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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concludes consideration of report of Portugal

12 November 2014

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today concluded its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Portugal on how that country implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Pedro Nuno Bartolo, Permanent Representative of Portugal to the United Nations Office at Geneva, presenting the report, said Portugal was a country strongly committed to ensuring the highest levels of the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, cultural economic, political and social. The country had faced a difficult economic and financial crisis, having been the subject of a severe international adjustment programme. It recognised the impact of the austerity measures on the realization of human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights. However, it reaffirmed the efforts made during this period so that no one, particularly the most vulnerable, was deprived from enjoying their human rights.

During the interactive dialogue, Committee Experts raised and enquired about issues relating to, among others, the effectiveness of measures to mitigate the effects of the financial and economic crisis; unemployment, especially youth unemployment; public administration and immigrant communities; the minimum wage; pension inequalities; reconciliation of professional and personal life arrangements; corporal punishment; domestic violence; and family planning.

Jose Manuel Santos Pais, Deputy Attorney General of Portugal, in concluding remarks, said that the main concern had been to submit all the relevant information available and unveil the real situation in the country. The adjustment programme had ended but the budgetary and financial constraints would be felt for years to come. It was hoped that at the next submission and presentation of the report, there still would be the same commitment to human rights as there was at present.

Also in concluding remarks, Mr. Nuno Bartolo said that it was up to the Committee to decide whether the dialogue had been sufficiently productive. It was reminded that Portugal would continue to be submitted to external surveillance, which was difficult. Severe austerity possibilities were indeed susceptible of impacting on economic, social and cultural rights. Portugal would be eager to hear the comments of the Committee and to translate them into action, to build a decent country where human dignity was preserved in all circumstances.

Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for the report of Portugal, in concluding remarks, said that the exemplary constructive attitude to the dialogue offered to the Committee by the delegation of Portugal was very much appreciated. Immense progress had been achieved in many areas, including in the area of economic, social and cultural rights, since the last report to this Committee. A lot of challenges remained and this was clear. Mr. Kedzia expressed the wish that Portugal make a speedy recovery in this regard.

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee, in concluding remarks, thanked the Portuguese delegation for the full and precise replies provided, which was reflected in relatively few follow-up questions.

The delegation of Portugal included the Deputy Attorney General, representatives of the National Commission for Protection of Children and Youth at Risk, Ministry of Justice, Interior Ministry, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and Science, Ministry of Solidarity, Employment and Social Security, the Secretariat of State Culture, the High Commissioner for Migrations, the Commission of Citizenship and Gender Equality, as well as representatives from the Permanent Mission of Portugal to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will resume its meeting this afternoon, at 3 p.m., to begin its consideration of the sixth periodic report of Finland (E/C.12/FIN/6).

The Report

The Committee is considering the fourth periodic report of Portugal (E/C.12/PRT/4).

Presentation of the Report

PEDRO NUNO BARTOLO, Permanent Representative of Portugal to the United Nations Office at Geneva, presenting the report, said Portugal was a country strongly committed to ensuring the highest levels of the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, cultural economic, political and social. Portugal regretted the delay in the presentation of this report. This was due to the existence until very recently of coordination problems between the departments of public administration responsible for the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These had been overcome with the creation of the National Commission for Human Rights in April 2010.

The country had faced a difficult economic and financial crisis, having been the subject of a severe international adjustment programme. It recognised the impact of the austerity measures on the realization of human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights. However, it reaffirmed the efforts made during this period so that no one, particularly the most vulnerable, was deprived from enjoying their human rights. Fighting unemployment and in particular youth unemployment was a priority. Mitigating the social impact of austerity measures also included social policies aimed at reducing child poverty and breaking the poverty cycle. Portugal had reinforced funding for policies aimed at promoting gender equality and preventing violence against women. Remarkable progress had been achieved regarding the infant mortality rate.

Particular importance was given to the promotion of all human rights of migrants and to the policies directed at their welcoming and integration. Integration was a motor for development and social cohesions and the one-stop shop model, internationally recognized as good practice, was underlined. Migrant children also enjoyed these rights, regardless of the regularity of their presence in Portugal. Particular attention had also been paid to integrating member of Roma communities.

In the current context of the economic and financial crisis, and taking into account the particular vulnerability of some groups, such as children, minorities and the elderly, the high level of social protection in health was kept unchanged through the National Health Plan 2020. The new National Programme for Child and Juvenile Health entered into force in June 2013. Portugal had embraced the suggestion of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of elaborating national indicators for human rights, including indicators on the right to health.

Portugal reiterated its unequivocal commitment to the preservation of human dignity, the promotion and protection of all human rights and the relentless defence of their universality, interdependence and interrelatedness. Actions would always speak louder than words and it did not presume to hide the fact that challenges remained in some sectors. There was conviction that this dialogue would be the source of valuable lessons for Portugal.

Questions by Experts

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Portugal, said that the Committee had received a lot of interesting information. What was the involvement of non-governmental organizations and wider civil society in the preparation of the report? Portugal had seriously suffered under the economic and financial crisis. Replies informed about the variety of measures to mitigate the effects of the crisis on persons. It seemed that many may qualify as comparative good practices. It would be interesting to learn more about results achieved and how these measures had improved the situation of certain groups, and whether this could be sustainable. It was still unclear whether the provisions of the Covenant could be fully applied by the courts. Why had Portugal not ratified Protocol 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights? How had migrants benefitted from the one-stop shop approach?

An Expert said that no information was presented on cases where there had been invocation of the Covenant before the courts, which would have been interesting to hear about. The European Court provided for social welfare to non-nationals living in the European Union. Was Portugal in a position to do this, enquired an Expert? General comments spelled out the views of the Committee on provisions of the Covenant and there had been no signal by Portugal that any of these had been considered by the country, an Expert noted.

An Expert asked whether the effect of the financial crisis was limiting non-governmental organizations’ capacity to provide alternative information and participate in this Committee. Also, had there been a gender impact assessment of the effectiveness of programmes? It was striking that the austerity measures taken were quite severe, said an Expert. Was it necessary to administer such severe medicine or could something milder have been applied?

Portugal, despite the crisis, was still a highly developed country, meaning that as a United Nations and European Union Member State, it had to provide Official Development Assistance. What was the current volume of Official Development Assistance of Portugal, asked an Expert? To what extent was this employed for the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights?

In Portugal, the number of homeless individuals was not known, pointed out an Expert. It was understood that more and more efforts were being made to identify this specific number.

On the integration of the Roma, many countries spoke of this, but it was not clear, including in the case of Portugal, the extent of success in this respect.

The level of youth unemployment was particularly alarming. Despite plans to reduce it, it remained at very high levels. What were the particular reasons for this? There were still many people living below the poverty line, said an Expert. Could there be an update on the exact figure and how the poverty line was defined? The European Commission had recently proposed a youth jobs guarantee programme for Portugal. Whether this was taken up and adopted by Portugal was of interest. On reconciling professional life with personal life, had Portugal taken measures to safeguarding this, asked another Expert? An Expert asked whether the minimum wage was still frozen at the level of 2011, or whether it had recently changed.

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Portugal, said there was a considerable percentage of self-employed persons, at a level of 17.1 per cent of total employment in Portugal. Around 20 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product was produced by undeclared work. How had the system of inspection been resolved in this regard? What problems were identified and what measures were taken to address these issues? The country was in the process of mitigating the impact of the crisis. Working conditions were increasingly dependent on the negotiation between management and individual workers, which was not beneficial to the latter. Could there be more comments on this?

Response by the Delegation

In response to these questions and comments and others, the delegation of Portugal stressed that the financial assistance programme ended in June this year but surveillance and accompaniment measures would continue until 2022. The Portuguese Government was still, in a way, under siege. In domestic courts, any persons residing in Portugal, whether citizens, foreigners or stateless persons could invoke the Covenant before the courts. General comments of the Committee were an important part of the definition of public policies in Portugal.

The accumulation of high external and budget deficits had led to excessive levels of external public and private debt. The international financial crisis and sub-prime crisis had had a real knock-on effect. In 2011, the request for international assistance had been unavoidable, yet despite the budget restrictions, social benefits had increased.

On the participation of non-governmental organizations in the drafting of the report, since 2010, all reports had been submitted with extensive consultation with civil society. They were able to send in comments and were also encouraged to come to Geneva. The fact that they were not present here today was a sign that it was expensive. Civil society was extremely active in Portugal, particularly on the rights of elderly persons, for example. It could be said that there was a vibrant civil society.

All would like to think that austerity measures were transitional. What Portugal had tried to reflect was the fact that although austerity measures had to be applied, it tried as much as possible to ensure that they were not felt by the most vulnerable population as well as the rest of the population in the country. The Social Emergency Programme’s objective was to mitigate the effects of the crisis, focusing on the most vulnerable groups. It identified these and focused on social solidarity and welfare institutions, ensuring that they worked effectively. A number of measures linked with this programme had been taken, such as soup kitchens, centres for advice, and greater possibility of assistance for children under the age of 13. Some were temporary and others would be more permanent. There had not yet been any overall impact assessment but it was known that there had been success in certain specific measures. Because of the crisis it was difficult to have a whole picture of the situation, but Portugal had tried to provide as much information as it could. However, the constitutional court had opposed legislation proposed by government, as austerity measures were thought to be going too far.

Concerning education indicators, a lot of work had already been done. On how these were used in terms of the implementation of the Covenant and how they could have an impact on developing educational policies, it was thought that a table of these had been circulated and if not, it would be done tomorrow. A table with disaggregated data by age would also be circulated. With regards to health indicators, recently, there had been indicators that were partially completed. A table of these indicators would also be made available tomorrow. Indicators on violence against women had also recently been completed.

Regarding the protection of foreigners residing in Portugal, since international law was part of national law once ratified, any person residing in Portugal could invoke national law or international instruments for their protection.

On anti-discriminatory rules, the Constitution was clear that there could be no form of discrimination on any ground. This was clarified in a number of different laws, including the Labour Code. With regards to the one-stop-shop approach, it was developed in 2004, as an answer for the pressure of immigration which Portugal had back them, and challenges in receiving persons that did not speak Portuguese. There was a building with seven branches of seven ministries, interlinking in a common database. Furthermore, there were partnerships with civil society organizations, mainly immigrant associations, that had a fundamental role in outreach.

There were consequences on how the crisis had impacted men and women. A possible increase in differences between men had been seen. It was important to remember that since 2005 in Portugal, there was a principle in law whereby legislative measures approved by the Government or Parliament had to have a gender impact.

On Official Development Assistance, and whether the 0.7 per cent objective was honoured, yes, Portugal had accepted it. This commitment was reiterated during the Universal Periodic Review. The objective had not been reached and it was thought that it was presently at 0.31 per cent of gross national income. It was true that there were severe limitations but Portugal had developed a strategic concept of this assistance, which was largely untied and focused on economic, social and cultural rights priorities.

Turning to homeless persons, the national strategy for the integration of the homeless was pointed out. It was still being implemented. The number of homeless persons identified, according to the 2011 census, was 696 individuals. It was worth pointing out that in 2014, the social security institute that coordinated the strategy had implemented a questionnaire with the planning and intervention units for the homeless, with the aim of quantifying the number of homeless individuals.

References to the Covenant were limited but there were some examples. The first was in 1991 invoking Article 8 with regards to the right to strike. The second was in 1995, on equal pay for equal work. The judicial training centre contained information regarding international law, specifically law on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

In 2007 a support office for Roma communities was set up, which made diagnosis and was involved in mediation processes. The report highlighted that a national strategy had been launched. Portugal was starting the monitoring process.

Questions by Experts

An Expert said there had been a ruling by the Supreme Court, dating from 2006, which tolerated moderate punishment inflicted on children. Had jurisprudence changed since then? Another Expert asked what had been done with regards to domestic violence. The rate of abortion was quite high. Had there been efforts to avoid abortion, including age-appropriate information on contraception, also for boys and men?

On the National Action Plan for Inclusion, was there up-to-date data relating to its impact? Had Portugal carried out an assessment of austerity measures and their impact on poverty, another Expert asked? What were the policies put in place for disadvantaged and marginalized groups and how effective had they been? Why were the Roma not provided with adequate social housing units? Had there been an increase in the number of forced evictions and homeless persons as a result of the measures adopted?

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Portugal, asked whether problems regarding mortgage loans were under control at the moment? Did people fear that they would lose their property? On the impact of the crisis on the right to health, could more be said about the availability of preventing screening programmes at the moment? On steps to ensure that undocumented migrants had access to healthcare, had services been affected by austerity measures or had they been maintained?

An Expert said that the large percentage of young people that neither studied nor worked was of concern. This could be worked on through employment as well as educational policies. Were there any such programmes?

To establish multi-cultural mediating in the one-stop-shop approach, had the fact that these mediators had to be persons that thoroughly understood the cultural characteristics of different immigrant communities been considered?

Response by the Delegation

The delegation said it was true that the unemployment rate had risen substantially as a result of the crisis. Since the first quarter of 2014 there had been some recovery and the rate was continuing to fall. The Government could not create jobs but set the conditions for it, stimulating and encouraging opportunities for employment in the market. There were training programmes and 70 per cent of those that had benefitted from them, within six months of the end of the programme, had found jobs.

Relating to part time employment, this had increased in recent years and represented 13 per cent of employment; 39 per cent of part time work was involuntary. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that the increase was a justification for an increase in unemployment. Looking at the most recent quarterly figures of 2014, the number of persons in work had increased by 3 per cent and involuntary part time employment had decreased. The issue of self-employed workers and fraudulent service providers were a of concern for Portugal, which was trying to combat the situation and turning to the International Labour Organization. A lot of inspections had been made but now there were efforts on increasing the depth of these inspections.


On whether the minimum wage was frozen or not and whether the Government was aiming to improve it, the minimum guaranteed monthly wage was increased this year to 505 Euros per month. The previous increase in the minimum wage was in 2012, set at 485 Euros which was frozen in 2012 and 2013 as a result of the adjustment programme. The programme had come to a close and soon after there had been an agreement which led to an increase in the minimum wage with immediate effect. The Social Support Index had been frozen since 2009 and no change in the situation was foreseen.

Concerning reconciliation of professional and personal life arrangements, there were mechanisms in the labour code for protecting parents in both the public and private sectors. Leave and absence could be used by workers notably for paternity and maternity reasons. Flexible working time was a right for workers with dependent members of the family, namely children under the age of 12. This could not be refused by the employer. Any obstacles to the use of that right had to show that there was an immediate need that would allow for the workers not to be allowed this right.

Corporal punishment was a crime in Portugal and the system aimed to prevent such situations by taking specific protection measures for the child, if necessary. A gradual reduction in the number of cases alerted to the authorities had been seen. Since 2008 there had been efforts to promote a culture of prevention of violence against children, including through a human rights-based approach, which was progressively taking root. On whether men and boys were also the object of awareness-raising on preventing domestic violence, efforts had indeed been made involving all sectors of Portuguese society. There was also work and support with regards to the perpetrators of domestic violence. The health sector had made great efforts in the area as well, notably through an activity based on promoting health and combating gender-based violence. Law and order forces had specific responsibilities with regards to perpetrators, including on following up perpetrators through electronic tagging, and rehabilitation of offenders which had been successful in preventing re-incidents.

The right to family planning was guaranteed to all by the Constitution and a law of 1994, determining that contraception means were provided free of charge at public centres and hospitals. Family planning consultations and related acts, as well as termination of pregnancies within ten weeks if requested and if done so in a recognized centre, were free of change. Sexual education was compulsory at all levels of education. Immigrants were exempt from a whole raft of fees for health services, even if they were in an irregular situation. Asylum seekers and refuges also had access to healthcare.

Concerning Roma and access to housing, it was important to take into consideration that the communities had the same rights as any other resident in Portugal, so housing was included. Whenever there were cases signalled related to poverty or situation of difficulties in access to or paying bills, since 2011 there was a special fee for the supply of electricity and gas, dependent on proof of income.

Regarding forced evictions, there had been cases of this during the crisis as many households were unable to ensure their payments, mostly to banks. Mortgage loans were indeed under control. There were possibilities to negotiate with banks to have the possibility to keep houses, allowing a bit more relief for families under stress.

Follow-up Questions

Regarding domestic violence and electronic tagging, an Expert asked whether more could be said about how this worked. How was data collected on homicide due to domestic violence? Every country and nation had its own root causes for domestic violence, said another Expert. In the case of Portugal, what were the root causes as to why it was still prevalent?

Response by the Delegation

Portugal’s philosophy was to work at a grass roots level and try to involve citizens in solving problems of crime, in particular, domestic violence. On electronic tagging and monitoring of perpetrators, this project was still at an experimental phase, undertaken in certain regions of the country. There was monitoring but there were no results thus far. Monitoring would allow to see if electronic tagging of perpetrators had made a significant contribution to avoiding re-victimisation and murder. If there had been significant impact, then this measure could be extended to other regions of the country. There were statistics on the typical victim of domestic violence in Portugal: 85 per cent of victims were women and 49 per cent of those victims were married or living with a partner, with the average age of the victim being 41 years. Although several campaigns were launched on the matter, the figures still remained quite high. Root causes were thought to include drinking, poverty, and stereotypes, among others.

Portugal had invested heavily on education over recent years, in particular trying to improve the quality of education and to ensure the full right to education for all. Since 2008, public investment in education had fallen as a result of the economic and financial crisis and, in particular, since 2011 with the economic and financial adjustment programme. The sector had been restructured and improvements had been made. With regards to cuts in wages of teachers, the proportion of expenditure was around 80 per cent of the overall investment. Regarding people that neither worked nor studied, a great deal had been done, with a focus on prevention, and inclusive, quality education. Over the years, the system had been trying to combat school drop-out rates.

Science had also suffered the consequences of financial tightening and there had been a fall in that investment from 2009 onwards. With regards to freedom of research, in 1999 new regulations were published applying to all research institutes, providing guarantees for that freedom. Over many years, Portugal had had a policy based on international cooperation in the scientific sector, between scientific institutions. On indicators on science, this had only recently come up in the Ministry. It would be brought up, so that indicators could be developed.

Inter-cultural mediation programmes had been invested in since 2002, with a main objective of making a close link between public administration and immigrant communities. At the moment there were 110 inter cultural mediators providing services. Mediators had also been working with Border Control Police since 2006. Thirteen different languages were made available, which were the main languages of immigrant communities. A Roma community programme had also been developed, targeting mainly public services at the local level. Mediators included Roma persons themselves.

Relating to access to the internet, there had been efforts to help all those who were underprivileged. In the 1990s, the first steps were taken to extend the use of the internet at the municipal level. There were now over 1,100 work stations that could be found in municipal libraries and other public amenities, meaning that there had been a visible increase in access to knowledge in the country. Institutions had been alerted to the potential of new technologies. It was believed that this area was absolutely decisive for making the right to education effective in Portugal.

Follow-up Questions

Was it thought that the Portuguese education system was clearly better now and managed to face up to all its problems, such as children with disabilities, children of migrants, improvement of literacy rates, and lowering of school drop–out rates, among others, asked an Expert? Was Portugal facing fewer or more problems than other European Union Member States? Another Expert asked to what extent had there been success in integrating the Roma into mainstream education in the country.

An Expert asked whether human rights were also included in training curricula for judges dealing with intellectual property cases.

Response by the Delegation

The question on whether the education and training system in the country at the moment provided appropriate answers and quality education to all including the underprivileged groups was very relevant. Yes, an answer was provided to the whole range of children attending school. The first commitment by the State was to provide an inclusive school that could respond to all situations. There was a very diverse range of possibilities for education and training. The system did provide a high quality answer which met the needs of young people today. On how Portugal compared to other European Union Member States, the education system had been debated for many years. Looking at most recent Pisa results, published in 2012, there had been a conflict between Member States in basic skills. In certain countries, the conclusion could be drawn that persons in higher age brackets that had only completed secondary education had better results in basic skills than those that were younger and had attended university. A main concern had been that the system focus on the basics. It had to be ensured that people had the necessary basic skills for their whole life. Portugal had focused on reading, writing and arithmetic, while other members said that transversal skills had to be boosted. It had been proven, through the 2012 Pisa results, that Portugal had been right.

Regarding the new training courses for judges on intellectual property, there was no specific course on human rights. This was because training to become a judge had a great incidence on human rights and the training itself had to be done beforehand. Afterwards, skills had to be essentially on intellectual property.

Concluding Remarks

CHANDRASHEKHAR DASGUPTA, Vice-Chairperson, in concluding remarks, thanked the Portuguese delegation for the full and precise replies provided, which was reflected in relatively few follow-up questions.

JOSE MANUEL SANTOS PAIS, Deputy Attorney General, in concluding remarks, said that the main concern had been to submit all the relevant information available and unveil the real situation in the country. The adjustment programme had ended but the budgetary and financial constraints would be felt for years to come. There would still however be a possibility to show how a country was shaped. It was hoped that at the next submission and presentation of the report, there still would be the same commitment to human rights as there was at present.

PEDRO NUNO BARTOLO, Permanent Representative of Portugal to the United Nations Office at Geneva, in concluding remarks, said that it was up to the Committee to decide whether the dialogue had been sufficiently productive. It was reminded that Portugal would continue to be submitted to external surveillance, which was difficult. In future, perhaps certain European Union institutions would be asked to respond to questions of this Committee and other human rights treaty bodies. Severe austerity possibilities were indeed susceptible of impacting on economic, social and cultural rights. There was full awareness that work made sense if it was result-oriented. Portugal would be eager to hear the comments of the Committee and to translate them into action, to build a decent country where human dignity was preserved in all circumstances.

ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for the Report of Portugal, in concluding remarks said that the exemplary constructive attitude to the dialogue offered to the Committee by the delegation of Portugal was very much appreciated. Immense progress had been achieved in many areas, including in the area of economic, social and cultural rights, since the last report to this Committee. A lot of challenges remained and this was clear. Quantitative and qualitative policies had been noted, which had played a critical role under the context of the current crisis and austerity measures. The Committee was reassured that it was the understanding of the Government that such measures should be temporary, but indeed the crisis was ongoing and austerity measures could not yet be waived. Mr. Kedzia expressed the wish that Portugal make a speedy recovery in this regard. On a more positive note in terms of perspectives, it was emphasized that projects of general importance to economic, social and cultural rights had not stopped. It would be helpful to receive some feedback on experience by Portugal before the next review.

CHANDRASHEKHAR DASGUPTA, Vice-Chairperson, said that dialogue had been constructive and enjoyable and wished the members of the delegation a safe trip back.

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