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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights opens sixty-third session

Holds a Joint Opening Meeting with the Human Rights Committee to Mark the Seventieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

GENEVA (12 March 2018) - Marking the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais Wilson in Geneva this morning, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights opened its sixty-third session jointly with the Human Rights Committee.  The Committees heard a video message by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and an address by Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.  The opening session of the two Committees was co-chaired by Maria Virginia Bras Gomes, Chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Yuji Iwasawa, Chair of the Human Rights Committee.

The Committee also met with national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations from Mexico, Niger and Bangladesh, whose reports it will review during the first week of the session, and adopted its agenda and programme of work.

At the beginning of the joint session, Ms. Bras Gomes delivered the initial statement in which she said that a vision of a world where everyone lived free from fear and free from want and the aspiration of universality of all human rights required a new sense of urgency, in a world marred by growing fractures and the inequality within and between countries.  The principles, values and aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, further materialized in the two International Covenants and the core human rights treaties, must guide States in guaranteeing what was unchangeable under all circumstances and that was perhaps more valuable than seventy years ago – the human dignity.

In his video address, High Commissioner Zeid stressed that it was the universality of human rights that had given the Universal Declaration of Human Rights such a deep resonance since 1948.  No other document in history had been translated in so many languages and in every one of them it brought people hope; it was called the closest the humanity had gotten to a global constitution.  Recognizing that the division of rights into two Covenants was a response to the political pressures of the Cold War era, High Commissioner stressed that it did not correspond to any sound logic because civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and the right to development built upon each other and advanced together. The joint celebration of this unity of vision was a strong message of a shared determination to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concluded the High Commissioner.

Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that in 2018 it was necessary to recall - and to affirm - that the Declaration had derived from cultures and traditions the world over, and it embodied the diverse legal and religious traditions.  It was a phoenix rising from the rubble and ruination of the cruellest that human kind could do to each other, and a text and an intent that would stand the test of time, she said.   Human rights demanded that Governments served the people not dominated them, that economic systems enabled dignity not exploitation, that decision-making systems were participatory not exclusionary, that accountability was not a fiend of impunity.

The seventieth anniversary was an occasion to celebrate the impact of the two iconic Committees, said Ms. Gilmore, noting that they had helped formulate national constitutions and national laws; abolish the death penalty and abandon the austerity measures; lead to the development of new human rights treaties and tackled the contemporary challenges that required universal solutions rooted in the indivisibility of rights; and had given States the tools they needed to uphold the human rights of their people.  But this was also a reminder of just how far the humanity still had to travel, she said.  Calling on the two Committees to show leadership and courage, Deputy High Commissioner urged all to stand up for human rights - universal, indivisible interdependent, and inalienable, for the sake of each and every one and to the exclusion of none.

Addressing the gathering on behalf of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Mohamed Ezzeldin Abdel-Moneim, Committee Vice-Chair, remarked that the two Covenants made one bird, and the two Committees were wings without which the bird could not fly.  On behalf of the Human Rights Committee, Ivana Jelic, Committee Vice-Chair, stressed that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a cornerstone for all human rights instruments, which had a special significance particularly in countries in transition.  

Heisoo Shin, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, paid special tribute to the countless human rights defenders who had brought progress in human rights and who were responsible for the rights people enjoyed today.  Yuval Shany, Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Committee, took stock of the progress made by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting that it had given to the international human rights law and international human rights movements a sense of direction and a grand vision.  Zdzislaw Kedzia, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, stressed that the impact of commemoration must be measured by the contribution to the future, and stressed the importance of prevention of human rights violations that was embedded in the Declaration.  Margo Waterval, Rapporteur of the Human Rights Committee, highlighted the importance of educating people on human rights and the critical importance of the follow up to Committee’s concluding observations.

In the final remarks, Yuji Iwasawa, Chair of the Human Rights Committee, underlined that this joint session was a step forward in unifying efforts and strengthening cooperation between the two Covenants.  Hopefully, it would mark a beginning in the work of the two Committees towards fortifying the commitment to the Declaration and the rights they were seeking to protect.  Today, it was ever important to stand up and speak up for the rights of others, said Mr. Iwasawa, noting that the voices would be louder if the two Committees spoke together.

In its meeting with the civil society organizations with respect to the reports of Mexico, Niger and Bangladesh, the Committee heard civil society organizations from Mexico drawing attention to the need for protection of the rights of indigenous peoples especially in the context of their land rights, and the safety of journalists.  More than 20 million people still did not have adequate access to food and 1.5 million children were chronically malnourished.  Particularly affected were persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples.

The national human rights institution from Niger raised concern about barriers to the effective realization of the constitutionally guaranteed right to education, low salary levels, and the challenges in the enjoyment of the right to food.

Civil society organizations from Bangladesh noted that although the Constitution prohibited gender discrimination in the public sphere, it was not prohibited in the private sphere.  They were particularly concerned about the pervasive practice of child marriages, which affected more than half girls under the age of 18.
 
Speaking in the discussion were the following national human rights institutions: Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh by a video-link, National Human Rights Commission of Mexico, and the National Commission for Human Rights of Niger.

Citizens’ Initiative Bangladesh (video message) and Centre for Reproductive Rights spoke on the situation of economic, social and cultural rights in Bangladesh.  The following non-governmental organizations addressed the issues and challenges to the implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant in Mexico: Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental, Comunidades Mayas por la Defensa del Territorio, FIAN International Defensoria del Derecho a la Salud, Grupo de Informacion en Reproducción Elegida, Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, Red Global de Personas Indígenas con Discapacidad, Article 19, Espacio DESC, Collectivo Todos Somos Zeferino, Red Nacional DDHH, and Consejo de Xpuja.


The Committee is next meeting in public at 3 p.m. today 12 March to start its consideration of the combined fifth and sixth periodic report of Mexico (E/C.12/MEX/5-6).


Joint Opening Session with the Human Rights Committee

MARIA VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Chairperson, in her opening remarks, affirmed that all human beings were born free and equal in dignity, and a vision of a world where everyone lived free from fear and free from want.  This aspiration of universality of all human rights required a new sense of urgency, she said.  The world was a more rights-respecting now than it had been seventy years ago when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been adopted, but it was also a world of growing fractures: material and other forms of deprivation persisted amid the affluence of the twenty-first century; inequality within and between countries continued to grow; the benefits of development were not being equally shared; conflicts destroyed lives and hopes for a better world; climate change affected the most vulnerable the most; while migrants and refugees and all those seeking a safe heaven and better opportunities for their children were faced with closed or closing borders.  The principles, values and aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, further materialized in the two International Covenants and the core human rights treaties, must guide States in guaranteeing what was unchangeable under all circumstances, and that was perhaps more valuable than seventy years ago, the human dignity.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed in a video statement, that the universality of human rights was what bind humanity together, with all its differences; in the conviction that all human life was valuable, everyone was equal in the rights and dignity.  It was this universality what had given the Universal Declaration of Human Rights such a deep resonance since 1948.  No other document in history had been translated in so many languages and in every one of them it brought people hope; it was called the closest the humanity had gotten to a global constitution.  The Vienna Declaration took this notion of universality a step further by acknowledging the inseparability of human rights: all States recognized that all human rights were indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.  The division of rights into two Covenants was a response of the Cold War era political pressures and did not correspond to any sound logic: civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and the right to development built upon each other and advanced together.  Even if a person’s right to speak out and protest were recognized, she was not truly free if she was constrained by lack of education or inadequate living conditions; and even a wealthy person was not living well if he lived in fear of arbitrary detention by his Government.  The joint celebration of this unity of vision was a strong message of a shared determination to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concluded the High Commissioner.

KATE GILMORE, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in her statement, that seven decades had passed, and still the Universal Declaration of Human Rights rang out true, strong and clarion in a recognition that all were born equal in dignity and rights.  In 2018, it was necessary to recall and to affirm that the Declaration had derived from cultures and traditions the world over and embodied the diverse legal and religious traditions: it had blended with Africa’s traditions of interdependence and collective responsibility, weaving in ideals derived from Qur’anic references to the universal dignity of humankind, to justice and responsibility to future generations.  It was a phoenix rising from the rubble and ruination of the cruellest that human kind could do to each other, and a text and an intent that would stand the test of time.  Because of the critical contributions to the drafting of the Declaration by delegates from China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Latin American countries, on fundamental issues including gender equality, equality in marriage, child marriage, international application rights, racial equality, and many others, this “consensus on the supreme values of the human person” had been agreed.  It was humbling to ask whether such a document could be drafted by such Member States today, remarked Ms. Gilmore.

Many countries also saw the Declaration’s principles as a powerful support for their liberation movements fighting to end colonialist exploitation around the world, and they were right because human rights were not an instrument of, or for, domination by any power.  To the contrary, they endorsed as fundamental the freedom of people everywhere, and defined the substance of free individuals as the building blocks of humane human society.  Human rights demanded that Governments served the people not dominated them, that economic systems enabled dignity not exploitation, that decision-making systems were participatory not exclusionary, that accountability was not a fiend of impunity.

The seventieth anniversary was an occasion to celebrate the impact of the two iconic Committees which had helped formulate national constitutions and national laws; abolish the death penalty and abandon the austerity measures; lead to the development of new human rights treaties and found protection and remedy for justice and injustice imposed on many; tackled the contemporary challenges that required universal solutions rooted in the indivisibility of rights; and had given States the tools they needed to uphold the human rights of their people.

This was indeed a year for milestones, reflected the Deputy High Commissioner: one hundred years ago women’s suffrage had advanced irreversibly and Nelson Mandela had been born; fifty years ago Martin Luther King had been assassinated; twenty-five years ago the Vienna Declaration had established the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and the Rome Statute for accountability of the gravest of human rights violations had been adopted twenty years ago as had been the declaration protecting human rights defenders.  All those were a reminder of just how far the world had come, and in this journey, the two Committees had played a critical part.  But this was also a reminder of just how far the humanity still had to travel.  Calling on the two Committees to show leadership and courage, Deputy High Commissioner urged all to stand up for human rights - universal, indivisible interdependent, and inalienable, for the sake of each and every one and to the exclusion of none.

YUJI IWASAWA, Chair of the Human Rights Committee, delivering the final and closing remarks, underlined that this joint session was not only an occasion to celebrate the impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but a step forward in unifying efforts and strengthening cooperation between the two Covenants.  Hopefully, it would mark a beginning in the work of the two Committees towards fortifying the commitment to the Declaration and the rights they were seeking to protect.  Today, it was ever important to stand up and speak up for the rights of others, said Mr. Iwasawa, noting that the voices would be louder if the two Committees spoke together.

Meeting with Civil Society Organizations From Mexico, Niger And Bangladesh

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights then held a public meeting with civil society organizations from Mexico, Niger and Bangladesh, whose reports will be reviewed during the first week of the sixty-third session.

Statements by national human rights institutions
 
KAZI REAZUL HOQUE, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh, in a video link from Dhaka, noted that although the Constitution prohibited gender discrimination in the public sphere, it was not prohibited in the private sphere; guidelines and procedures for mainstreaming gender perspectives were lacking too.  Bangladesh should withdraw its reservations to articles 2 and 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and consider adopting legal prohibition of labour by children under the age of 16.  Mr. Hoque further drew attention to the situation of migrants; recommended an extension of the scope of social protection to elderly and children; and raised the problem of under-representation of girls in primary education.  Child marriages continued to contribute to an increase in the number of early pregnancies, he concluded.

JORGE ULISES CARMONA TINOCO, Chair of the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico, encouraged the Government of Mexico to continue its work in terms of the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights and constitutional rights, and urged it to adopt progressive measures and allocate public resources to reach remote communities.  Mr. Carmona Tinoco drew attention to the need for protection of environmentalists and the rights of indigenous peoples; emphasized gender equality; and urged increased attention to the situation of day labourers and the improvement of the legislation on freedom of association in the labour spheres.  Finally, the Chair called for a legal framework to guarantee the right to housing and to ensure prevention and follow-up in the event of natural disasters.

MOUSSA ASSOUMANE, National Commission for Human Rights of Niger, stated that the right to education was embodied in the Constitution making education mandatory for all citizens with no limitations.  However, those rights were not fully implemented since the high rate of growing demand in terms of education presented a barrier.  Emphasizing the tremendous efforts of the authorities to provide the work for all citizens, Mr. Assoumane noted that the economy was not competitive and the salaries were low, especially in poor areas of the country.  The right to food was also recognized by all the institutions and the Constitution, but its realization still presented a challenge since not all citizens even had three meals a day.

Statements by non-governmental organizations from Bangladesh

Citizens’ Initiative Bangladesh, in a video message, raised the issue of inadequate public budgets and noted that there was no targeted budget for housing in segregated areas.  The land was owned by the Government and there was lack of legal protection with regards to employment.  

Centre for Reproductive Rights said with concern that child marriage, a human rights violation, was occurring on a large scale in Bangladesh, where 52 per cent of girls were married before the age of 18 and 22 per cent by the age of 15.  Bangladesh had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the South Asia region.  The 2017 Child Marriage Act weakened the protection for girls by allowing child marriage without any minimum legal age with parental consent and court order.  In addition, the legislation prohibiting it was rarely implemented.

Statements by non-governmental organizations from Mexico

Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental mentioned the issue of access to justice in Mexico and emphasized that a serious problem was that the court rulings had no effect when it came to the rights of the workers.

Comunidades Mayas por la Defensa del Territorio raised concern about the privatization of the indigenous peoples’ land in Mexico, and threats to the Mayan forests and corn seeds.  The Government must stop the misuse of the Mayan land and apply the principle of free, prior and informed consent and consultation with the indigenous peoples prior to making any decisions.

Another speaker from Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental informed the Committee about the failure of the Government of Mexico to provide its population with access to clean water and sanitation and said that the coverage data it provided, namely 98 per cent of safe water and 96 per cent for sanitation, were not a reflection of the real situation.  Additionally, the water supply regulations no longer met the World Health Organization’s standards, and there was a recurring problem of maintenance of water supply systems.

FIAN International was concerned about the 20 million people in Mexico who lacked access to food, particularly persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples.  Also of concern was high rate of malnutrition, particularly among the children – almost 1.5 million children were chronically malnourished.  Another issue, which was creating great pressure on the public health system, was the growing rated of obesity including among adolescents, which in 2017 affected 36 per cent of the population.

Defensoria del Derecho a la Salud informed the Committee of the budgetary cuts in Mexico, as well as about the corruption in certain areas of the country, and raised concern about their combined negative impact on development.  Furthermore, the weakening in primary health coverage especially affected pregnant women and access to child birthing services.

Grupo de Informacion en Reproducción Elegida noted that in Mexico, women faced multiple forms of discrimination, especially those without health insurance and education.  The maternal mortality rates were very high, as 9.2 per 100,000 live births, while the majority of the economically active population was employed in the informal sector and therefore were not covered by health insurance.

Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos expressed concern about the lack of public policies addressing drug users and noted that most service extended to this group were private rather than provided by the Government, and thus risks of torture and ill treatment were acute.  Mexico should decriminalize drugs.  Another speaker raised concern about the forced internal displacement which had increased over the last ten years due to violence and the human rights crisis that Mexico was currently experiencing.

Red Global de Personas Indígenas con Discapacidad said that indigenous persons with disabilities were forgotten by the authorities and thus could not participate in the official programs.  The consequence of that was that indigenous people with disability had a high rate of illiteracy due to inability to be educated.  She pointed out that is of great importance that the indigenous people with disability were recognized.

Article 19 spoke about the grave situation related to the safety of journalist in Mexico, where 112 had been assassinated since 2009.  More than half of the cases documented in 2016 involved State agents including in two extra-judicial killings.  The establishment of the special prosecutor in 2010 for crimes committed against freedom of expression had a very limited effect: of the 799 investigations initiated by this office, only three led to sentences.

Espacio DESC shared concerns about the climate of violence affecting the country, noting that conflict of interest and corruption were the biggest issues.  Serious attacks that took place against the activists showed a large importance of the current dam building project while significant budget cuts effected the implementation of Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

Collectivo Todos Somos Zeferino raised concern about a specific case of an assassination of a person in custody, with an overdose being officially stated as the reason for death.  The alternative autopsy had said that the cause of death was internal bleeding.  The killing of fathers of the families must stop.

Red Nacional DDHH said that no laws protected the rights of the indigenous peoples to be consulted in important decisions concerning them.  This was especially evident in the projects related to energy and the displacement of the indigenous peoples from their land.  Health care was another huge issue as public hospitals were in poor condition, while the growing privatization of education put the pressure on families and teachers.

Consejo de Xpuja talked about the problems in the Yucatan state, especially the use of land without previous consultation with the indigenous peoples.  The solar park project was the most recent evidence of that misuse that would lead to a destruction of acres of farming land.  Indigenous peoples were not against sustainable energy but they had to be consulted on the matters concerning their land and future.

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For use of the information media; not an official record