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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights opens fifty-third session

10 November 2014

Hears from Stakeholders on Situation in Viet Nam

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this morning opened its fifty-third session at the Palais Wilson in Geneva, hearing statements by Simon Walker, Chief of the Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section, Human Rights Treaties Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Zdzislaw Kedzia, the Committee Chairperson. The Committee also adopted its agenda and heard from stakeholders on the situation in Viet Nam, whose report will be considered this afternoon.

In his opening statement, Mr. Walker said that High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had indicated that he would give utmost importance to recommendations and decisions of the treaty bodies and take the necessary action to ensure that greater priority was given to their implementation. On behalf of the Office, Mr. Walker highlighted the issue of reprisals. Regarding the post-2015 Development Agenda, the Open Working Group had adopted its outcome document in July 2014, reflecting some key dimensions of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights as well as the promotion of equality and a strengthened focus on people who were marginalized. The Committee was encouraged to continue paying attention to the enjoyment of the economic, social and cultural rights of indigenous peoples in its work.

Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Chairperson, in his opening statement said that the session was taking place at a time which was remarkable in both the positive and negative sense. On the positive side, it was a year in which Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi had been awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of children to education. On the negative side, there were regrettably far too many developments which negatively affected the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights in all regions of the world, many of which would be addressed in this and subsequent sessions.

The Committee this morning also heard from stakeholders on the implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Viet Nam.

Speakers said that despite considerable economic growth and progress in the standard of life, the situation in Viet Nam was still difficult, with over 20 per cent of the population living under the poverty threshold. There were great inequalities, not just concerning revenues but also equal opportunities, and women were particularly affected. There was no true independent civil society in Viet Nam. Many laws were incompatible with international law. The only history book in Viet Nam taught false facts and a truncated view of history. Despite the constitutional guarantees cited, discrimination on religion, political opinion or ethnicity was endemic. Further, despite deep history and cultural roots in the Mekong delta, Viet Nam did not recognize the Khmer Krom as indigenous peoples, but as an ethnic minority. The Committee was urged to press Viet Nam to release all human rights defenders detained for their advocacy of economic, social and cultural rights, and urge it to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Viet Nam Committee on Human Rights and the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation took the floor.

The Committee will resume its work this afternoon at 3 p.m., to begin its consideration of the second to fourth periodic report of Viet Nam (ESC/C.12/VNM/2-4).

Opening Statements

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Chairperson of the Committee, in his opening statement said that the session was taking place at a time which was remarkable in both the positive and negative sense. On the positive side, it was a year in which Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi had been awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of children to education. It was the first year of the implementation of General Assembly resolution 68/268 on the strengthening of the human rights treaty system. It had to be stressed that while the number of 162 ratifications of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had unfortunately remained unchanged since the last session, the number of States parties to the Optional Protocol had again increased. Costa Rica had become the sixteenth State party to the Protocol.

On the negative side, there were regrettably far too many developments which negatively affected the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights in all regions of the world, many of which would be addressed in this and subsequent sessions. It was understandable that members of the Committee were deeply worried about the fate of people suffering under lack of access to, or violations of economic, social and cultural rights. Mr. Kedzia was convinced that all had followed with the greatest concern the spreading Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the fate of Nigerian girls kidnapped by extremists.

SIMON WALKER, Chief, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section, Human Rights Treaties Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in his address to the Human Rights Council, had indicated that he would give utmost importance to recommendations and decisions of the treaty bodies and take the necessary action to ensure that greater priority was given to their implementation.

The Committee had successfully completed the additional meeting time granted by the General Assembly in 2012 which had helped to reduce the backlog of reports, and many improvements had been made to working methods. On behalf of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Walker highlighted the issue of reprisals. To follow-up on the General Assembly resolution, treaty body Chairs recommended that all treaty bodies establish a focal point on reprisals and consider adopting a joint policy on reprisals during their next June annual meeting. It was hoped that the Committee would consider appointing a focal point, who could then participate in crafting such a joint policy.

Regarding the post-2015 Development Agenda, the Open Working Group had adopted its outcome document in July 2014, reflecting some key dimensions of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights as well as the promotion of equality and a strengthened focus on people who were marginalized. In spite of these gains for human rights, there were still challenges in discussion, particularly in relation to the issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights. This was particularly relevant to the work of the Committee as it embarked on the first reading of its draft general comment on the issue. Availability of disaggregated data would contribute significantly to a more comprehensive analysis of whether development goals were being met in a sustainable way. The Committee was encouraged to continue paying attention to the enjoyment of the economic, social and cultural rights of indigenous peoples in its work, bearing in mind the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Chairperson of the Committee, assured that the Committee appreciated many of the thoughts put on the table by Mr. Walker. The Committee intended to take up during this session and in future, as at previous sessions, many of the issues related to the implementation of the General Assembly resolution on the strengthening of treaty bodies, including the issue of harmonization of work of the treaty bodies and reprisals. Comments on the post-2105 development agenda were also appreciated, which were closely linked to the mandate of the Committee. On the need for disaggregated data, all the Committee’s experience underlined the importance of the availability of this data. The Committee almost always asked the States parties to provide this sort of data for its consideration and to enable it to provide the best assistance to States parties.

Questions/Comments by Experts

An Expert noted that Mr. Walker was now the Chief of the Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section, Human Rights Treaties Division. Did this suggest that there was a new integrated approach to these two pillars of human rights? Was this a new policy in the High Commissioner’s Office?

Another Committee Expert said that violations of economic, social and cultural rights were of important concern. Could a statement be made on that, either by the Chair or by the Committee? Regarding Ebola, this was important as it involved the right to health and also Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Chair could make a statement on the Ebola situation which would be timely and important.

SIMON WALKER, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section, Human Rights Treaties Division, said that the Office paid a lot of attention and respect to the principles of interdependence and indivisibility, so it always tried to emphasise civil, political, economic, social and cultural political rights. The name of the section had not changed and reflected the totality of the Committees represented in the section.

The Committee then adopted its agenda.

Meeting with Stakeholders on Viet Nam

A representative of the Viet Nam Committee on Human Rights said that despite considerable economic growth and progress in the standard of life, the situation in Viet Nam was still difficult. Over 20 per cent of the population lived under the poverty threshold. As the World Bank noted, there were great inequalities, not just concerning revenues but also equal opportunities. Women were particularly affected. There was no true independent civil society. The party in power, which controlled politics, the economy, the courts and the police, oppressed all those that would seek to exercise their economic, social and cultural rights. The law was only used to benefit the authorities and laws were often vague themselves, which prevented their proper implementation. Many laws were incompatible with international law. The only history book in Viet Nam taught false facts and a truncated view of history. For Viet Nam to meet its obligations under the Covenant, it had to conduct a review of its legislation as well as its school programmes to allow children to have a critical spirit and to open to the world and the promotion of human rights.

Another representative of the Viet Nam Committee on Human Rights said that the constitution imposed new restrictions of the exercise of human rights. Despite the constitutional guarantees cited, discrimination on grounds of religion, political opinion or ethnicity was endemic. On trade union rights, workers could not join unions of their choice. There were no independent trade unions in Viet Nam. The land law did not protect farmers from eviction and State confiscation of land. The internet was subject to censorship and restrictions. Suppressing criticism of human rights abuses would not achieve human rights progress in Viet Nam. The Committee was urged to press Viet Nam to release all human rights defenders detained for their advocacy of economic, social and cultural rights; and dismantle the ‘ho khau’ which perpetuated discrimination on the grounds of religion, political opinion, ethnic origin, status and birth.

A representative of Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, on the right to self-determination, said that Khmer Krom people had lived in the Mekong area for thousands of years. Despite deep history and cultural roots in the delta, Viet Nam did not recognize these persons as indigenous peoples, but as an ethnic minority. They were prohibited from referring to themselves as Khmer Krom. Not many people realized that rice exported by Viet Nam was produced by the sweat and tears of Khmer Krom farmers. Some did not have enough to eat as the expense of farming was too high and they were among the poorest in the area. Many dropped out of school or were forced to migrate to crowded city areas. They were not allowed to learn or freely use their language. It was recommended that the Committee urge Viet Nam to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; to implement a procedure to establish a legal document to start the process of recognizing the indigenous people of Viet Nam; to raise persons’ awareness of their rights; and to allow Khmer Krom children to learn their language in schools, from kindergarten.

Questions by Experts

A Committee Expert enquired, on the right to freedom of association, whether the framework was insufficient to deal with the problems referred to by non-governmental organization speakers. On an adequate standard of living, were policies designed to improve the standard of living of people incorporated into the current legal system?

Another Expert said that some 10 years ago, upon a visit to Viet Nam, there seemed to be a strong movement towards reconstructing Viet Nam. Listening to speakers this morning, it seemed that there was a chaotic and fragile balance whereby people did not benefit from the rule of law. Were there no means of appeal, of legal recourse? On cultural problems for minorities, Viet Nam was not a federal country which would mean that recognizing indigenous people allowed them to take their claims forward. Could further information be provided on how it could be proved that a real violation of economic, social and cultural rights had taken place?

There had been information that there was no genuine independent civil society in Viet Nam, noted an Expert. What was the status of the Viet Nam Committee for Human Rights? What was its position in Vietnamese society? Another Expert noted that a speaker had mentioned that Asian values were incompatible with human rights standards. Could there be elaboration on that?

Speakers had forcefully spoken about the independence of the legal system and judiciary. How was that seen in reality, asked an expert? Could more be said about that?

NGO Answers

Viet Nam Committee on Human Rights, on the trade union situation, said that it was an anomaly as there was only one official trade union in Viet Nam and independent trade unions were banned, which posed serious problems for workers’ rights. The wealth disparity and land problems were growing worse and there were no mechanisms which victims of abuse could use to protect their human rights. The Viet Nam Committee was unfortunately based outside of Viet Nam. It was a very difficult situation but it was in daily contact with organizations in Viet Nam

Another representative of the Viet Nam Committee on Human Rights said that if visiting Viet Nam, progress made in large cities could be seen, but the situation was very different in the villages and countryside. The constitution in Viet Nam did provide fundamental freedoms of all kinds. You could demonstrate. However, there was a decree which prevented demonstrations with more than 100 hundred speakers. In a communist society, in theory you had freedoms, but in practice you did not and this was the situation in Viet Nam. On the question on Asian values, if looking at school text books, there was an explanation of what human rights were. When reading them, it was said that that there were different cultures and values from one country to another and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not be accepted at face value.

Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation said that the Khmer Krom were not able to identify themselves as such. In terms of the realities and human rights abuses, every time the Khmer Krom raised an issue, they were punished. Viet Nam had created an environment of fear and the people were afraid to speak. Even the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief had cancelled a visit because of the sad situation faced when trying to meet with monks.

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Chairperson of the Committee, said that a lot of information had been received which could help work on the report by the State party.


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