Committee on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights
20 November 2012
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today considered the combined fourth and fifth periodic report of Bulgaria on that country’s implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Zornitsa Roussinova, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy of Bulgaria, introduced the report and highlighted the progress achieved in the Bulgarian legislation and policies since the submission of the report in 2009. This included ratification of a number of international human rights instruments, the successful completion of the Universal Periodic Review in 2011 and the accreditation of Bulgaria’s national human rights institutions in accordance with the Paris Principles. The Government was taking measures to ensure gender equality and improve the situation of the elderly, combat discrimination and replace the obsolete child care institutions with a network of community-based services providing a friendly and family-based environment.
Committee Experts inquired about the reasons for which Bulgaria was holding out on the ratification of a number of international instruments, including the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant. One Expert wondered about the impact of the economic and financial crisis on the State’s budget and about the measures taken to mitigate negative consequences for the most vulnerable social groups. The strategy for equal opportunities for persons with disabilities had been in place since 2007 and Experts asked about its impact on the employment of persons with disabilities in both the public and private sectors. Other issues raised included unemployment, especially chronic and youth unemployment; measures to address trafficking in persons and regional cooperation to combat it; the strategy to address the phenomenon of feminization of poverty; and policies adopted with regard to housing, particularly low-cost housing.
In concluding remarks, Emil Yalnazov, Director General of the Global Affairs General Directorate, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, reiterated the intention of Bulgaria to continue with the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights and resolutely address new challenges.
Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation and said that the concluding observations would be ready on Friday, 30 November.
The delegation of Bulgaria included representatives of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy; Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office of Cassation; National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues of the Council of Ministers; Ministry of Education, Youth and Science; Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works; Ministry of Culture; National Anti-Trafficking Commission; and the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 November, when it will consider the fourth periodic report of Iceland (E/C.12/ISL/4).
The combined fourth and fifth periodic report of Bulgaria can be read here: (E/C.12/BGR/4-5).
Presentation of the Report of Bulgaria
ZORNITSA ROUSSINOVA, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy of Bulgaria, said that Bulgaria cooperated closely with the United Nations treaty bodies and had undergone its first Universal Periodic Review in November 2011, in which it had accepted most of the recommendations received. In January this year Bulgaria had acceded to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and in 2011 the Ombudsman and the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, as national human rights institutions, had formally undertaken the steps before the International Coordination Committee for accreditation in accordance with the Paris Principles. In 2010 Bulgaria had established the National Council for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities and had amended the Protection against Discrimination Act in 2012 to avoid any contradictions with anti-discrimination standards. In 2011, amendments had been introduced to the Penal Code to strengthen the response to hate speech and hate crimes by adding new grounds for discrimination. The Government had entrusted the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues with the responsibility for all consultation and coordination activities in this area and had broadened its mandate to enable its interaction with international institutions and with the Decade of Roma Inclusion initiative. A few days ago, the new draft of the National Strategy on Reduction of Poverty and Promotion of Social Inclusion 2020 had been launched for public discussion.
The national policy on gender equality guaranteed equal access to the labour market and economic activities, and contained suitable measures for combining professional and family life. Particular attention in the policy had been paid to education, health and protection from domestic violence. The National Strategy for Integration of Roma 2012-2020 focused on education, health, housing, employment, rule of law, non-discrimination, culture and media; it was important to stress that an effective and comprehensive solution to the problem of Roma integration required further coherent efforts from all stakeholders, and the Roma people themselves. The long-term care and social services system for the elderly had been significantly broadened over recent years through the process of deinstitutionalization and expanding the scope of community and home-based services. The obsolete child care institutions would be closed by 2015 and replaced by a network of community-based services providing a friendly and family-based environment. Priority in this process was given to the closure of institutions for children with disabilities and of the medical and social care homes for children up to three years of age. Over the last five years, the conditions in state and municipal child-care institutions had significantly improved. In closing, the Deputy Minister said that Bulgaria had to cope with the adverse impact of the global economic and financial crisis since 2008 and that in this difficult international environment the Government had worked responsibly for the protection of economic, social and cultural rights and for alleviating the social cost of the crisis on the most vulnerable social groups.
Questions from Experts
ROCIO BARAHONA RIERA, Committee Rapporteur for the Report of Bulgaria, commended Bulgaria for ratifying a number of human rights instruments and asked about the reasons for which Bulgaria had not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of Migrants and the International Labour Organization Convention on Indigenous Peoples. What was the impact of the global economic and financial crisis on the State’s budget and what measures were being taken to mitigate it? The progress in the area of gender equality was commendable, said the Country Rapporteur and asked about the national legal framework for the protection of women’s rights and the strategy to address the phenomenon of feminization of poverty. What was the minimum pension for the elderly and did it allow them to enjoy a decent standard of living? What policies were adopted in terms of housing, particularly low-cost housing? The figures for maternal mortality were still high and there was a need to understand why. What specific programmes in the Government economic policies were being designed to help disadvantaged people?
Another Expert took up the issue of Bulgaria’s reasons to postpone the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and asked about the establishment and the workings of the Working Group to study this ratification. Turning to the National Commission for Protection against Discrimination of Bulgaria, Experts asked how many of the Commissioners were women or belonged to minorities and requested disaggregated data on the people who had actually used the Commission’s services in 2011. There was no separate legislation on gender equality in Bulgaria, all the provisions were included in the general Anti-discrimination Act; what was being done to change gender role stereotypes in the society?
The delegation was asked about specific programmes for refugees and asylum-seekers in Bulgaria; the National Commission for Anti-Discrimination, who could bring a case before it and the binding nature of its decisions; accreditation of the national human rights institution with the Paris Principles; and anti-discrimination measures, particularly with regard to Roma, and the role of mediator.
At whom was the hate speech crime directed and what was the genesis of this crime? What were the new grounds for discrimination introduced in the amended Penal Code? More information was requested about cases in which the National Strategy for Gender Equality was applied and what was its overall success; and the existing obstacles to the integration of the Roma people and Turkish communities.
Response by the Delegation
Bulgaria had two national human rights institutions, the Ombudsman’s office established in 2006 and the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, which had received in October 2011 B status according to the Paris Principles. The Accreditation Bureau recommended the broadening of the scope of the Office of the Ombudsman and a draft law had been elaborated to amend the Law on the Ombudsman in this regard. Both the Ombudsman and the Commission for Protection against Discrimination were quasi-judicial bodies which could make binding decisions. The Chairperson of the Commission was a woman; three Commissioners were women and another two were members of minorities.
All persons were born free and equal in dignity and rights and this Constitutional provision applied to all Bulgarian citizens, who were also protected from discrimination including on the grounds of ability. Persons with disabilities had the right to work and the right to special protection from the State and society. The special Law on Persons with Disabilities regulated all aspects of life of persons with disabilities and as a State party to the Convention on the Persons with Disabilities Bulgaria was in the process of aligning its national legislation with its provisions.
The National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues was a coordination and consultative body that assisted the Council of Ministers on issues of integration. It was chaired by the Prime Minister and comprised of representatives of all Ministries, the Bulgarian Academy of Science, representatives of municipalities and non-governmental organizations representing minority interests. On the local level, municipal Councils for Ethnic and Integration Issues could be established as well. The National Council worked closely with the Ombudsman and the Commission for Protection against Discrimination.
More than 12 million Roma lived in Europe and their integration was a European policy; Bulgaria fully acknowledged that there was no quick solution for the problem of their integration; it was an issue of inclusion and distribution of burden of responsibility. The National Strategy for Integration of Roma 2012-2020 followed the European Strategy and was focused not only on Roma, but on all people who lived in situations similar to that of the Roma and did not exclude provision of support to people from other ethnic groups. The Labour, Health and Education Mediator role was new for Bulgaria, but not for Europe; it was a bridge between the Roma and the public administration. This profession had been institutionalized in 2007, and the number of mediators had grown every year. Health care was one of the priorities in the National Strategy, which contained 122 measures in total. Roma suffered from high mortality and morbidity and low life expectancy, and measures were focused on prevention and early detection among this population.
All students should be guaranteed equal access to quality education and to ensure this, Bulgaria had rationalized its approach to the distribution of schools and school classes. A number of schools with age-mixed classes had been closed, mainly in remote villages, with the exception of the so called protected schools, which were kept open because they were considered very important not only for the small number of students they served, but for the whole communities. Free transportation to and from school was supported. Bulgaria was in the process of gradually broadening the scope of pre-schooling, regardless of the crisis. Despite the crises that hit Bulgaria hard, the next year would see the budget increase for the protected schools, school transport and pre-schooling. As a result of all these measures, Bulgaria was already seeing improvement in school enrolment rates and a decrease in drop out rates.
The judicial practice of direct application of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was well established in Bulgaria. In recent years, the protection of human rights and application of international law were among the main subjects in law faculties and in the training of judges, magistrates, police officers and investigators.
The new National Strategy in Gender Policy had been adopted in 2009, and its main objectives were to create equal access to opportunities, decision-making and equal participation in all spheres of public and political life in the country for women and men. One of the measures to break gender-based stereotypes in the division of labour was the institution of parental leave for fathers; more than 1,600 men had benefited from this measure in the first half of 2012. The employment and unemployment rates for women were similar to those of men, which was an indicator of equal access to work in Bulgaria.
Since 1989, Bulgaria had subjected itself to all existing control mechanisms for individual complaint procedures, both within the Council of Europe and the United Nations. Bulgaria was actively considering, in consultation with its relevant ministries, the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant; it was important to say that in principle it had been accepted. Concerning the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers, Bulgaria said that, under the existing regulations in the European Union, it was obliged to coordinate with partners and to follow the policy created at the European level; Bulgaria did not have any issues with the Convention itself or any of its provisions. There were no indigenous peoples living in Bulgaria and accession to the International Labour Organization Convention on Indigenous Peoples would not have any personal scope; nevertheless, Bulgaria would continue to actively support the issue of indigenous peoples.
The Penal Code had been amended in 2011 to add new grounds of discrimination and criminalize public incitement to violence and hate on ethnic grounds.
Bulgaria had committed itself to major reforms and despite the crisis had managed to increase public expenditures for education, pensions, minimum salary, social pension for people over the age of 70, public infrastructure and environmental protection; more resources were also available for culture, municipalities and labour market measures. The figures by the United Nations Development Programme demonstrated steady progress in human development in Bulgaria: it ranked 55 in the Human Development Index and its gross national income per capita had increased by over 60 per cent since 1995.
Questions from Experts
In a second round of questions and comments, a Committee Expert asked about the coverage of the monthly social benefit and whether it would be expanded. More information was requested about measures to help pensioners get out of financial difficulties.
The past several years had been difficult for European economies, noted another Expert and requested fresh figures on the level of unemployment, disaggregated by year to discern the dynamic of the phenomenon, and asked about chronic unemployment. Did the quota for employment of persons with disabilities apply for the private sector as well? The delegation had indicated that a strategy for equal opportunities for persons with disabilities had been in place since 2007; could the delegation provide some statistical data about employment of persons with disabilities during this period? What programmes were in place to remedy regional disparities in unemployment? Bulgaria only partially acceded to the International Labour Organization Convention on Minimum Wage and the Expert asked whether it still kept its position in this regard? What was the level of unemployment benefits and how did this relate to minimum subsistence? What was the situation concerning old age pensions?
Trafficking in persons was an important issue in Bulgaria and the Committee Expert commended the efforts by the Government to address this phenomenon and wondered about the reasons behind the reported increase in the total number of victims for the period 2008-2011.
Medical professions often lacked guidelines on preventing maternal death; what was being done to study the causes? What were the links between the national programme to improve sexual and reproductive health and abortion?
The next Expert noted that a significant proportion of the population lived below the poverty line and wished to hear more about the national plan to combat the phenomenon.
The next speaker recalled the previously expressed concerns about child labour in Bulgaria and the violations of this kind detected by the Labour Inspectors in the country. Poverty was on the rise and was disproportionately affecting children and families with children.
If cohabitation was akin to common law marriage, what laws were governing it and what rights were granted to partners? There was no legislation governing the rights of children born out of wedlock, even if it was needed. What was the perspective of Bulgaria on same-sex marriage? Were Muslims in the country allowed to celebrate their marriages in conformity with Islamic law? There was a serious problem with prostitution in the country and this was not a local phenomenon; did Bulgaria have in play any regional agreements to deal with trafficking in persons and prostitution?
The delegation recognized that the resources allocated for health expenditure were insufficient regardless of the increase of the health budget; was free health care available to people without health insurance?
Response by the Delegation
In response to the questions and comments, the delegation said that in 2011 the unemployment rate was 11 per cent; the last several years had seen an increase in this rate, particularly among the youth. In March 2012 the Council of Ministers had agreed with social partners to put the focus of efforts on: decreasing the rate of unemployment among early school leavers, adaptation of school programmes to the needs of the labour market, and creating more job opportunities for young people. In addition, over 2,000 jobs for the youth had been created and the Government had assisted employers in improving safety at work and had promoted apprenticeship programmes.
With regard to minimum wage, the delegation said that it had been steadily increasing over the past several years, and that the number of persons on the minimum wage was decreasing in both the public and private sectors.
There were several aspects regarding the measures targeting the labour market, including the extension of labour offices to support inactive people, opening of remote offices to cover rural areas, organizing and motivating people to start self-employment, and the introduction of psychologists in working with those unemployed for a long time to motivate them for the job search. In addition, the Government was encouraging the youth to obtain university degrees, especially in the health and public sectors. A decrease in the number of work place accidents had been recorded since 2008.
The philosophy of the social protection system in Bulgaria was based on the belief that everyone was entitled to social benefits when unable to cope. The right was also accorded to foreigners, people with humanitarian status and refugees. The system was financed from the State budget and was not connected to the social security system and other contributing schemes. The system mainly targeted people on lower income, such as the elderly, persons with disabilities, single parents and children at risk.
Bulgaria was aware of the importance of employment and took special measures to improve employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, especially in times of crisis. The Strategy and Action Plan for Employment of Persons with Disabilities had been adopted, introducing new ways of looking at those issues, such as promoting self-employment.
The Commission for Protection against Discrimination had received 848 complaints in 2011, of which 47 had been based on ethnic origins, while 21 complaints had been filed on multiple grounds for discrimination; in the first half of 2012, the Commission had received 408 complaints, of which 32 had been based on ethnic origin and 47 had been based on disability.
The economic, social and cultural rights of refugees were on a par with Bulgarian citizens. In 2011, the Council of Ministers had adopted a specific national programme for the integration of refugees which had outlined the actions of the State Agency for Refugees and other partners aimed at the enhanced social, economic and political integration of refugees in the Bulgarian society.
State budgets and other financial resources had been allocated into housing for Roma and in infrastructure improvements in areas with a compact Roma population. The law had also allowed for legalization of illegal structures conforming to the technical standards; this option had not been much utilized.
Access to kindergarten was free for any child in Bulgaria and attendance had always been at the discretion of parents. With the expansion of pre-schooling, kindergarten would soon start at the age of three and would also be entirely financed from the State budget; attendance would be compulsory. The programmes for children of Roma background had demonstrated a great degree of success and sustainability, in a sense that many continued after official projects came to an end. The closure of kindergartens was due to demography and low birth rate, and the rapid flux of the population to big urban centres. Kindergartens were property of municipalities which, in the absence of children to attend them, decided to use them for other purposes or to sell them.
The demographic crisis was the main challenge in Bulgaria which had experienced negative birth growth over the past 20 years; there was no sector in the society which was not affected by it.
Combating trafficking in human beings was a priority for the Government. The increase in the number of victims of trafficking over the past several years was indeed due to the greater awareness of the society about this crime and more people could identify themselves or others as victims, greater trust in institutions by victims, and the greater reporting rate of the crime. For the past two years, there had been an increase in the number of male victims of trafficking for purposes of labour exploitation. Bulgaria had ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and had adapted its legislation to its provisions. Poverty was one of the root causes of trafficking and the majority of the victims came from low-income families; another reason was lack of knowledge about the phenomenon and safe migratory practices.
Children born out of wedlock enjoyed the same rights as children born in wedlock. The special Child Protection Act of Bulgaria regulated rules, principles and measures for child protection; bodies responsible for child protection; and coordination between them. With regard to children in the labour market, the delegation said that involving children in employment required the agreement of the State Labour Agency. The employment of children younger than 15 happened mainly in spheres of culture, arts and entertainment; the authorization of the State agency was required, as was the signature of the employment contract by parents. The children could not be employed for longer than four hours.
The latest statistics on maternal mortality demonstrated a clear decline, from 17.6 per 100,000 live births in 2010 to 2.8 per 100,000 live births in 2011. The Government sustained the level of 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product allocated for health expenditure in recent years; the same level was expected in 2013. There were 47,391 beds in health facilities throughout the country in 2011 and there was an increase in the number of medical treatment facilities despite the decreasing rate of population growth. In 2011, the infant mortality rate was 8.5 per 10,000 live births which had been the lowest in the history of demographic statistics in Bulgaria; the level was even lower in other European countries and Bulgaria was striving to reach the rate of approximately 4 per 10,000 live births. Many babies were born with low birth weight, particularly to young mothers and to mothers from lower social strata. The maternal mortality rate was similar to that of other European countries. Measures to prevent maternal mortality included the improvement of the quality of medical care and the improvement of access to medical services; all pregnant women had access to health services regardless of their health insurance status.
Alzheimer’s and dementia were among most important health challenges and the Government policy took into account that the contemporary therapy for Alzheimer’s focused on slowing down the progress of the disease which was dependent on early detection. The health insurance fully covered detection and the treatment of the disease. A total of 19 centres throughout the country provided services for HIV prevention, testing and counselling. Health education, including sexual education, had a preventive function; the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education had put a team together to develop a mechanism to identify and assist children at risk from HIV infection.
Follow up Questions
Committee Experts asked the delegation to provide additional information about the measures to combat domestic violence, the legal status of common law couples, marriage for Muslim people, access to health for people without health insurance, methods used to treat and combat HIV/AIDS, employment figures for persons with disabilities and how minimum old age pensions and minimum wage compared with the minimum subsistence requirement.
The delegation had made a reference to the demographic realities of Bulgaria and Experts noted the expected increase in the burden of the care for the elderly that the country would experience and asked about the process that the country would follow to ensure its economic development.
Responding to those questions, the delegation remarked that demographic factors were mentioned in the context of challenges the country was facing now and in the future; the burden on the smaller workforce to care for the elderly would be greater. Turning to domestic violence, the delegation said that Bulgaria had amended its Law on Domestic Violence in 2009, in line with the recommendations of the Council of Europe. The national mechanism for combating and preventing domestic violence had been established and all forms of domestic violence were criminalized. It was possible for Muslims and Christians to contract a religious marriage upon conclusion of civil marriage. Children born out of wedlock had equal rights to inheritance if recognized by a father at birth.
Questions by Experts
In a further series of questions, a Committee Expert stressed the importance of education and recognized the priority and investments Bulgaria made to the sector; had the money allocated to education enabled the achievement of set objectives in primary, secondary and higher education, particularly in view of the 2008 upheavals in which a number of schools had been closed? What were the factors of high drop out rates? Could the delegation comment about learning difficulties and integration to school of Roma and Sinti minority children and what could be done to facilitate their work in school?
Another Expert expressed concern about the sharp fall in the number of public colleges, from 43 to 31 between 2003/04 and 2007/08. The number of university students had increased and the number of professors had decreased and the Expert wondered how it affected the quality of higher education in the country.
Was there a law governing the state of minorities in the country and what conditions did they have to fulfil in order to be recognized as a national minority?
Response by the Delegation
The Ministry of Education would enjoy a budgetary increase of over five per cent in 2013, which, in times of crisis was particularly important. Results in education came some time after the efforts had been undertaken; Bulgaria believed in investing wisely in all aspects of education. Through the new Education Bill and through new curricula the Government was trying to enable every child to develop his or her talents. Teachers’ pay had been significantly raised, possibly as a result of trade union action. National standardized assessments were undertaken at the end of each academic year and they provided valuable data about the achievements and the course of action that was needed to correct deficiencies.
The research had demonstrated that social factors were most often behind not attending schools, despite the measures put in place by the Government to increase attendance, such as free textbooks, school meals, or payments to parents of first-graders upon attendance. Sometimes the problem was in language barriers; Bulgarian was the official language of instruction and Bulgaria did not believe in bilingual education in school.
The poverty level in Bulgaria was set at 240 lev; the minimum salary was 303 lev and the minimal social pension was 150 lev.
The latest survey indicated that the Roma had higher rates of school drop outs and the main reasons for drop outs were economic, ethno-cultural and psychosocial. Roma girls usually dropped out at the age of 12 or 13 because of early marriages, and many Roma did not believe in education as a mean to better life.
Article 54 of the Constitution recognized the ethnic diversity in the country, but there was no system of recognition of national minorities. Bulgaria was not a party to any international legal instrument that contained a definition of national minority. This did not mean that Bulgaria did not recognize the existence of persons belonging to some ethnic groups and by consequence the existence of ethnic groups on the territory of Bulgaria. The rights of people belonging to ethnic groups were individual rights and there was no system of collective rights in the country.
Deinstitutionalization was a key policy in Bulgaria in relation to children, including children with disabilities and there was a general move towards a human rights based policy in this regard. Institutions were being closed and community-based services were being established to offer alternative care throughout the country.
EMIL YALNAZOV, Director General of the Global Affairs General Directorate, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, expressed appreciation for the fruitful discussion and reiterated the intention of Bulgaria to continue with the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights and resolutely address new challenges.
ARIRANGA GOVINDASAMY PILLAY, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the useful and frank dialogue and for providing the information the Committee needed to draft its concluding observations which would be ready on Friday, 30 November.
For use of the information media; not an official record