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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers report of Greece

Committee on Economic, Social
  and Cultural Rights 

6 October 2015

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today concluded its consideration of the second periodic report of Greece on its implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Presenting the report, Ourania Antonopoulou, Alternate Minister of Labour of Greece, stated that the response to the economic crisis had not been purely national but included international actors.  The Greek Gross Domestic Product had lost one quarter of its value, which was almost unprecedented in peace times.  The unemployment currently stood at roughly 26 per cent, while the poverty rate had increased.   During the period of the adjustment, the Government spending had been reduced, necessarily affecting the enjoyment of a number of rights, which was a reality now.  The legislation had to pay attention to the basic principle of decent living conditions.  The focus could not be only on the cutting of public wages; the standard of living also had to be considered.  There were many lessons to be learned from the experience of Greece and other countries.  It had to be accepted that the global economic system in recent decades had created a type of a pyramid where on the top one found financial institutions, frequently given a privileged status. 

In the interactive dialogue which followed, Committee Experts expressed their understanding for the very difficult situation of Greece, which was facing an economic crisis and severe austerity measures.  They asked numerous questions on how the budgetary cuts affected the needs of the population, particularly those most vulnerable groups, and wanted to know if a human-rights based analysis of the austerity measures had been conducted.  Questions were asked about the underrepresentation of women in the Parliament and their absence from the cabinet.  Experts also wanted to learn more about the way Greece was coping with the unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants and their treatment, as well as the conditions of the Roma and the non-recognition of various minority groups within the country.  Policies to fight unemployment, especially youth and women unemployment, were discussed.

In his closing remarks, George Katrougalos, Minister of Labour, Social Security and Social Solidarity, stated that globalization and especially the new prevailing orthodoxy in economic issues, which gave priority to development and growth without regard to the social dimension, had increased inequalities in recent years.  The Government could not achieve a social Greece in a Europe which had opted for a different path.

Waleed Sadi, Committee Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Greece, stated that the Committee understood the difficulties faced by Greece in trying to preserve a social model while meeting the demands of its creditors. 

The delegation of Greece included representatives of the Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Social Solidarity, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Education, Ministry for Citizens’ Protection, Ministry of Health, Secretariat-General for Public Health, and the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place on Friday, 9 October at 3 p.m., when the Committee will close its fifty-sixth session.

The second periodic report of Greece (E/C.12/GRC/2) can be found here.
Presentation of the Report
OURANIA ANTONOPOULOU, Alternate Minister of Labour of Greece, said that the drafting of the report had been coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and included all relevant Ministries and civil sector representatives.  Since 2008, with the onset of the global economic turmoil, Greece had entered a crisis which had intensified in 2010.  Financial mechanisms had been established with several international financial institutions.  The response to the crisis had thus not been purely national but included international actors.  The Greek Gross Domestic Product had lost one quarter of its value, which was almost unprecedented in peace times.  Unemployment currently stood at roughly 26 per cent, while the poverty rate had increased.   The budget of the Government had had to shrink very rapidly.  During the period of the adjustment, Government spending had been reduced, necessarily affecting the enjoyment of a number of rights, which was a reality now.

A variety of United Nations treaty bodies had provided documents which supported the implementation of countervailing measures in Greece.  In 2015, United Nations Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky had stressed the need for finding better solutions and doing some rebalancing.  The Council of State had established principles which ought to be respected when implementing austerity measures.  Legislation had to pay attention to the basic principle of decent living conditions.  The focus could not be only on the cutting of public wages; the standard of living also had to be considered.

Although the challenges faced by Greece were Greek by their designation, they would be best understood in a wider context.  There were many lessons which could be learned from the experience of Greece and other countries.  It had to be accepted that the global economic system in recent decades had created a type of a pyramid where on the top one found financial institutions, frequently given a privileged status.  The people-centred and the rights-centred approach had not received due consideration.  In the September election, Greek people had reaffirmed that they wanted to stay fully in the European Union.  Knowing the implications of that commitment, the Greek Government had three distinct obligations: ensuring that Greece remained a member of the European Union and the Eurozone; remaining steadfast in its commitment to the social Europe, with a people-centred society and economy; and working even harder to promote the well-being of the Greek people and allow them access to redistributing measures, so that the burden could be distributed across the entire population in a fair and just manner.

Questions by Experts
WALEED SADI, Committee Chairperson and the Country Rapporteur for Greece, said that the presentation of the report had been done in an honest way, which was admirable.  The Committee was not considering only the periodic report of Greece, but other countries which were in a similar situation were also at stake.

What was the status of the Covenant in Greece? Had Greece relied on the Covenant during the negotiations with the creditors of the Troika, the Expert asked.  The Greek Government could have stressed in the talks that there were obligations under the Covenant which ought to be honoured. 

Greece had gone through three crises: recession, debt and austerity.  To what extent could Greece be held responsible for the first stage of the crisis?  Could the debt have been milder and austerity perhaps negotiated on better grounds?

The Expert asked for the State party’s understanding of the grounds of discrimination.  Greece did not recognize all the minorities in the country, including the “Macedonians”. Why was that the case?

The delegation was asked to elaborate about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece.  Did legally residing migrants in Greece enjoy the same rights as Greek nationals?

The Expert said that the Roma were a chronic issue across Europe.  There was a national plan in place, but Greece and its Roma still had a long way to go.

Why were there hardly any women in the Government? Why did they not figure more prominently at the decision-making level; this was unfortunate, the Expert said.

Another Expert asked whether there had been an assessment of the impact of the financial crisis on human rights.

The issue of tax avoidance was raised and more clarification sought from the delegation.

Were steps being taken to ensure that the minimum of rights contained in the Covenant were not endangered by the tough budgetary measures?

How did the Memorandum of Understanding of August 2015 relate to the right to work?

There was no data on how different ethnic groups in the country enjoyed their rights.  What was the obstacle to collecting such information in Greece?

What was the delegation’s assessment of the role of international cooperation in the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights in Greece since 2010?

An Expert asked about the impact of the crisis on the situation of women in Greece.  Was the principle of equal pay for equal work applied? 

How was the quota of one-third of women candidates for the Parliament applied in practice?  The quota seemed not to apply to appointed positions, such as Ministers.

The Greek Government had a duty to ensure that financial measures were in line with its obligations under the Covenant, said another Expert.  The measures should not be discriminatory, either directly or indirectly.  Those affected by the measures ought to be consulted.  What was the Government doing to protect the most vulnerable persons?

If the Government did not collect data on various ethnic communities, how could it tell if and how its policies affected different groups?

Another Expert wanted to learn more about the national response to the human rights based approach to the crisis.  What were the lessons learned in the austerity process?

She asked about the “sufficient funding” for the Roma policies, which the State party referred to in its report.

The delegation was asked to elaborate on the link between liberties and social rights.

An Expert said that the Committee was hoping to learn from the Greek experience about what could be done under such difficult circumstances. 

Had the Greek Government offered to international institutions to partner on developing a study on the impact of the measures on human rights, he asked.

On the issue of minorities, the Expert inquired whether there existed any law establishing a procedure for the recognition of minorities.

The issue of pensions was raised by an Expert, who asked how it was being ensured that the most vulnerable groups in the society had their rights preserved.  More details were sought about the Government’s intentions in that regard.

In 2007, Greece had had a labour force of over five million.  What was the current size of the labour force and the gender ratio?  Could the employment statistics be provided?

What was the delegation’s assessment on the implementation of the youth policy?

The delegation was asked to provide more information about the “rotating” employment and the social packages it involved.  What was the current level of the minimum wage?  How about the minimum guaranteed income?

What was being done with regard to collective bargaining?

What was the policy of Greece on those illegally earning their living in Greece?

An Expert asked about the powers of the Labour Inspectorate Office.

A question was asked about the impact of the crisis on trade unions.  How about the arbitration system?

With regard to the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, an Expert wanted to know whether that had any effect on Greece’s talks with the creditors.

Replies by the Delegation
On the legal status of the Covenant, the delegation explained that its provisions prevailed over any contrary laws.  All courts had the power and the duty not to apply any legislative decision contrary to the Covenant.  The provisions of the Covenant were justiciable and could be used as norms of reference for the application of economic, social and cultural rights.  The Covenant, until now, had not been frequently invoked in courts, because the legal community was much more familiar with the Constitution.  The National Human Rights Institution referred to it on a regular basis. The Covenant’s visibility ought to be additionally increased.

Turning to the issue of minorities, the delegation said that one group – Muslims – was qualified as a minority, in line with the Treaty of Lausanne.  The minority was formed of Turkish, Pomak and Roma peoples, who were all of Muslim faith.  All people living in Greece were allowed to speak their language and observe their customs and traditions.  Any group’s claim to a minority status ought to be based on objective criteria.  The Government believed that members of groups not officially recognized as minorities still enjoyed full rights under the Covenant and could express themselves as they wished.  

Greece firmly believed that the so-called “Macedonian” minority did not correspond to the reality.  There was a small group in northern Greece who spoke a Slavic dialect, in addition to Greek.  A political group representing them had obtained a mere 0.1 percent of votes in a recent election.  The use of the term “Macedonian” was counterfactual and clearly infringed upon the rights of more than 2.5. million Greek Macedonians.  Yet, the said group could freely express itself and participate in the cultural life of the region.

Roma were not recognized as a minority, as they themselves had asked not to be recognized as such.

There was very comprehensive statistical data on migrants in Greece.  The main factor of diversity in Greece came from the presence of migrants.  The existing tools allowed the authorities to capture the situation of both minorities and migrants.

A delegate stated that the report had been drafted in a lengthy process run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with a number of other stakeholders.  Inputs had been provided by the National Human Rights Institution and non-governmental organizations.

The National Human Rights Institution had been very active since 2010, promoting the interrelatedness of all human rights.

Regarding questions on women, it was explained that Greece was aware of the situation and was trying to reverse the current situation of women’s underrepresentation.  The new national action plan, which was being currently prepared, included steps in that regard.  The composition of the cabinet was subject to the Prime Minister’s decision and not subject to the quota system.  There were currently 70 women members of the Parliament, out of the total of 300.  A project aimed at getting women elected at the national and European levels was underway.  Some European Union programmes were promoting the involvement of women in decision-making in the business sector.

The wage gap between men and women had been 15 per cent in 2010, and was unlikely to be less than that today.  The principle of equal remuneration for the work of equal value was stipulated in the legislation.  Unemployed women, or those threatened by unemployment, as a vulnerable group, benefitted from a State-run programme. 

The principle of non-discrimination was constitutionally enshrined in Greece and was thus applied horizontally.  Any type of direct or indirect indiscrimination was prohibited.  Cases of discrimination on any ground could be brought before the courts. 

The delegation explained that the right to collective bargaining had undergone several modifications.  Sectorial agreements had proved to be the most appropriate means of homogenizing working standards.  The duration of collective agreements could not be less than one or more than three years.  The Government, assisted by labour experts, would review the existing labour frameworks in the coming period. 

A budget was in place for the needs of the Roma people, the delegation said. 

Since 2014, there had been a significant increase of migrants entering Greece.  In 2014, at least 77,000 persons had entered Greece.  During the first nine months of 2015, the arrivals had increased dramatically, and amounted to more than 300,000.  They were mostly Syrians, Afghans, Somalis and Eritreans.  The situation had characteristics of a serious crisis.  There had been more than 50,000 search and rescue operations at sea.  Discussions were ongoing with European and international bodies to support Greece in dealing with the migration crisis. 

All persons residing in Greece enjoyed, regardless of their residence permit, the right to education, access to health care for emergency situations and childbirth.  They also had access to social care structures operated by local authorities.  Third-country nationals with access to employment enjoyed the same treatment as Greek citizens.  Both asylum seekers and refugees enjoyed access to free health care, the right to work, social security and education.  In addition, refugees enjoyed the right to housing and family reunification. 

Questions by Experts
An Expert asked whether the new Government was planning to develop programmes on fighting poverty in a cross-cutting manner.

The issue of women with disabilities was raised – an Expert wanted to know whether shelters around the country were accessible to them.
How had the austerity measures affected the right to health?

How was the State party planning to take measures to cushion the harsh effects of the austerity measures?  It would be especially interested to hear about steps taken to protect the most vulnerable groups.

Why did the State not use European social and regional funds to alleviate the condition of Roma who lived in secluded and segregated ghettoes?  Cases of forced evictions were also raised and clarifications sought.

Another Expert asked about the significant rise in HIV infections.  There seemed to have been a drop in the number of syringes and condoms distributed to intravenous drug users.  Malaria was reported to have reappeared in Greece for the first time in 40 years.  What was the administration planning to do to move away from those worrying trends?  Was the measure of forced testing of certain groups still enforced?

Greece seemed to have a contradictory approach vis-à-vis drug users, criminalizing it on one hand and distributing syringes on the other.

Replies by the Delegation
The delegation said that it was expected that the flexibilization of the labour market should lead to increased exports, with the view of reducing the trade balance and cutting down unemployment.  Whatever improvement had been made in exports had been solely because of the fluctuations in oil prices, thanks to the existence of oil refineries in Greece.  By accepting austerity measures, the debt-to-GDP ratio had gone up to 180 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Some ideas died hard, the delegation stressed.  No matter the experiences of the past, some international structures insisted on their neo-liberal ideas, earlier known as the Washington Consensus.  Greece would be facing more crises, as the current one was certainly not the last one.  It would be very hard to engage in proposals which would transform hearts and minds.

The European approach to unemployment had focused on improving employability and targeted marginalized groups.  But the conditions had changed, and now there were eight countries in the European Union with high rates of long-term unemployment.  Huge numbers of people could not simply be re-qualified and employed; life-long learning was not applicable to all countries and all places.  Simply, there were not enough jobs for all. 

Europe was far from having a job security guarantee.  In Greece, having a full-time job that paid contributions to social security was considered a regular job.  Resources had to be found to create 150,000 jobs, which would then generate another 50,000 jobs in the private sector.

The delegation counted very much on the Committee’s recommendations, which should help prove that changes were possible at all levels.

GEORGE KATROUGALOS, Minister of Labour, Social Security and Social Solidarity of Greece, stated that the new Government wanted to follow a new policy, especially with regard to the central policy of our times – austerity.  It was currently the most important challenge to democracy and political, civil and economic rights.  A new agreement with the international partners had been concluded; it was not in line with the Government’s ideological beliefs, but compromises in politics were necessary.  The Government would try to neutralize the austerity elements and counterbalance them with alternative policies which would protect social and economic rights.  Pacta sunt servanda, but that also applied to international treaties, which had a superior value over any bilateral memoranda.  The Committee’s General Comments were very much appreciated.  The Government of Greece was ready to work closely with the Committee.  Individuals would be given the right to have recourse to the Committee. 

The delegation said that Greece had experienced a high influx of migrants from the 1990s. Migrant and refugee students enjoyed the right to free education the same way as natives did, regardless of their parents’ or guardians’ legal status in the country.  Already in 1996, the Ministry of Education had drafted a law on intercultural education.  A number of schools of intercultural education were operating across the country at the moment.  Teachers were subjected to special training, including on teaching Greek as the second or foreign language.  Basic school attendance represented one of the requirements for acquiring citizenship.

Turning to the questions on pensions, the delegation said that in recent years, Greece had admittedly violated some of its social obligations under several international treaties to which it was part.  Efforts were being made to alleviate the tensions between having a sustainable pension system and the individual social rights of the pensioners.  Greece was currently trying to construct a new pension system, which would include all workers in both public and private sectors.  Everyone would have a uniform treatment, within the confines of the existing economic means.  The Government needed to persuade its partners that the new system was suitable for the current Greek situation.

Regarding the human rights of unaccompanied minors, the delegation explained that their care was the responsibility of the first reception centres.  Those centres provided healthcare treatment, psychological support and informed them about their rights.  Public prosecutors would then be in charge of appointing guardians for such unaccompanied children.  An inter-ministerial working group had been set up to look further into that issue.  Unaccompanied minors were allowed to remain in shelters until guardians were appointed.  In 2014, more than 2,400 requests for accommodation had been filed; most of them had been Afghan males.  The average time of unaccompanied minors’ stay in shelters in 2014 had been 51 days.

Special protective measures for children included protection of unaccompanied minors against trafficking, as they were at major risk of being trafficked.  Potential victims of child trafficking were protected in shelters funded by European support programmes.  In order to help children in danger, there were several national helplines in place.  The International Organization for Migration was assisting the asylum-seeking migrant population in Greece, including various vulnerable groups.  Awareness-raising campaigns were conducted by State bodies and non-governmental organizations.  Professionals were regularly trained to identify child victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. 

The delegation explained that the national programme to combat violence against women included all forms of violence.  The total project budget reached 25 million euros.  A gender-sensitive approach had been developed for dealing with abused women; legal aid integrated the gender perspective.  There was a low-cost, confidential, nation-wide helpline which provided counselling in Greek and English.  In more than four years, it had received more than 22,000 calls and 47,000 emails.  The total number of women hosted in shelters was 335.

The austerity measures had exacerbated all latent and endemic social problems in Greece.  It was especially true with regard to the poor.  Around 40 per cent of the Greek population today was around or below the 2008 level of relative poverty.  There were examples of pupils fainting in schools because they had not had anything to eat.  One of the first acts of the Government in January had been reconnecting many households to electricity and providing health care to the uninsured.   The debtors were demanding that social spending be cut down.  Greece was proceeding towards a minimum national income, but the needs of the most destitute ought to be addressed first.  Funds were limited. 

Until now, the pension system had been splintered.  Everybody should be guaranteed a national pension which would ensure the avoidance of the risk of poverty.

Questions by Experts
The issue of minority ethnic communities was raised.  What was Greece doing about the so-called “new minorities”?

The Expert also wanted to hear more about the access to the Internet across the country.

What had the Government done to end the segregation of Roma and other minority children, another Expert inquired?  There seemed to be severe discrimination against Roma, which should be combatted by all European Union Member States.  Greece had undertaken efforts with the view of improving the education system.  What had the results been of promoting more inclusive education in Greece?

What was the percentage of children who had been recognized as having special education needs?  How were they educated?

The Expert wanted to know whether the national education policies were deemed effective.

Another Expert inquired how the Greek Government would take into consideration Article 13 when drafting national education policies.  Was further rationalization possible to reconcile with the Government’s international undertaking?

Austerity was debatable as an economic solution, another Expert commented.

An Expert noted that not all World Bank programmes had a human-rights based approach.  She added that social insurance should be an indispensable component of access to social security.  It seemed that some of the conditions for pension contributions were made much more stringent – if that was the case, some people could be left out.  What was the position of the Government on the introduction of the third pension pillar?

What was the number of children under the minimum age of 15 working illegally in the streets? 

Questions on housing, segregated settlements and forced evictions by the Government were raised again. 

An Expert asked the State party if all shelters were indeed accessible to women with disabilities.  There seemed to have been an increase in the rate of domestic violence.  What was the delegation’s analysis of the statistics?  Were more women reporting it, or was there simply a rise in violence?

Replies by the Delegation
In recent years, Greece had designed plans for the vulnerable groups, including Roma.  The laws had been changed so that Roma were recognized as a special group.  Municipalities were encouraged to create local policies for Roma people.  The national focal point had been appointed and helped collect information and figures in real time.  A new national strategy for vulnerable groups was in place.  Some municipalities were giving money for rent to those people whose houses had been demolished.

The delegation stated that Greece was also experiencing a health crisis, with 2.5 million uninsured citizens.  Recent studies showed that the health of citizens had worsened in recent years, including mental health.  HIV infections, suicides and hospital admissions had all increased.  The public health care system cost about 4.5 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product, much lower than the European average of seven per cent.  Greece currently lacked over 20,000 doctors, nurses and other medical staff.  Provisions of health care services were not provided only to foreigners in extremely urgent situations, but also to those affected by infectious diseases.

All refugees and migrants were screened and efforts were made that their primary needs were met.  Mobile units with doctors and nurses were present in Lesbos and Kos, two main entry points for migrants and refugees. 

Drug users needed integrated medical care, a delegate said.  The Government was doing its best to reduce the waiting lists.  Drug addicts had equal access to health services as other citizens.  Substance users were not criminalized; low-scale drug trafficking had been declared a minor offence.  Greece was the main sponsor, with Colombia, of a resolution on the world drug problem, which had been adopted by the Human Rights Council earlier this month.  The new Government had restarted the policy of distributing condoms and syringes to drug users.

All but one case of malaria had been registered in the incoming migrants coming from the affected areas, the delegation explained.

A number of measures were being taken to preserve the cultural heritage of all three parts of the Muslim community in Greece

Greece did not have a policy of forced evictions.  Instead, solutions were being sought for illegal settlements.  In one case, a Roma settlement had been established on private plots of land, a court had ordered an eviction, but no relocation had taken place until another lodging for them had been identified. 

The economic crisis had had a considerable impact on the education sector, as cuts had had to be made there as well.  School merging had taken place with the view of making the best use of the available resources.  Efforts were being made by the Ministry to help with the transportation of children who consequently had to travel longer distances.  There was no solid data on the effect of the austerity measures on the pedagogical content in schools.

More than 13,500 Roma and more than 16,000 migrant students had, among others, benefited from State programmes on inclusive education.  An electronic database on all students with disabilities or special education needs was currently being constructed, a delegate said.  State policies facilitated the engagement of students with disabilities in mainstream schools.  Special education was offered in mainstream schools with suitable building infrastructure. 

Roma children education had been one of the objectives of the Greek education policy for years.  Prejudice that Roma children might face during their education was taken into consideration.  The programme had a particular emphasis on pre-school and early primary education.  Efforts were made to decrease school dropout rates.  Sometimes, efforts to transfer Roma children with the view of integrating them were resisted by Roma themselves.

Regarding the issue of women with disabilities, it was explained that all women were treated the same way, regardless of their condition. The data was published periodically. 

The Government saw the social protection system as complimentary to the pension system and social assistance, the delegation said.  The plan was to have the first pillar divided into national pensions funded by taxes and those funded by contributions.  Greece was trying to reach optimal results under the circumstances, having in mind demands by the World Bank.

No social interlocutors had wanted to lower the minimum national wage, but that had been imposed externally by Greece’s creditors. 

Follow-up Questions by Experts
An Expert said that there had been no replies on the segregation of the Roma.  Forced evictions were not isolated cases, as the delegation had tried to present them.  The situation of the Roma and their social exclusion did not seem to be addressed by the Government in the times of austerity.  Could more information be provided about the European funds allocated for that purpose?

Another Expert asked whether the Covenant had been invoked in the negotiations with the creditors, and whether Greece’s interlocutors had been sensitized in that regard?

Replies by the Delegation
The delegation said that the Roma people faced discrimination in all European countries and many measures remained to be taken in that regard.  Greece would continue its efforts, and hopefully the Committee would be more satisfied next time.

Concluding Remarks
GEORGE KATROUGALOS, Minister of Labour, Social Security and Social Solidarity of Greece, said that all First World countries were facing the same challenge: how to conserve the institutions of the welfare State, which had been created in a different political and social environment.  Globalization and especially the new prevailing orthodoxy in economic issues, which gave priority to development and growth without regard to the social dimension, had increased inequalities in recent years.  An additional challenge for Greece was that it had further economic and political arrangements with its international partners.  It had to be stressed that the obligations under the Covenant were not only domestic, but also international.  Pacta sunt servanda was applicable at the international level as well.  The Government could not have a social Greece in a Europe which had opted for a different path.  The Government was trying to go back to the fundaments of the European social model.  At the moment, it was as if the European Union was repeating the same mistakes made by the United States after the First World War.  Greece would pay due attention to the Committee’s recommendations.

WALEED SADI, Committee Chairperson and the Country Rapporteur for Greece, said that the Committee had taken on board the difficulties faced by Greece in trying to preserve a social model while meeting the demands of its creditors.  The delegation was thanked for providing replies professionally to difficult and delicate questions.

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