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Opening address by Ms. María Francisca Ize-Charrin Officer-in-Charge, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the 35th session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

7 November 2005

Mme Chairperson,
Distinguished members of the Committee,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to Geneva and to address you on the occasion of the thirty-fifth session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Since your May session, important developments have occurred related to the reform of the United Nations and, in particular, its human rights machinery.

Outcome of the United Nations Summit in New York

As you know, the Heads of States and Governments met in New York from 14 to 16 September for the 60th anniversary of the Organization and adopted the 2005 World Summit Outcome. In the outcome document, the Heads of States reaffirm universality, indivisibility, interrelatedness and mutually reinforcing nature of all human rights, and that they must be treated in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis.

One of the most important challenges facing the United Nations is the fight against poverty. In the declaration of the World Summit, Heads of States commit themselves to eradicate poverty and to promote sustainable development and global prosperity for all.

The recent natural disasters in Asia and in Central and North America that cost the lives of thousands of people and deprived millions of their homes and other basic amenities, once more remind us of the fundamental importance of equal access, in particular by vulnerable people, to adequate food, housing, drinking water and health care, to name but a few examples. It is therefore with good reason that the outcome document stresses the central role of the right to live in dignity, free from poverty and despair, for human security.

The declaration specifically refers to the human rights treaty bodies in a commitment to improve their effectiveness, including through more timely reporting, improved and streamlined reporting procedures and technical assistance to States to enhance their reporting capacities and further enhance the implementation of their recommendations.

Finally, world leaders resolved to create a Human Rights Council whose mandate, modalities, functions, size, composition and membership will be determined by the General Assembly. They also resolved to double the regular budget resources of the Office over a period of five years. The High Commissioner is currently in New York to submit the budget.

OHCHR Plan of Action and Treaty Body Reform

The Plan of Action that was launched by the High Commissioner in May 2005 identifies the protection of economic, social and cultural rights as one of the priorities to be pursued by the Office over the next five years. At a recent senior management retreat on the strategic priorities for the biennium 2006-2007, it was decided to increase the Office’s work on economic, social and cultural rights with a focus on legal protection and advocacy.

A special task force composed of staff from all branches of the Office is currently considering the relationship between the capacity on economic, social and cultural rights within the Office and the work of your Committee, of the special procedures with mandates covering economic, social and cultural rights, and of the working group to consider options regarding the elaboration of an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The High Commissioner stated in her Plan of Action that the human rights treaty system is one of the Organization’s great achievements. Despite its positive and successful impact on national law, jurisprudence and policies, the current system is facing serious challenges. For most States it is exceedingly onerous to report separately to different treaty bodies, often on very similar or overlapping issues. Reports are thus delayed or, when submitted, often inadequate or repetitive, and there is insufficient time to consider them.

As you know, action to meet these challenges has been ongoing for several years. Since the Secretary General’s call in 2002 for harmonized reporting requirements and the possibility of submitting a single report, treaty bodies have begun drafting harmonized guidelines for reporting. The High Commissioner’s Plan of Action emphasizes the need to finalize and implement the harmonized guidelines so that the treaty bodies can begin to function as a unified system.

The strengthening of the human rights treaty body system was also discussed during the fourth Inter-Committee Meeting and seventeenth Meeting of Chairpersons which were convened from 20 to 25 June 2005 and where your Committee was represented. As a follow-up to the recommendations of these meetings, a technical working group, composed of a representative of each treaty body, has tentatively been scheduled to meet on 8 and 9 December 2005 and again early next year to finalize the draft harmonized reporting guidelines for consideration and eventual adoption by each of the committees.

In the long run, it seems clear that means must be found to consolidate the work of the seven treaty bodies and perhaps, the creation of a unified standing treaty body may be a solution. A concept paper on the implications of creating a unified treaty body will be prepared in an open and participatory way for all stakeholders concerned so as to draw on the widest possible expertise available. Our Office has identified areas which will require in-depth examination in the process of developing the concept paper. Last month, a brainstorming meeting was organized by the Treaties and Commission Branch, in consultation with the entire Office, in order to reflect on a unified standing treaty body and to draw optimal benefit from in-house expertise. A similar meeting had been organized by the United Kingdom for members of the European Union on 6 October 2005.

In order to ensure the broadest possible participation in discussing the key areas under consideration, an on-line discussion forum has been launched on 1 November 2005 for a period of six weeks. The forum will propose issues for discussion such as the strengths and weaknesses of the current system; the possible form, composition and functions of a unified standing treaty body; how the protection of specific rights can be ensured; how a new unified standing treaty body could enhance implementation at the national level; and the different legal options for creating a unified standing treaty body.

I would like to reiterate that your role in this process is essential as you have the expertise and insight that we need to rely upon to produce the concept paper. I know that the Committee will discuss the treaty body reform on 17 November and that the High Commissioner would like to be with you on that occasion. She will, in any event, try to address the Committee on the treaty body reform before the end of your session. Mme Chairperson, the High Commissioner sent you a letter inviting the Committee and each individual member to contribute their ideas on the creation of a unified standing treaty body to enrich the text of the concept paper. I would appreciate it if the contributions you may wish to submit could reach the Office by 15 December 2005.

This paper should be available in early 2006 and will be circulated for comments, in particular to treaty body members. It is envisaged that a brainstorming meeting on the paper will be organized in May 2006, the results of which will be considered by the fifth Inter-Committee Meeting and eighteenth Meeting of Chairpersons in June 2006. Finally, a two-day intergovernmental consultation of States parties will be convened towards the end of 2006 to discuss options for this reform.

It is my hope and firm commitment that with all those contributions, and in particular with your input and unique expertise, the reform engaged will reach its main goal, namely the protection of rights holders.

Present session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

During the present session, you will consider five reports submitted by States parties (Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Libya, Slovenia and Uzbekistan). Also on your agenda is the adoption of two draft General Comments on the “right of everyone to benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary and artistic production of which he or she is the author” (article 15, paragraph 1 (c), of the Covenant) and on the right to work (article 6 of the Covenant), respectively. These General Comments, once adopted, will undoubtedly become important tools for the interpretation and application of the Covenant at the national and international levels.

The Committee’s close cooperation with specialized agencies is reflected by the regular meetings of the UNESCO/CESCR Joint Expert Group, as well as the informal meetings of Committee members with members of the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations. Both meetings will be held during the Committee’s present session. I trust that the fourth meeting of the UNESCO/CESCR Joint Expert Group which will focus on the justiciability of the right to education (article 13 of the Covenant), and the third informal meeting of Committee members with ILO experts to consider a draft General Comment on the right to social security (article 9 of the Covenant) will contribute to further conceptualizing these important legal issues.

I would also like to inform you that the United Nations Mission in Kosovo committed itself to report to your Committee on the situation of economic, social and cultural rights in Kosovo by 30 June 2006. I wish to inform you that, recently, UNMIK committed itself also to submit a report to the Human Rights Committee, together with an Expanded Core Document. This is the only example of a United Nations agency or institution accepting to provide information on how the provisions of the Covenants are being guaranteed. UNMIK will do so in accordance with its mandate contained in Security Council resolution 1244.

Justiciability of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

With regard to the justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights, let me say a few words about recent events related to an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

At a high level expert seminar on the justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights organized by the French Government in Nantes in early September 2005, in which four Committee members participated, many participants agreed that all arguments in favour and against adopting an Optional Protocol have been exchanged and that the time was ripe for drafting an Optional Protocol, as controversial issues could be resolved during the drafting process.

I am pleased to welcome Catarina Albuquerque [from Portugal] among us today. As you all know, Ms. Albuquerque is the Chairperson of the Working Group established by the Commission on Human Rights to examine options for an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. She convened a meeting of human rights experts in September this year to identify the main elements of a draft Optional Protocol. I am confident that the meeting found answers to most of the procedural and substantive questions. I would also like to praise Ms. Albuquerque for her excellent stewardship of this process and am pleased at her openness and willingness to work with this Office and with the Committee.

Let me take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Alexandre Tikhonov, the Committee’s “institutional memory”, for whom this will be the last session as Secretary of the Committee, as he will retire after a long and committed service to the treaty bodies and, in particular, to your Committee. Alexandre Tikhonov has been the Committee’s Secretary since its first session in 1987. The High Commissioner was touched by the kind words and grateful for the recognition that you, Mme Chairperson, and all members of the Committee expressed with regard to him in the letter that you addressed to the High Commissioner on 13 May 2005.

In conclusion, I wish to assure you that in facing the challenges ahead in strengthening the protection of economic, social and cultural rights, my Branch will continue to be guided by your concluding observations and legal interpretations.

I wish you a fruitful and successful session.