased to note that over the last five years her Office had been considerably active in promoting those rights, both by implementing them in the field and through research in Geneva, and especially in promoting the ratification of the Optional Protocol, working on health, food and housing rights and focusing on matters related to land issues.
Interactive Dialogue between the High Commissioner and Committee Members
In an interactive dialogue, Committee members addressed comments and questions to the High Commissioner. One member referred to the High Commissioner’s statement that they must not let the economic slowdown impact on States’ commitment to meet their obligations under the Convention, and asked how she intended to reconcile that. A member referred to recent field visits he had undertaken, and highlighted his positive trip to the Republic of Moldova, where his work had benefitted from the success of the High Commissioner’s recent visit there. The High Commissioner was asked how adequate funding for the treaty body system could be ensured, especially given that the Committee had changed its procedure in order to review more States parties. The Committee was having difficulties with the lack of translation, another member said, citing the example of Spain from this session for which the State party’s replies to the Committee’s list of issues were only available in Spanish - a language some Committee members did not have.
In reply the High Commissioner said she had told Member States how fortunate they were that bodies of very highly qualified experts gave their time to be Committee members on treaty bodies without being paid. She said in reply some Member States raised problems with treaty body processes, and others said they felt accused by it. There were differences between the resources different treaty bodies received: some had a voice within the General Assembly and subsequently had received more resources, for example extra sessions. The High Commissioner said she sympathised with the situation that Committees generally had no control over their resources. Funding had to come from the regular budget for human rights, which had never increased beyond approximately 2.8 per cent, even though it was one of the three pillars of the United Nations. For that reason, Ms. Pillay said, she had gone before the media and spoken in public about problems caused by the lack of resources. The regular budget did not cover resources and several staff were instead paid from extra, irregular funds. Ms. Pillay said her judicial experience taught her that she had to tread very carefully, and not forget that each treaty body was independent with separate jurisprudence. However, it was the responsibility of Member States to see the value of treaty bodies, to fund them and implement their recommendations.
The bottom line, Ms. Pillay said, was that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights spoke on fundamental rights, such as the right to health and the right to food. The voices emerging from the Arab Spring and movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Davos called to be part of decision-making, and said that human rights and people should be the centre of policy-making, not economic growth. The austerity measures currently being taken by Governments affected the most vulnerable in society; the poor, women and children. Those austerity measures would be raised in the Universal Periodic Review and States would be asked to explain how they were meeting their obligations to Conventions amid their cutbacks. Ms. Pillay said she looked to the Committee to come up with jurisprudence and remind States of the own values and standards that they had created.
Regarding the translation of documents, Ms. Pillay agreed that it was an impossible situation. Conference Services increasingly attended treaty body strengthening consultations to explain those problems. The High Commissioner said that she felt truly embarrassed to see the mountains of paper in front of Committee members when the United Nations was supposed to be going green, as resources, for example to supply Members with laptops to allow them to have paperless Committees, were not available.
The High Commissioner said she would continue to raise issues – and funds - with a strong voice, but she looked to the Committee to also speak strongly about the value of its work and that it must be respected by Member States. It was very difficult to raise funds for human rights, and the financial situation was not going to change any time soon. Donors were cutting back, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was targeting private foundations. If funds were raised they would be extended to treaty bodies; they should not only be funded directly from the General Assembly.
ARIRANGA GOVINDASAMY, Committee Chairperson, then adopted the Committee’s agenda and programme of work.
For use of the information media; not an official record