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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights holds informal meeting with States

GENEVA (3 October 2017) - The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this morning held an informal meeting with States, exchanging views on the simplified reporting procedure, working methods, country task forces, drafting of concluding observations, elaboration of General Comments, and the lack of translation of the Committee’s work into all six official languages of the United Nations.

Virginia Bras Gomes, Committee Chairperson, updated States on the Committee’s work, saying it had been reviewing working methods consistently in order to adapt to changing circumstances. The list of issues had changed its nature and objectives, and the Committee would conduct a pilot programme with three countries (New Zealand, Spain and Bulgaria) under the list of issues prior to reporting. As for the Optional Protocol, it was slowly gaining momentum, but the rate of ratification was too low in some regions. The protection of economic, social and cultural rights only came full circle after the ratification of the Optional Protocol, Ms. Gomes emphasised.

Rodrigo Uprimny, Committee Member and Chair of the Working Group on Communications, said there were 22 registered communications made by the Committee. More had been received, but the Committee did not formally register communications that did not have the grounds for admissibility. Twelve had been declared inadmissible for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies. Two cases had been discontinued because the petitioner had asked for it. Three cases had been declared admissible on merit, while five cases were still pending. One of them would be decided on during the current session. Mr. Uprimny explained that despite the lack of an adequate number of cases, the Committee had been able to develop a very clear jurisprudence on procedural aspects of the Optional Protocol and substantive aspects of the Covenant, namely on the notion of ratione temporis, the exhaustion of domestic remedies, and the follow-up procedure.

Mikel Mancisidor, Committee Member, updated States on the work on a General Comment on the right to science on which the Committee had been working for two years in an informal way. It was looking into deepening the joint view, namely to make a General Comment that included all of the references to the right to science, scientific development and its application. The Committee wanted to establish States’ obligations to adopt measures to ensure the dissemination of scientific knowledge, and carrying out of scientific cooperation and research. The General Comment would include reference to respect for the indispensable freedom of scientific research, and international cooperation in that domain.

During the discussion, States expressed concern about the lack of translation of the Committee’s work in all six official languages of the United Nations, which harmed the dialogue between the Committee and delegations, and had a negative impact on the work of the Committee itself. They also voiced concern about the composition of the Committee’s country task forces because they sometimes lacked experts with adequate regional and language knowledge. Another concern was that sometimes the Committee went far beyond its mandate. For the sake of the effectiveness of the whole human rights monitoring system, such a duplication of work was not the right direction. The Committee would face lack of budgetary resources if it continued to take on more and more questions outside its mandate. Delegations also observed that the Committee seemed to value information provided by civil society more than information provided by States parties, whereas General Comments could impose new obligations on States.

Speaking were Russian Federation, Finland, Canada, Spain and Bangladesh.

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place on Friday, 6 October, in the afternoon during which it will close its sixty-second session.

Statements and Discussion

VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, thanked delegations for their presence, noting that it was important to update them on the Committee’s work. The meeting provided States with an opportunity to ask the Committee questions and share opinions. As for the reporting procedure, Ms. Bras Gomes noted that it was very important to hold meetings with States parties that were late in reporting. The Committee had compared the outcomes of training exercises with Bangladesh, the Central African Republic and Niger, which had yielded good results. There were two more States that wanted to join training exercises. The Committee planned to strengthen the relationship with States and to renew dialogue when interrupted. As for working methods, the Committee had been reviewing them consistently in order to adapt to changing circumstances. The list of issues had changed its nature and objectives, and the Committee would conduct pilot programmes with three countries (New Zealand, Spain and Bulgaria) under the list of issues prior to reporting. As for the Optional Protocol, it was slowly gaining momentum, but the rate of ratification was too low in some regions. The protection of economic, social and cultural rights only came full circle after the ratification of the Optional Protocol, Ms. Gomes emphasised.

RODRIGO UPRIMNY, Committee Member and Chair of the Working Group on Communications, said that there were 22 registered communications made by the Committee. More had been received, but the Committee did not formally register communications that did not have the grounds for admissibility. Twelve had been declared inadmissible for non-exhaustion of domestic remedies. Two cases had been discontinued because the petitioner had asked for it. Three cases had been declared admissible on merit, while five cases were still pending. One of them would be decided on during the current session. Mr. Uprimny explained that despite the lack of an adequate number of cases, the Committee had been able to develop a very clear jurisprudence on procedural aspects of the Optional Protocol and substantive aspects of the Covenant, namely on the notion of ratione temporis, the exhaustion of domestic remedies, and follow-up procedure. There had already been a robust procedure on the meaning of the Optional Protocol. For example, the Committee had established the duties of States to a non-contributory pension system. The Committee had shown that it could find a balance between firm protection of the rights and a very reasonable jurisprudence on the duties of States and procedural aspects of the Optional Protocol. Until now, the Committee had been able to pursue activities without additional costs for the system. But, due to budgetary restrictions, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had not been able to deal with more than five communications between sessions, Mr. Uprimny explained.

VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, stressed that if the budget kept being cut back, the Committee would be at risk of backlog in the reporting procedure, leading to delayed reporting and delayed dialogue, which was not good for the system. As for the follow-up procedure, the Committee had launched a follow-up to the concluding observations in 2016. The Committee would like to maintain an ongoing dialogue with States, which was important for rights holders.

MIKEL MANCISIDOR, Committee Member, updated on the work on a General Comment on the right to science. The Committee had been working on that General Comment for two years in an informal way. It was looking into deepening the joint view, namely to make a General Comment that included all of the references to the right to science, scientific development and its application. The Committee wanted to establish States’ obligations to adopt measures to ensure dissemination of scientific knowledge, and carrying out of scientific cooperation and research. Article 15 of the Covenant should be read together with relevant provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Taken together the reading would allow the discussion to move forward with the draft on the normative content of the right to science, including access to and benefits of science and scientific knowledge itself. The General Comment would include reference to respect for indispensable freedom of scientific research, and international cooperation in that domain. The Committee was looking both at natural and social science. Mr. Mancisidor invited States to take an active part in relevant debates.

Russian Federation regretted that the meeting was not translated into Russian, reminding that other committees had translation in all six official languages of the United Nations when they met with States. The lack of translation harmed the dialogue between the Committee and delegations, and it had a negative impact on the work of the Committee itself. The delegation asked how the task force on States parties was formed, noting that the Committee’s task force made on the Russian Federation did not have any experts on the region or Russian speakers. As such, the task force was biased. In addition, the questions that the Committee had raised during the dialogue had not been fine-tuned for the situation in the Russian Federation. The questions had repeated information provided to the Committee in the country’s report. The report of the Russian delegation had contained many annexes which had not been translated. What was the role of the task force within the process of drafting the concluding observations? Another point was that sometimes the Committee went far beyond its mandate. For the sake of the effectiveness of the whole human rights monitoring system, such a duplication of work was not the right direction. The Russian Federation did not question the legality of the Committee to raise questions outside its mandate, but rather the Committee’s effectiveness. The Committee would face lack of budgetary resources if it continued to take on more and more questions outside its mandate. The Russian Federation also noted that the information provided by States was not taken as seriously as the information provided by non-governmental organizations. Civil society organizations present at meetings in Geneva were international ones which could afford to come to Geneva and not grass-root organizations which could not appear in Geneva because of visa problems. Turning back to the question of the budget cut for translation, the Russian Federation asked how those issues were discussed in the Committee. Concluding observations were drafted only in English, which excluded experts who worked in other languages.

VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, regretted the lack of working languages available to the Committee. She voiced hope that the Russian Federation would succeed in restoring the use of and translation in all six working languages of the United Nations.

Finland appreciated the dialogue with the Committee and found its conclusions and observations very useful in strengthening Covenant rights nationally. It welcomed the Committee’s updated procedure on concluding observations. As for the simplified reporting procedure, it acknowledged that the Committee was implementing it on a pilot basis. It asked about the Committee’s plans to expand it.

Canada asked about how different committees worked together on issues that overlapped. What kind of formal and informal mechanisms were in place to cover important overlapping issues?

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Committee Member, noted that the overlap of questions with other committees was unavoidable. The Committee tried to read what other committees had said about certain situations and tried to be consistent. The Committee was required to avoid contradicting other committees. Those issues that were not per se covered by the Covenant were vital for States to fulfil the wide range of rights contained in the Covenant. Therefore, experts felt that it was entirely in line with their mandate to address wider phenomena that impacted the enjoyment of Covenant rights. It was important that the choices of States parties in various areas were guided by their obligations under the Covenant, such as health, housing and employment. Finally, the information provided by non-governmental organizations and States did not have the same status. Non-governmental organizations provided information on specific dates and events, while States provided information about the general setting in the country. The information provided by civil society organizations balanced the overall picture. Without their input there would be no balanced dialogue.

WALEED SADI, Committee Member, said that the language issue was well taken, but it was imposed on the Committee. That issue should be addressed at the General Assembly where it had originated. Treaty bodies sometimes talked about the same things because human rights were interrelated and indivisible. The overlapping of issues and duplication of work was a serious problem and a waste of time and money.

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Member, noted that the Russian Federation had touched upon an extremely important point, namely the repetitiveness of some of the processes taking place at the United Nations. There was a need for more and more specialisation within committees. However, as all human rights were interrelated and indivisible, links should be recognised as well. Mr. Kedzia thanked the delegations for their views which were very helpful for the Committee in finding an adequate response to that problem. It was inevitable to take a cross-cutting approach. The question of civil society could be observed from many points of view. But a general principle was that the Committee should use all the reliable information available. Delegations sometimes learned new information from non-governmental organizations. Nonetheless, the Committee was doing its best to verify all the submitted information. When experts were not certain about the quality of the submitted information, they asked delegations questions and did not jump to conclusions. Mr. Kedzia reminded that the Committee always drafted concluding observations with the spirit of cooperation in mind. It would be useful for the Committee to learn about the fact that some civil society organizations could not come to Geneva because of visa problems. As for the issue of language, Mr. Kedzia said that no expert was excluded from the discussion. That said, it was absolutely necessary for States to take up the issue of language in New York.

SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Committee Member and Follow-up Rapporteur, noted that the follow-up to concluding observations was a very important component of the dialogue between States and the Committee. She welcomed the contribution of States to make that procedure as dynamic and successful as possible.

MOHAMED EZZELDIN ABDEL-MONEIM, Committee Member, noted that the Committee needed to be open to and observant of the comments made by States parties. He reminded that most of the concerns had come from General Assembly resolution 68/68, the so-called silent procedure. It was the task of delegations to look at that resolution to see whether things were going in line with the Covenant and the resolution. States had the capacity to renegotiate everything. The system was in the hands of States.

MICHAEL WINDFUHR, Committee Member, explained that task forces met in advance, read key documents, and decided on lead questions. Task forces helped the preparation of concluding observations. When the Committee asked questions it was always with a focus on economic, social and cultural rights. In some countries, some issues were particularly important and were thus prioritised.

RODRIGO UPRIMNY, Committee Member and Chair of the Working Group on Communications, reminded that conventions were living documents that needed to be adapted to current circumstances. It was within the scope of the Committee to ask questions about current issues because they impacted the enjoyment of Covenant rights. As for the overlapping issues, he agreed with the voiced concerns. The Committee tried to avoid repetition with other treaty bodies. If the Committee sometimes repeated certain questions, it was because it wanted to emphasise certain issues. As for the information provided by non-governmental organizations, Mr. Uprimny stressed that the Committee wanted to offer States parties to make remarks about that information. There was no presumption that civil society was right and the State party was wrong.

IBRAHIM SALAMA, Chief of the Human Rights Treaties Branch at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, underlined that the knowledge about the treaties was in Geneva, but decision-making was taking place in New York. The translation issue was a collateral damage of a comprise. It was not a lasting solution, but it was a temporary solution to deal with the backlog in reporting. The current challenge was to stand up to implementation until 2020. Mr. Salama paid tribute to the work of experts. A solution could be found. It was up to all involved stakeholders to solve that issue.

VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, noted that it was not possible to give too much attention to discrimination because it was a cross-cutting issue. The full implementation of the Covenant would not be possible without addressing that problem. The Committee had to interpret its set of rights in an evolving manner and in the current understanding. The Committee had to be observant of the current context in its discussions. It had to have a balanced approach. The Committee did its best to discharge its primary mandate, which was to push for full implementation of the Covenant. Task forces had been established in response to the repeated concern from States that the Committee took more time to respond. Task forces were meant to discipline the Committee’s work and prepare better questions, in order to allow States more time to respond to all questions during the dialogue. Both States and the Committee were looking to strengthen the system and the protection of rights holders on the ground.

Spain supported what the Russian Federation had said about the language issue. That question was a priority and Spain would follow all the work to revise the current decision about the use of United Nations official languages. Turning to its upcoming review at the Committee, Spain noted that it was strange that its report had been returned due to formatting reasons. The current debate on the General Comment on the right to science was very important and interesting. Was the Committee planning to informally discuss the right to science with other committees?

Russian Federation referred to observations of some Experts that human rights treaties were living documents. Treaty bodies were elaborating General Comments and thus imposing more obligations on State parties than they had signed up for. General Comments brought on more obligations and perhaps from a legal point of view it would be better to adopt them during meetings with States parties. Currently, States did not have much say in those General Comments. Concluding observations should be adopted by States parties, not just by committees.

Bangladesh stated that the list of issues prior to reporting was the most accepted one by States. The review sessions had certain time limits and States were expected to answer questions in a limited time which required a lot of preparation by different ministries. The list of issues as it stood now was very important. Any change in working methods had to be consulted with States parties, particularly with States scheduled for review. Could the Committee clarify that issue?

VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, explained that the list of issues prior to reporting was only open to New Zealand, Spain and Bulgaria because they were at a certain stage of reporting with the Committee. Experts first had to assess it before opening that possibility to other States. Bangladesh was submitting an initial report which was overdue. There was no room for an additional list of issues. General comments were interpretation and guidance for States; they did not impose new obligations on States.

RODRIGO UPRIMNY, Committee Member and Chair of the Working Group on Communications, clarified that the interpretation of the Covenant as a living document did not impose new obligations on States. It meant taking into account the circumstances under which the Covenant was implemented. When the Covenant was adopted, no one spoke about climate change and persons with disabilities, for example. The interpretation of human rights treaties changed with the practice of States and citizens. It was not something that was imposed by the Committee. States had to implement rights in line with their available resources.

MIKEL MANCISIDOR, Committee Member, explained that the General Comment on the right to science had been discussed in informal discussions with different stakeholders, such as academia, civil society and the general public. Alongside those informal processes, the Committee had to coordinate with other human rights mechanisms within the United Nations system, such as those dealing with women, children, and persons with disabilities. No new obligations could be imposed on States.

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Member, noted that it was the usual practice of international courts to interpret legal documents. In that respect, the Committee was not exceptional. It did not use the language of imposition in General Comments.

MOHAMED EZZELDIN ABDEL-MONEIM, Committee Member, reminded that the drafting of General Comments involved consultations with stakeholders and the process was not closed. Whether the content of General Comments could go beyond the obligations under the Covenant was an important issue and open to debate.

ASLAN ABASHIDZE, Committee Member, said that General Comments used certain sources for clarification. It was not correct to use sources that were not obligatory for States to underpin General Comments. The Committee should be very careful when using “soft law” as opposed to “hard law” in order to foster real dialogue with States.

VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, reminded that the objective of the Committee was to foster dialogue with States. Both States and the Committee had to be true to their different roles. She thanked to delegations for their comments.

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