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

Hears from Non-Governmental Organizations regarding the Situation in Kenya and Canada  
 
GENEVA (22 February 2016) - The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights opened its fifty-seventh session this morning, hearing from Simon Walker, Chief of the Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section, Human Rights Treaties Division at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and adopting its agenda.
 
Mr. Walker noted that 2016 marked the fiftieth year of the Covenant and went through a number of planned events to be held on that occasion.
 
The Committee also heard from three non–governmental organizations from Kenya and 17 non-governmental organizations from Canada, whose reports will be considered in the course of the week.  The issues raised on Kenya included discrimination against women when it came to land property and inheritance, women’s representation in different branches of government, and resolving the issues of the Endorois people.  Canadian non-government organizations, inter alia, brought up the issues of poverty and the right to adequate housing, discrimination against indigenous peoples, inadequate social giving, access to drinking water and sanitation, rights of migrants and unequal economic status of racialized communities, and the inclusion of municipalities in the promotion and protection of human rights.  Committee Experts also raised a number of questions, which will be responded to during luncheon briefings with respective non-governmental organizations.
 
The Committee will also consider the report of Namibia this week, but no non-governmental organizations from that country took the floor.
 
The Committee will next meet in public on Tuesday, 23 February at 10 a.m., to start its consideration of the initial report of Namibia (E/C.12/NAM/1).
 
Opening Statements
 
WALEED SADI, Chairperson of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, opened the fifty-seventh session of the Committee.  He noted that only three States parties’ reports would be considered in the current session, but the Committee would also hold a number of meetings in private to address its methods of work, general comments and other issues. 
 
SIMON WALKER, Chief of the Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section, Human Rights Treaties Division at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that 2016 marked the fiftieth year of the two original Covenants.  It was a moment to reflect on the growing economic inequalities and various threats to the fulfilment of economic and social rights.  Marking the fiftieth anniversary was one of the Office’s main priorities for 2016.  The commemoration had been launched in Geneva in December 2015 with a photo exhibition at the Palais des Nations.  A number of official commemorations were planned in Geneva and New York throughout the year. 
 
In June, the sessions of two Committees would overlap for a week and a joint plenary meeting would take place on 23 June.  The General Assembly would dedicate one meeting of its seventy-first session to the anniversary of the two Covenants.  The Office was planning to organize an event on 16 December 2016 in New York, the actual anniversary of the two Covenants.  The Office had also focused on raising awareness on the Covenants among children and youth, which included competitions among various schools.  Fact-sheets and easy-to-read versions of the two Covenants had also been prepared.  Videos demonstrating the impact of the Committees’ work had been prepared.  Mr. Walker noted that the fiftieth anniversary provided an occasion to strengthen the connections between the two Covenants even further, and this anniversary was a good opportunity to promote their work to the wider public. 
 
Mr. Sadi said that civil and political rights could not be fully discussed in separation from economic, social and cultural rights, and efforts ought to be made to strengthen the “marriage” between the two.  Both sides of the equation would always need to be taken into consideration. 
 
The agenda of the fifty-seventh session was adopted.
 
The Committee then heard from representatives of non-governmental organizations from Kenya and Canada, whose reports the Committee will consider this week.
 
Statements and Discussion on Kenya
 
Federation of Women Lawyers said that there was a need to improve the conditions of women in Kenya, who were still prohibited by customary practices from inheriting or owning land and property.  In addition, there were legal gaps that existed, and the Government should repeal any sections of the existing laws which promoted discrimination.  Steps ought to be taken to promote awareness among women about their rights, while refresher courses for Government officials needed to be organized.  To hasten the pace of development, the Government should ensure that women were involved in planning, including on gender issues.  There were two upcoming laws, on land and evictions, and on resettlement, which provided another opportunity to promote gender equality.
 
Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights drew the Committee’s attention to the right of education in Kenya, the implementation of which raised concerns.  There had been rising privatization of education, which had led to segregation in Kenyan society.  The duty of the State to provide free and equal education to all was threatened.
 
International Commission of Jurists in Kenya was concerned about court decisions on the right to housing.  Another problem was that the Endorois people were not involved in the work of the task force for the implementation of the decision of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights which condemned their expulsion.  The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission’s report spoke about the marginalization of certain communities, and the Government should be asked what it was doing in order to change that trend.   The courts recognized the need for the larger representation of women in the political process, but that was yet to be implemented.  The judiciary was the only branch of Government where women were represented in a satisfactory manner.  The issue of corruption at county and local level was also a matter of concern.  While there was legislation in place which prohibited female genital mutilation, it continued unabated.
 
An Expert wanted to know whether customary practices were integrated in the positive law.  Was there legislation which specifically dealt with women’s rights?
 
Another Expert inquired whether there were any studies on the impact of corruption on economic, social and cultural rights.  A question was also asked on what had changed after economic, social and cultural rights had been recognized in the Constitution. 
 
An Expert wanted to know whether one third of seats in local and national parliaments were reserved for women and how it was implemented in practice. 
 
Had any progress been achieved regarding the fight against female genital mutilation?
 
Were people from the Endorois community about to receive certain compensation, asked an Expert?
 
It was agreed that the Kenyan non-governmental organizations would provide replies during the luncheon briefing later today.
 
Statements and Discussion on Canada
 
Bruce Porter, speaking on behalf of present Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), said that the high number of present NGOs was a sign of the community’s high commitment to the issue of economic, social and cultural rights.  There was some hope in the context of a new Government that a very dark period in Canada’s recent history was now over.  The new Government was committed to re-establishing its relations with the United Nations, but its position on the Covenant was yet to be seen.

Leilani Farha, also speaking on behalf of present Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), said that Canada’s new Government had adopted a new positive approach towards the international community, but it also needed a modernized approach towards economic, social and cultural rights.  The Committee’s support would be appreciated in ensuring that those rights were implemented properly.
 
Indigenous Bar Association stated that in Canada, lower physical and mental health outcomes, lack of access to drinking water and sanitation, inadequate housing and overcrowding, failure to protect indigenous cultures and languages, and failure to recognize traditional land rights were all among the issues that the indigenous community was dealing with.  Statistics showed that indigenous people in Canada had a significantly lower socio-economic status.  Systemic racism within government institutions affected the realization of indigenous peoples’ rights in accordance with the Covenant. 
 
Charter Committee on Poverty Issues said that the Supreme Court had recognized that the right to life, liberty and security of person included and protected economic, social and cultural rights.  For example, homeless people had been denied hearings in courts.  Government lawyers had convinced courts not to take into consideration discrimination on the grounds of poverty or homelessness.  Economic, social and cultural rights were core Canadian values and there had to be access to justice so that they could be realized. 
 
Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action said that the new Prime Minister had renewed Canada’s engagement with the United Nations.  However, the statement, in Canada’s response to the list of issues, stating that Canada’s Charter was mainly a civil and political rights guarantee, belonged to an old government and a different time.   Women’s economic and social marginalization was connected to the violence they experienced, and was currently under spotlight over inquiries into murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls.  Women could not escape domestic violence when social provisions were not high enough.
 
Amnesty International Canada stated that Canada had to end its longstanding treatment of economic, social and cultural rights as second-rate rights not suitable for full recognition and enforcement.  The crucial rights of free, prior and informed consent had to be incorporated into Canadian law.  A comprehensive national action plan needed to be developed to address violence against all women and girls in Canada.  Laws on domestic migrant workers needed to be reformed, so that they were given larger access to justice.  Canada should also ensure that children with disabilities had better access to inclusive education, while solitary confinement in Canadian prisons had to be restricted.
 
Colour of Poverty noted that there were many links between First Peoples’ struggles and those of other racialized groups in Ontario and across Canada.  Between 1980 and 2000, the rate of poverty for Toronto residents of European ethnic-racial heritage had gone down by 28 per cent, but for First Peoples and peoples of colour that rate had gone up by 361 per cent.  Rates of child poverty were similarly disproportionate.  In the Canadian labour market, Canadian workers of colour earned 81.4 per cent for every dollar paid to their Caucasian counterparts, and only 56.5 cents if one was a woman of colour.
 
Canadian Council for Refugees highlighted the key overarching issue of immigration status as a barrier to access economic, social and cultural rights.  Canada too often tied rights and benefits protected under the Covenant to immigration status, thus excluding people with non-permanent or no status, in violation of Article 2(2).  Accessing economic, social and cultural rights in Canada was significantly harder for non-citizens.  The Committee should consider the theme of discrimination based on immigration status.
 
Council of Canadians with Disabilities said that no plan had been implemented to address the inequality of people with disabilities.  People with disabilities were twice as likely to live in poverty and their employment rate was almost half that of the general population.  There was no coordinated policy response and available programmes failed to provide adequate income and basic supports.  The Disability Tax Credit should be refundable, while adults and children with disabilities should not be discriminated against when it came to immigration.
 
Canada without Poverty had been the first non-governmental organization ever to appear before the Committee, back in 1993.  In Canada, more than 235,000 people were homeless and 3.4 million were food insecure.  Was Canada, which had the eleventh highest GDP in the world, spending a maximum of its available resources to advance socio-economic rights, as it was obliged to?  Canada had completely divorced its social programmes and policies from its human rights obligations.  Social assistance rates across the country had absolutely no relationship to an adequate standard of living.  Poverty had to be recognized as a prohibitive ground of discrimination.
 
La Ligue des droits et liberté stated that social transfers in Canada were well below the level of the 1990s.  A basic benefit was 620 Canadian dollars, which did not help people much to make their ends meet and have a decent standard of living.  La Ligue was concerned about the Province of Quebec’s intention to condition social systems on employability programmes, according to which people would have to accept any kind of work or see their benefits cut.
 
Right to Housing Coalition said that there was a housing crisis in Canada, which was a national disaster ignored by the Government.  In Ontario, there were more than 168,000 people on active waiting lists for affordable housing.  In any given year, a minimum of 235,000 people would experience homelessness.  Persons affected by homelessness and the lack of affordable housing were disproportionately members of groups protected from discrimination, including single mothers and seniors.  It was time that Canada lived up to the right to housing and security of the person. 
 
Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain stated that Canada and its provinces had not been able to follow-up on the Committee’s recommendations regarding the right to housing.  There was a dire crisis of homelessness in Canada, especially in the indigenous communities.  For years, the Government had not increased the budget allocated to housing and social subsidies.  Money needed to be assigned specifically to low-income households, which would help counteract the increase in rents. 
 
Pivot Legal Society said that laws prohibiting sleeping and sheltering in public places effectively criminalized homelessness.  The harm of “anti-camping” laws went beyond the possibility of a ticket or jail and perpetuated prejudice and stigma against them.  Canada did not acknowledge housing as a human rights and the right of homeless people to an adequate standard of living.  The Committee should ask Canada to recognize a justiciable right to housing and the right to an adequate standard of living and health.  Subnational governments should be aware of their obligations under the Covenant.
 
Grassy Narrows First Nations spoke of the large amounts of mercury dumped in the local waters, which had caused serious harm to populations living in their vicinity.  In August 2015, a water emergency had been declared and since then the community had been using bottled water.  The water emergency situation was critical, and the lives of the Turtle Island indigenous community seemed not to be valued.  The basic human right of access to water was very low on the scale of the authorities. 
 
Human Rights Watch said that Canada was failing to live up to its treaty obligations on the right to water and sanitation.  Families often lacked basic water and sanitation and had to use well water.  In Winnipeg, certain communities were cut off, and medical services and education were inaccessible; settlers’ communities received all the services while indigenous communities regularly had their rights denied.  Urgent actions were needed if indigenous children were to be saved.
 
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights stated that Canada’s Human Rights Tribunal had not specifically concluded that gender-based discrimination was prohibited under federal human rights legislation.  Abortion was considered as a medically necessary procedure, but there were differences in access to the service depending on where one lived.  There were recent reports of forced sterilization of indigenous people.  The Government had allowed for the uneven implementation of sexual education curricula across the country, which had resulted in severe discrepancies in delivery and no national standards.
 
Canadian Civil Liberties Association said that victims of human rights violations by Canadian companies abroad had to have recourse to justice.  Aboriginal groups had not been properly consulted regarding resource development projects.  Canada’s bail system was broken and bail conditions were disproportionate and excessive, disproportionately affecting aboriginal, racialized and mentally ill individuals.  Canada had to prohibit discrimination on the basis of police contacts and non-conviction records.  There also had to be substantive equality in Internet access, which would make a difference for the north.
 
David Suzuki Foundation noted that Canada had, over the previous decade, weakened environmental protections fundamental to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights.  There were many examples of indigenous peoples who felt that their way of life was threatened and that industrial projects with catastrophic impacts on the environment and livelihoods were being approved with little or no consultation.  Canada was urged to constitutionally recognize the right to a healthy environment, respect indigenous rights to title and consultation, and protect oceans from degradation.
 
Maytree stated that municipalities often had little or no knowledge of their responsibilities and were not held accountable to their Covenant obligations.  Municipal revenues had grown at a very slow pace in recent decades.  Canada should ensure that provinces and municipalities had adequate financial and other resources to respond to needs at the local level; they should also be encouraged to adopt charters with explicit guarantees of Covenant rights and ensure accountability.
 
In the ensuing discussion, an Expert wanted to know about any changes in the legislation on indigenous people in recent years.  Had there been a change in the legislation on immigrants?  Questions were asked about the possible inadequacy of the existing public policies to combat poverty and human rights violations by Canadian companies abroad.
 
Another Expert inquired on whether there was any discussion on a possible reform or expansion of the Bill of Rights.  The responsibility lay with the legislative branch rather than the judiciary, he commented.
 
The issue of division of competencies between federal and provincial authorities was brought up by an Expert.  Was there any forum where joint, inter-level human rights issues were discussed?  He also asked about the assessment of the programme Nutrition North Canada and the impact of fracking and tar sands exploitation on indigenous peoples.
 
An Expert asked about the nuances between federal and provincial competencies and how they were implemented.  The protection of economic, social and cultural rights was not sufficiently covered in the Canadian Charter of Rights – was there a way to interpret it in a broader way?  Civil sector representatives were asked about social expenditures being cut. 
 
Was the issue of poverty raised in elections, asked an Expert?  She also asked whether the concept of the country’s core obligations came up in policy deliberations.
 
The Canadian non-governmental organizations said they would provide replies during the luncheon briefing on 24 February.

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