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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights discusses situation in Austria and Norway with stakeholders

18 November 2013

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this morning discussed with stakeholders, including the Austrian Ombudsman Board and non-governmental organization representatives, the implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Austria and Norway, whose reports will be considered by the Committee this week. The report of Gabon will also be reviewed by the Committee this week, but there were no civil society representatives from that country present.

On the situation in Austria, speakers said the reception conditions for asylum seekers in Austria were insufficient and in some cases in violation of basic human rights principles, and their access to the labour market was extremely restricted. Other issues raised included the direct application of the Covenant in Austrian courts,
poverty levels, the right to food, the right to freely choose work, and the need to ban genetically modified food and crops in Austria.

Speaking on Austria were representatives of the Austrian Ombudsman Board, Fian International on behalf of the Austrian Forum for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Active Unemployed Austria, FIAN International and Forum WSK-Rechte and Aktion GEN-Klage.

Concerning Norway, speakers said Romani migrants were subject to ill-treatment by the police and security guards. There was an uncovered need for free legal aid for low-income people. Speakers raised issues concerning access of immigrants to the labour market, the social housing system, the employment rate for women from ethnic or minority communities, and the forced treatment of persons with psycho-social disabilities.

Speaking on Norway were the Norwegian NGO-forum for Human Rights, Legal Advice for Women, We Shall Overcome and FIAN International, FIAN Norway and the Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development.

Committee Experts asked follow-up questions which were answered by civil society representatives.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 3 p.m. this afternoon when it will start its consideration of the initial report of Gabon (E/C/GAB/1).

Austria

Discussion with the Austrian Ombudsman Board

JOHANNES CARNIEL of the Austrian Ombudsman Board said the Austrian Ombudsman Board was a constitutional supreme body and was not bound by directives or orders from legislative or executive bodies. It could independently undertake unannounced visits to places of detention as well as facilities and programmes designed to serve persons with disabilities. A Human Rights Advisory Council had been established that advised the Board.

The Austrian Ombudsman Board would like to concentrate on some of the most vulnerable groups. For example, the provision of financial assistance for people living in poverty varied in each Land. In one Land, there was a lack of legal certainty for people with disabilities receiving needs-based minimum benefits. The Board saw a danger of exploitation of persons with disabilities who were working within the scope of occupational therapy programmes and receiving extremely low remuneration. The reception conditions for asylum seekers in Austria were insufficient and in some cases in violation of basic human rights principles. The access of asylum seekers to the labour market was extremely restricted. The Austrian Ombudsman Board documented violations of human rights in retirement and long-term care homes, facilities for persons with disabilities and youth welfare facilities. There was a lack of adequate facilities for patients with chronic mental illnesses or mentally disabled persons. There was a shortage of places in rehabilitation centres for children and adolescents. Finally, the Austrian Ombudsman Board strongly advocated the signing and ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Committee Members said the Board had spoken about difficulties for asylum seekers in the area of employment and asked how the laws could be changed to help asylum seekers. How many communications had the Board received in the area of economic, social and cultural rights? Had the Board communicated this list of 13 concerns to the Government, and what was its response? Concerning the variance between Lander, did the Board have suggestions on how the Government could change this? Had there been discussions on this matter? Regarding persons with disabilities, Austria had been before the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in early September. Had there been improvements or discussion on how to settle the various challenges and obstacles?

Responding, Mr. Carniel said he would answer the last question first. On improvements regarding persons with disabilities, there had been a lot of movement and working groups had been established, but so far, no concrete improvements had taken place. But a lot of questions and awareness had been raised, and the Board would wait and see if there were improvements. On the differences between the Lander and Federal responsibilities, this was a difficult area and he had no concrete suggestions. For example concerning asylum seekers, at a certain stage the Federal Government was responsible, and then at a later stage it was the Lander. On the Ombudsman’s list of 13 concerns, the comprehensive list was public and had been provided to the Government, but the Board had not so far publicly addressed the issue of the Optional Protocol. In 2012, there were around 16,000 complaints; any Austrian or any foreigner could address the Ombudsman, which had comprehensive powers of investigation and could go through any governmental or administrative file. On asylum seekers, they had no access to the employment market in the first three months. Then, they had theoretical access to seasonal or harvest work, but there was a quota and if an Austrian or a foreigner with papers wanted the job, they had priority over the asylum seeker. Also if an asylum seeker worked, after gaining a certain amount they could lose the benefits of the reception centre. So their access to work was very restricted. The Board was in discussions on this issue.

Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations on Austria

Fian International on behalf of the Austrian Forum for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was still not embodied in the Constitution and was therefore not directly applicable in Austrian courts. The Austrian Ombudsman Board could not be recognized as a substitute for a national human rights institution. There was a growing demand for food assistance in Austria and the Committee should recommend that the Government develop a comprehensive national action plan based on the holistic concept of the right to food. Asylum seekers were still one of the most vulnerable groups in Austria, and the Committee should recommend that Austria adopt all necessary measures to ensure that asylum seekers could realize their right to an adequate standard of living, ensuring that they had access to the formal labour market. Concerning poverty, the Committee should recommend that the minimum income scheme be reformed in order to be a real support for people living in poverty.

Active Unemployed Austria raised the issue of sanctions and the right to freely choose work. Since the turn of the century, this fundamental right had been severely limited, especially as a result of the high rise of unemployment. Along with the change of government at the beginning of 2000, the employment agency had been putting increasing pressure on unemployed persons by order of the new conservative government. The sanctions quota rose in the year 2000 from around 230 to 288 per 1,000 unemployed and had continued to rise throughout the course of further changes of government, reaching up to 405 sanctions per 1,000 unemployed persons by the year 2010. As of January 1, 2005, the Government had restricted the so-called “vocational protection” to the first 100 days of unemployment and replaced it with a restricted “wage protection”. Once the unemployment benefit ended, usually after six months, the unemployed person received unemployment assistance and had to accept every type of “reasonable job”, regardless if it fitted one’s own career aspirations.

FIAN International and Forum WSK-Rechte said with regard to Austria’s development cooperation policy, the Committee should ask Austria about measures taken to ensure a development strategy that recognized the primacy of human rights, to guarantee significant increase of means for programmable official development assistance disbursements, and to ensure gender equality and the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Concerning European Union policies, the Committee should ask the Austrian Government if it was conducting appropriate human rights impact assessments concerning the impacts of agro-fuels, agricultural and trade policies. On export and foreign investment promotion, the Committee should ask Austria which measures had been taken in order to ensure that Austrian headquartered, but internationally active, companies, which were jointly responsible for human rights violating activities, were held accountable.

Aktion GEN-Klage said more and more genetically modified food and crops were permitted, grown and imported in Austria. There were many further possibilities for the Government to secure Austria as free of genetically modified food and crops. In Austria, the animals were fed by genetically modified feed in large quantities, which could cause massive and even life threatening health problems. The Government was urged to prohibit the import of genetically modified soya for animal feeding from South America. It should also introduce a legal liability for agro-industries to be responsible for all consequences of genetically modified organisms for soil and health. The Committee should present its concerns on genetically modified food and formulate recommendations to the Government on how to end these violations.

The European Union forced Austria to accept imports of generically modified feed and patents on life. The Committee should tell the Government that the European Union had no right to force Austria to accept genetically modified organisms. Every nation, including Austria, had the right to refuse genetically modified food and feed and patents of life because they had the right to health food.

Discussion on Austria

Committee Experts said speakers had spoken by deteriorations in housing and health, among others; was this linked to the general impoverishment that had gripped the whole world, and could the Government do more to face these issues. Regarding the Austrian Development Cooperation policy, did the concerns relate in particular to bilateral development assistance as far as the human rights issue was concerned. How much aid went through multilateral assistance and how much through bilateral assistance?

Responding, members of civil society said that on the increase of poverty, to a certain extent, this had to do with the crisis, but the Government could also do more. From 2005 to 2010, the rate of manifestly poor increased by 20 percent. Also society had become more unequal. There were no taxes on assets. Concerning aid, the rate of multilateral aid was increasing in relation to bilateral aid. On the human rights approach, the bilateral programmes had developed more human rights sensitivity, but huge gaps on accountability still existed.

Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations on Norway

Norwegian NGO-forum for Human Rights said the Covenant had been invoked before the Norwegian Supreme Court only three times and the Committee should ask the reason for this. Poor visiting Romani migrant were subject to ill-treatment by the police and security guards in Norway. They were banished from public places without any legal basis. There was an uncovered need for free legal aid for low-income people. Access to rights was necessary to prevent poverty and the denial of free legal aid equalled the denial of basic rights. Also, there were practical and legal restrictions on immigrants’ access to the labour market. Irregular migrants faced serious challenges in obtaining health care in Norway. The social housing system was not satisfactory as many of the units had a low standard. There was still a large unmet need for social housing. The occurrence of mental health care problems for prisoners was up to three times as high as in the general population. However, access to psychologists and psychiatric healthcare personnel in prisons was limited. Finally, the Committee in 2005 had expressed concern about the subsistence requirement and encouraged the State party to consider easing restrictions on family reunification in general. However, restrictions on family reunification, including the subsistence requirement, had become even stricter. Under the new immigration act of 2008 the subsistence requirement was actually increased, and fewer exceptions were now available.

Legal Advice for Women said that in order to decrease the unemployment rate for women from ethnic or minority communities, it was essential that they obtained information about their legal rights. Most Government webpages were not translated and there was in general a lack of qualified translators. It was important that the Government take measures to make information truly understandable, accessible, correct and relevant for the person receiving the information. It was also essential
that these women had the opportunity to attend programmes that improved their language skills and knowledge about the Norwegian society and their legal rights and duties. Also, au pairs in Norway were a particularly vulnerable group in the society in Norway and the State party should strengthen the legislation and establish better control mechanisms. Concerning domestic violence, there had been a 12.1 per cent increase of reports on domestic violence from May to August 2012 to the corresponding period in 2013 in Norway.

We Shall Overcome said this was a Norwegian organization of people with psycho-social disabilities and users and survivors of psychiatry. She herself was a survivor of forced psychiatric treatment. There was systemic discrimination that persons with psycho-social disease were subjected to through forced psychiatric interventions. There was need for legislative reform as a first crucial step to combat this discrimination. Norwegian mental health legislation authorized non-consensual medical practises like forced electroshock, forced drugging, restraint and solitary confinement, practices that amounted to ill-treatment. The Committee should urge the State party to undertake legislative reform and repeal legislation that authorised deprivation of liberty linked to mental disorder, psycho-social or intellectual disability. It should also ensure effective legal remedies for people with disabilities to obtain release from mental health facilities where they may be held against their will.

FIAN International, FIAN Norway and the Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development said the Norwegian Government Pension Fund was the world’s largest sovereign fund and it was contributing to human rights violations in India, Guatemala and elsewhere. The Fund was valued at almost 600 billion Euros and invested in more than 8,000 companies worldwise. The Fund was owned by the Government, but Norges Bank Investment Management managed this sovereign fund. Norway had an international reputation of being a strong promoter of human rights and business, but the Bank had shown grave unwillingness to engage on serious allegations of human rights violations. The Committee should ask Norway on measures taken to ensure compliance with Covenant obligations in its international development cooperation.

Discussion on Norway

Committee Experts asked questions about the difficulty of implementing the provisions of the Covenant in Norway because the treaty could not be directly invoked in courts. It was also very expensive for people wishing to defend their rights to bring cases before the Constitutional Court. Could the Office of the Ombudsman of Norway defend these people and their cases? An Expert said he was worried because two weeks ago, Norway had been voted as the second happiest place in the world, but after hearing from civil society organizations, especially the two speakers who had been forced to endure treatment for psycho-social disorders, it was clear that there was no utopia in the world. Concerning investments by the Norwegian Pension Fund, who should investigate whether a company had derogated its environmental responsibility or its resettlement obligations, the Fund itself or the government where this company worked? Speakers had said that subsistence level requirements for family reunification had become stricter, and requested more information. Also an Expert wanted more information on domestic violence. In 2005 the Committee had recommended that the State party adopt laws to combat domestic violence. The Expert asked if the rise in domestic violence was due to the increase of reporting these assaults, or to new cases. With regard to the rights of persons with psycho-social disabilities, unfortunately, this was a problem around the world. Did a guardian or parent have to request a person undergo psycho-social treatment, what medical assessments were carried out to confirm the need, and was there misuse of this procedure?

Responding, Norwegian civil society representatives said it was correct that subsistence level requirements for family reunification had become stricter. For example, there were fewer exceptions, there were now requirements of proof of a certain level of income in the past and in the future, and if a person had received social benefits of any kind in the past 12 months before the application, it would be refused for 12 months.

On persons with psycho-social problems, a medical professional had to assess a serious medical disorder, and then there were other requirements before a person underwent treatment; the report described this more completely and the representative said they would discuss this further with the Committee on Wednesday.

Norway owned the pension fund, but the bank ran it. The representative said the Norwegian authorities should have clearer policies on how the bank managed the fund vis-a-vis human rights standards and the provisions of the international human rights treaties to which Norway was a State party.

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