GENEVA (20 February 2019) - The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today concluded its review of the third periodic report of Estonia on its efforts to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Introducing the report, Sten Andreas Ehrlich, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, noted that Estonia had been successful in reducing the harm from alcohol and tobacco, had elaborated changes to the parental leave and benefits system in order to encourage more fathers to share care responsibilities with mothers, and had increased universal child allowances by more than three times. Such changes had influenced the rapid decrease of child poverty. Turning to the remaining challenges, Mr. Ehrlich pointed out the gender pay gap, which was still the biggest among the European Union Member States. Another challenge was the reduction of the number of people with undetermined citizenship. As of 1 January 2019, their number stood at 75,191, constituting 5.5 per cent of the Estonian population.
In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts noted the disadvantaged position of Russian-speaking minorities and the fact that they experienced acute socio-economic and cultural disadvantages across a range of sectors. They also pointed out the still large number of people with undetermined citizenship, the majority of whom were Russian speakers. The Experts further inquired about domestic remedies for violations of the Covenant rights, reasons behind the overall low level of social spending in relation to the GDP, gender inequality and the gender pay gap, the high unemployment and poverty rates in the Ida Viru county, which had a high concentration of the Russian speaking minority, broadening of the scope of the Equal Treatment Act, lack of a comprehensive national refugee integration strategy and policy framework to facilitate the full integration of refugees into Estonian society, the high level of domestic violence, pervasive drug and alcohol use, the criminalization of drug use and the rehabilitation of women drug users, access to healthcare, minimum wage and unemployment benefits, trade union rights, school enrolment, and the use of minority languages in the public sphere.
In her concluding remarks, Sandra Liebenberg, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, said that there had been many achievements in the country, but some challenges persisted. She expressed hope that the Committee’s concluding observations would be widely distributed to all stakeholders in the country.
On his part, Mr. Ehrlich appreciated the dialogue with the Committee, noting that being a small country, Estonia placed high importance on human rights because that was what kept small countries alive.
Committee Chairperson Renato Zerbini Ribeiro Leão thanked the delegation for the enlightening answers it had provided and for the interactive exchange of views.
The delegation of Estonia consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education and Research, the Ministry of Interior, and the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. this afternoon to consider the fourth periodic report of Cameroon (E/C.12/CMR/4).
The third periodic report of Estonia can be read here: E/C.12/EST/3.
Presentation of the Report
STEN ANDREAS EHRLICH, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, provided an overview of recent developments in Estonia in the social, economic, educational and cultural fields, and pointed out challenges and gaps. Starting with the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, Mr. Ehrlich noted that Estonia had been successful in reducing the harm from alcohol and tobacco, implementing the evidence-based measures and policies validated by the World Health Organization. In order to support families and guarantee natural growth, the Ministry of Social Affairs had in recent years elaborated changes to the parental leave and benefits system in order to encourage more fathers to share care responsibilities with mothers, as well as to provide more flexible possibilities for families to reconcile work and family life. In the past five years, the Estonian universal child allowances for the first and second child had increased more than three times. Such changes had influenced the rapid decrease of child poverty. In 2014, the absolute poverty rate of families with children stood at 8 per cent, while by 2017 that rate was 2.8 per cent. As for the remaining challenges, Mr. Ehrlich pointed out the gender pay gap, which was still the biggest among the European Union Member States. As of 2016, the main policy document for gender equality was the Welfare Development Plan for 2016-2023. The planned measures varied from awareness raising to legislative initiatives, including both special measures to promote gender equality and activities that supported the implementation of gender mainstreaming. From January 2019 until the end of 2021, a project was being carried out to decrease the still unexplained part of the gender pay gap by clearing up further reasons for it through linking together different existing databases.
Estonia was continuing efforts to make the country a safe and just place for everybody, paying particular attention to individuals and groups who were in a more vulnerable situation. In April 2012, an amendment to the Penal Code had entered into force reorganizing the penal responsibility for human trafficking and related offences. In 2013, buying sexual services from children had been unambiguously criminalized. In 2017, the offences of stalking and sexual harassment, as well as female genital mutilation, had also been criminalized. In September 2017, Estonia had ratified the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence. As for developments in the cultural field, Mr. Ehrlich underlined that Estonia’s indicators related to participation in cultural life were among the highest in the European Union. During the reporting period, a great deal of effort had been paid to improving the accessibility of culture for vulnerable people, and the majority of Estonian cultural institutions were wheelchair accessible. The State supported the preservation and promotion of the cultures of the national minorities, based on regional distinctions and needs. As one of the challenges, Estonia had continuously paid particular attention to reduce the number of people with undetermined citizenship to become citizens. As of 1 January 2019, their number stood at 75,191, constituting 5.5 per cent of the Estonian population. The last Integration Monitoring Survey had showed positive results in Estonia’s integration efforts and that the Estonian language skills of Estonian non-speakers had improved, particularly among young people, Mr. Ehrlich concluded.
Questions by the Country Rapporteur
SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, inquired about domestic remedies for violations of the Covenant rights. Had the Supreme Court ever declared legislation adopted by Parliament invalid for failing to comply with the Covenant rights?
Noting that climate change and environmental pollution posed severe threats to the enjoyment of all Covenant rights, and reminding that Estonia produced large amounts of oil shale, Ms. Liebenberg asked whether there were any cases where article 53 of the Estonian Constitution had been invoked by litigants and courts.
Did Estonia plan to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on communications?
To what extent did the mandate of the Chancellor of Justice (the Estonian national human rights institution) extend to the Covenant rights, and what were concrete examples of the exercise of its mandate in the context of the Covenant?
Ms. Liebenberg further inquired about the reasons behind the overall low level of social spending in relation to the GDP. Had the Government identified particular social sectors that required increased public budgetary allocations? The highest unemployment and poverty rates were in Ida Viru county, where the highest proportion of the Russian speaking minority was concentrated. What impact had the measures set out in the Ida Viru Action Plan 2015-2020 had on improving conditions in that region?
With respect to the proposed amendments to the Equal Treatment Act to broaden the scope of application concerning discrimination on the grounds of religion, age, disability and sexual orientation beyond the employment sector to cover access to other social sectors, such as healthcare, social insurance services, education and housing, Ms. Liebenberg asked for an update on the current status of the draft amendments.
Moving on to the disadvantaged position of Russian-speaking minorities, the Country Rapporteur noted that they experienced acute socio-economic and cultural disadvantages across a range of sectors. Had there been any impact study on the extent to which the non-discrimination legislation had helped combat discrimination and prejudice experienced by the Russian-speaking minority?
Ms. Liebenberg noted that progress had been made to reduce the number of people with undetermined citizenship. However, as of January 2019 there were still 75,191 persons with undetermined citizenship living in Estonia (5.5 per cent of the total population). They faced many challenges, including Estonian language acquisition, high rates of unemployment and risk of poverty, and social exclusion. What further initiatives did the Government have to expedite and facilitate the acquisition of Estonian nationality by those of undetermined nationality, and to improve their economic, social and cultural circumstances?
Did the Government have any plans to accede to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness? What were the living conditions in reception centres for asylum seekers and to what extent were they accommodated in conditions that respected human dignity and their basic needs?
Regarding refugees, it seemed that Estonia lacked a comprehensive national refugee integration strategy and policy framework to facilitate the full integration of refugees into Estonian society. Did the Government have any plans to develop such a strategy?
On equality between women and men, the Country Rapporteur pointed out many challenges regarding the unequal enjoyment of the Covenant rights, including low awareness of legislation prohibiting gender discrimination, entrenched gender stereotypes, the gender pay gap, and the underrepresentation of women in decision-making at all levels. What concrete milestones had been achieved since the adoption of the Welfare Development Plan 2016-2023 to ensure that women and men had equal rights, obligations, opportunities and responsibilities in social sectors?
As for the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commission, what had been the impact of the Strategic Litigation Initiative in terms of successful outcomes for complaints or positive court judgments? Was the current staff of the Commission still eight employees? Was the Government satisfied with the funding and staffing levels of the Commission in order to deal with the challenges of gender equality in the country?
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation said that the level of knowledge about the Covenant rights among public officials was rising each year. The courts applied the nearest applicable act, usually those passed by Parliament. It was less usual for them to refer to international instruments and there were very few court cases with direct reference to the Covenant. That situation was not due to the fact that judges were not aware of the Covenant. The principles and rights of the Covenant had been transposed in national legislation. A recent survey had revealed that 73 per cent of respondents in Estonia believed that human rights were protected by Estonian laws.
STEN ANDREAS EHRLICH, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, explained that the Supreme Court has ruled in a number of cases based on article 53 of the Estonian Constitution, which placed a duty on everyone to preserve the human and natural environment, and to compensate for harm to the environment. Mr. Ehrlich said that the Chancellor of Justice exercised supervision over compliance with international instruments, including with the Covenant. In terms of the level of social spending, Mr. Ehrlich pointed out increased spending on healthcare and pensions.
He noted that the unemployment rate among non-Estonian speakers stood at 7.1 per cent, which was lower than the average unemployment rate elsewhere in Europe. Their higher rate of unemployment compared to Estonian speakers was mostly due to age and studies. The Government was taking measures to help them find employment. There had been no impact study on the Equal Treatment Act.
As for acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on communications, the delegation could not promise that Estonia would accede to it in the near future, but it noted that the issue was being discussed at the highest level of ministries. On the draft amendments to the Equal Treatment Act, the delegation said that the approval of the Act was still pending the upcoming general elections in March 2019.
The Constitution enshrined the principle of non-discrimination, the delegation stated. Even if laws were not specifically designed in that sense, the Constitution was solidly based on the principles that protected persons from discrimination.
The most important aspect of the Ida Viru Action Plan 2015-2020 was to improve the quality of life and encourage business investment, especially in terms of promoting small and medium-size enterprises. The impact of the plan was visible and the environment and living conditions had improved in the Ida Viru county, with the building of new houses, opening of new enterprises, investments in cultural events and increased tourist activity. The Idu Viru county was not the only region in the country with higher unemployment rates, the delegation explained. Overall, the economy of the Idu Viru county had been diversified.
In recent years, the Estonian Government had taken many measures to increase the interest of people with undetermined nationality in acquiring Estonian citizenship. Since the beginning of 2019, the Government was providing language instruction agreements which would allow persons to leave work in order to study Estonian. The target was to achieve 400 participants in 2019.
Estonia had not agreed on a deadline for the ratification of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. There were two detention centres for migrants in Estonia. Migrants could freely move, except at night when they had to stay at the detention centres. Unaccompanied minors were provided with alternative home services and were not detained in detention centres. Medical and psychiatric services were provided, if needed. Upon arrival, all detainees were provided with legal counselling services. Social workers and activity leaders were responsible for organizing cultural and leisure activities.
Refugees and their integration were covered by two strategies: the Internal Security Strategy and the Integration Strategy. The Refugee Policy Committee, composed of representatives of various ministries, dealt with refugee integration issues.
One of the measures to decrease the gender pay gap was last year’s draft amendment to the Gender Equality Policy Act with the aim to enable labour inspectors to ensure that employers respected the principle of equal pay. Some 85 per cent of the gender pay gap remained unexplained. Women in Estonia often entered the pay negotiations process with lower expectations than men. Accordingly, the Government had adopted a plan to deal with the gender pay gap by focusing on increasing female independence, fighting gender stereotypes, and by encouraging women to study and advance careers in information and communication technologies.
The funding for the Office of the Gender Equality and Equality Treatment Commission increased each year and in 2019 its budget had increased by 45 per cent compared to the 2018 budget. The Government was satisfied with the funding level and found that it was sufficient to advance social welfare.
Follow-up Questions by the Committee Experts
An Expert observed that almost the majority of persons with undetermined nationality in Estonia were Russian speakers. In addition, the State had established an artificial distinction between them and stateless persons. Many of them felt socially excluded and faced unemployment and poverty because they did not speak Estonian sufficiently well. How would the State party remedy that problem?
Another Expert expressed disappointment with the statement of the Estonian delegation that the Covenant was very popular in the country. How many public officials used the Covenant as a practical guide?
How was the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals balanced with human rights? Experts also wondered about the link between the tax system in the country and the poverty level?
What were the arguments for and against ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Covenant to review communications?
SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, reminded that the Committee had received only two parallel reports from civil society. What was the level of cooperation with civil society when preparing for the review?
What was the impact on employment of the transition to green energy?
Replies by the Delegation
The naturalization process in Estonia had started in February 1992. Since then, the number of people with undetermined citizenship had fallen from 32 per cent to 5.5 per cent in January 2019. According to a survey by the Ministry of Culture, almost 18 per cent of persons with undetermined nationality status wanted to acquire Russian citizenship. The majority of them stated that their citizenship status did not preclude them from living in Estonia. They could vote in local elections and travel both to the Russian Federation and the European Union without a visa. The Government had made a great effort to increase the level of knowledge of Estonian among those persons by offering free-of-charge language courses to persons living in the country for at least five years. The position of the Estonian Government was that citizenship could not be forced on anyone and that it had to be demanded.
STEN ANDREAS EHRLICH, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, stressed that the rules of international law were an inseparable part of Estonian law, and they formed the basis for interpreting the Estonian Constitution. Human rights were valued in Estonia and public servants were very much aware of them.
In terms of balancing human rights with the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, in its strategic planning the Government tried to give them equal importance. The recent tax reform had brought more benefits for people earning between the minimum and average wage. The reform had left some groups, such as pensioners, living in relative poverty, which had motivated the Government to look at various levels of poverty, Mr. Ehrlich explained.
On moving to a coal-free economy, Mr. Ehrlich said that in 2017 the Government had started providing labour market services to workers in oil shale plants and miners in order to help them overcome the transition.
The delegation clarified that it was not true that the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was not important or popular in Estonia. Its norms and principles were incorporated in national law. Accordingly, most of the court cases referred to national law rather than the Covenant itself.
As for discussions on the accession of Estonia to the Optional Protocol to the Covenant, those were mainly of a procedural nature. In recent years, one of the national priorities had been children’s rights, which was why Estonia had decided to accede to all optional protocols related to children’s rights.
With respect to cooperation with civil society, the delegation explained that since the mid-1990s the Government had always sent reports to civil society organizations and that it was open to cooperating with them.
Second Round of Questions by the Committee Experts
Was there any updated data on unemployment in the State party? What were the practical effects of the measures taken by the State party in order to deal with labour reorientation?
Was the minimum wage sufficient to provide workers and their families with an adequate standard of living? How did the State party ensure that employers paid the minimum wage?
What measures had been taken to address the gender pay gap? The State party had not provided information about occupational safety and health.
Turning to trade union rights, the Experts reminded that civil servants were forbidden from taking part in strikes. How would they voice their labour concerns? What was the status of the draft Collective Bargaining and Collective Dispute Resolution Act?
Was the old-age pension scheme sufficient to guarantee an adequate standard of living for all pensioners? Were the self-employed and those in the informal sector covered by the basic social protection schemes?
Replies by the Delegation
STEN ANDREAS EHRLICH, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, said that in 2018 the employment rate stood at 79.2 per cent, while unemployment rates had been dropping steadily since 2015. The improvements in the labour market had also had a positive effect on minorities. Salaries in Estonia were increasing sharply and the economy of the country had gone through a rapid change, however, this meant that some professions were no longer needed. In 2017, the Government had introduced new measures to deal with people in danger of losing their jobs, such as programmes through vocational schools. In some regions, such as Ida Viru county, the disappearance of the textile industry and the decreasing importance of the oil shale industry had led to increased levels of unemployment. Since 2016, the Government had also begun focusing on employing persons with disabilities, Mr. Ehrlich explained.
People earning the minimum wage usually were not at a risk of poverty. There was an agreement that the minimum wage should increase at least twice as fast as the economic growth. The Labour Inspectorate and the Tax and Customs Board ensured that employers paid the minimum wage. Trade union rights were becoming more appreciated in the country and people had safeguards in case the minimum wage was not paid to them, Mr. Ehrlich said. The rates of occupational accidents had been increasing in recent years due to the increased number of workers, and due to increased reporting of occupational accidents.
Third Round of Questions by the Committee Experts
An Expert remarked that the family situation in Estonia left much to be desired. Was it true that the age of marriage was 14? Why was it that Estonia did not have a law on domestic violence? What was the rate of divorce in the country?
The problem of drug and alcohol use seemed to be rampant, whereas the forcible way of treating drug addicts made things even worse. It seemed those issues were connected to the problem of disintegrating families. What were the measures to provide rehabilitation for women drug users, and especially those with children? Had the State party considered the total decriminalization of drug users in order to offset their complete marginalization?
Access to healthcare by undetermined citizens was another problematic area, as well as access to safe drinking water due to the high levels of bromine. What was the rate of cancer in the country?
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation clarified that several research studies had been conducted on the gender pay gap, and on whether employers were aware of the issue, whereas every five years the authorities conducted a survey on gender equality. In addition, the Ministry of Finance had conducted a gender pay gap analysis in the public sector. Public awareness campaigns on the gender pay gap and gender stereotypes were carried out every year in April, while public servants also received regular training on gender mainstreaming. The authorities regularly met with civil society representatives in order to address the problem of gender inequality.
STEN ANDREAS EHRLICH, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, explained that while public servants could not take part in strikes, some could participate in collective actions in order to raise their grievances. Less than 50 per cent of public servants were allowed to participate in collective actions in order to prevent the blockade of public services. They could turn to courts or the Chancellor of Justice if they could not reach agreement with their employers. In 2014, Parliament had not adopted the new Collective Bargaining and Collective Dispute Resolution Actbecause employers and trade unions could not agree on it. Since then most of the outstanding problems had been resolved. Even though a list of companies whose employees could participate in strikes was not adopted, the rights of workers were nevertheless safeguarded.
The Government was of the view that pensions were sufficient to provide an adequate standard of living as only 1.6 per cent of retired persons lived in absolute poverty. Pensions had been rising rapidly in the past few years, with an increase of 8.5 per cent in 2018, Mr. Ehrlich explained.
Even though the unemployment insurance scheme was not available to everyone, every person had the right to receive unemployment allowances, regardless of how their employment contract ended. Self-employed persons were also eligible to receive unemployment allowances, but not to receive the unemployment insurance scheme. Since June 2018, the authorities had been conducting an analysis on the types of unemployment benefits in order to understand the best unemployment scheme for the future, Mr. Ehrlich elaborated.
Follow-up Questions by the Committee Experts
SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, asked about the role of the Government in fixing the minimum age for work.
Ms. Liebenberg noted that the revised Employment Contracts Act, which came into force in 2009, aimed at improving flexibility in the labour market. What was its impact on employment security, and just and favourable conditions of work, particularly in light of the data on the Welfare Development Plan that wage poverty was related to using flexible working time arrangements and non-permanent contracts?
What impact did the Government expect of the proposed amendments to the Equal Treatment Act, which was due to enter into force in 2020?
Replies by the Delegation
STEN ANDREAS EHRLICH, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, said that the authorities had carried out an impact study in 2013 to analyse the impact of the Employment Contracts Act on working conditions. In general, the results were positive, and it had been found that the Act had led to more people finding employment and accordingly, social security. No big harms had been detected in working conditions, except for the higher number of recorded occupational accidents.
Labour unions and employers agreed on a minimum wage and the Government took their agreement and regulated it. The Government, thus, did not negotiate the minimum wage. In 2020, a reform would be implemented, tying the retirement age to the average life expectancy in Estonia. The majority of the burden for the payment of old-age pensions was on the Government. Some 20 million euros were spent on the payment of old-age pensions, Mr. Ehrlich explained.
The delegation explained that the new Equal Treatment Act was expected to reduce the gender pay gap, and to motivate employers to pay more attention to gender inequalities. The plan was to present the amendments to the Equal Treatment Act after the new Government was formed following the general elections in March 2019.
Answering the Experts’ question on whether the minimum age of marriage in Estonia was 14, the delegation clarified that it was 15, and it was allowed only under exceptional circumstances and with the permission of a judge, while taking into account the best interest of the child. STEN ANDREAS EHRLICH, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, stressed that it would be wrong to conclude that children in Estonia could marry. The Family Act was clear that only adults could marry, but it was true that under exceptional circumstances persons below the age of 18 could be considered as adults.
Estonia had not adopted a single act on combatting domestic violence. However, there were several provisions in other legal acts dealing with violence domestic. The most important among those acts was the Penal Code, which criminalized assaults committed against a person in a close relationship or in a relationship of subordination.
With respect to the treatment of drug and alcohol addicts, as well as of HIV/AIDS patients, the delegation stressed that those issues had been high on the Government’s agenda in the past decade. Alcohol consumption was very high in Estonia, leading the Government to adopt the National Alcohol Strategy in 2014. In the past 10 years, the number of diagnosed HIV/AIDS positive cases had decreased by two thirds. Nevertheless, HIV/AIDS would remain a major public health problem in the country in the coming years. There were currently 7,770 diagnosed HIV/AIDS positive cases, most of them in the Ida Viru county and the capital city of Tallinn.
The harm reduction and treatment services were free for all persons, but they were provided only to those willing to receive them. The challenge was how to reach risk groups, namely persons injecting drugs. There were seven opioid substitution therapy programmes and 37 needle syringe programmes in total. Furthermore, as of 2013, two mobile stations had begun operating. The delegation said that the current drug treatment services should be broadened in terms of geographical scope and in terms of sensitivity towards women. In 2019, there were 20 per cent more resources for the treatment of HIV/AIDS positive persons and drug addicts.
If a person was found in possession of drug doses for more than 10 persons, he or she was criminalized. If found in possession of drug doses for fewer than 10 persons, the possession was treated as misdemeanour, the delegation explained. There were cases when women were forced to stop the use of methadone in order not to lose the custody of their children. Custody of children could not be limited based solely on the fact that a parent had a problem with drug use; it had to be proved that the parent endangered their children’s wellbeing.
Health insurance coverage in Estonia was based on solidarity and limited cost sharing. Treatment should be equally available in all regions. The health insurance was compulsory. The largest part of health insurance contributions came from the payments made by employers, while some 40 vulnerable groups (such as children, retired persons, pregnant women and unemployed) received subsidized coverage.
Follow-up Questions by the Committee Experts
SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Estonia, noted the low number of child-care establishments for very young children, and expressed concern that the responsibility for child care still fell largely on women.
Article 132 of the Penal Code prohibited surrogacy, which potentially jeopardized the rights of women incapable of bearing children, and same-sex couples from forming a family. Had any reforms been planned in that regard, including an assessment of the compatibility of criminal prohibition of surrogacy with the Covenant?
What were the State party’s strategies to reduce the risk of poverty? What was the number of people considered homeless in Estonia? What was the number of persons who were considered to be residing in substandard housing? What was the average waiting time for social housing?
Has the Health Board laid down any limits for the radioactive content of water? What measures were being taken to require the cleansing of water of radioactive particles and to ensure that the public was not drinking radium-contaminated water?
Turning to the right to health, Ms. Liebenberg raised concern that one of the barriers for HIV-testing and taking therapy was the fear of stigma and disclosure of confidential information to family and employers. What measures were being taken to improve HIV-testing and the initiation of early therapy?
Pointing out the high suicide rate, particularly among men, Ms. Liebenberg asked whether any strategy had been adopted by the Government on suicide prevention.
Experts inquired about the underlying reasons for the high level of domestic violence, and drug and alcohol use. One Expert suggested that the high level of domestic violence was due to gender inequality. What was the reporting rate of domestic violence and its actual occurrence rate?
Turning to the criminalization of drug use, Experts noted that heavy administrative fines would marginalize drug users. Would it not be better to decriminalize drug use altogether?
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation said that there were special measures for child care services, for example for families with special needs due to long working hours of parents. That topic was very important for the Government and the authorities were working to come up during 2019 with a solid legal act on pre-school education and child care. Public discussions on surrogacy began in 2018 and they would continue.
In 2018, about 47.5 per cent of persons of the age 65 and above lived in relative poverty. Several measures had been introduced to alleviate relative poverty in the form of an allowance for every child raised. Retired persons living alone were at the highest risk of poverty. The reason for the rise in relative poverty was due to the recent tax reform, which had statistically resulted in grouping retirees as relatively poor.
Estonia had continuously invested in ensuring the supply of quality drinking water to all inhabitants. The concerns about the presence of radioactive content in drinking water was due to the mineral resources in the country. Water producers used a formula to ensure that those contents did not exceed acceptable limits so that they did not harm public health.
Stigma connected with HIV/AIDS was a known problem and not only in Estonia. Systematic work was needed in order to reduce it. The authorities planned to research innovative ways of tackling that problem.
In 2014, the police were aware of 60 per cent of incidents of domestic violence. That was a matter that needed further scrutiny by the authorities. It was not only victims who reported violence; neighbours, colleagues and other family members may have reported it. The delegation agreed that the high rate of domestic violence was related to gender inequality. The authorities had conducted awareness campaigns on domestic violence and the importance of gender balance both to the general public and public servants. Estonia had significantly improved its legislation in that respect. Women shelter services were now sustainably financed, and projects had been launched to work with perpetrators.
Drug use was a big problem in Estonia and it was a priority to punish drug dealers. However, it was often difficult to distinguish between dealers and abusers. There was a pilot project in the capital city of Tallinn to use a more lenient approach towards persons convicted of drug misdemeanours. They were directed for treatment and counselling. In the future, the authorities were considering punishing repeat drug abusers formally in court by sending them to treatment rather than to prison.
Fourth Round of Questions by the Committee Experts
Moving on to the right to education, the Experts asked about the dropping rate of enrolment in the country and the increased rate of school dropout. What were the root causes of that situation? What was the impact of teenage pregnancy on school dropout rates among girls? What were the reasons for the quite large gender disparity in the enrolment in tertiary education?
Experts also inquired about the supply of teachers and about the concentration of women in traditional fields of study, such as education. What measures had the State party undertaken to respond to that situation?
The strict requirement that 60 per cent of subjects be taught in Estonian and 40 per cent in Russian in Russian-language schools had led to low performance levels. How did the authorities ensure that the transition to the strict 60-40 ratio was carried out in a non-discriminatory manner?
The level of Internet infrastructure in Estonia was impressive, but elderly persons were largely left out of Internet use and the available Internet infrastructure due to the lack of skills. What was being done in that regard?
The State Language Inspectorate adopted a punitive approach for bad or insufficient command of the Estonian language. Was there a plan to abandon that punitive approach? There was a complete absence of display of traditional Russian toponyms, and the use of minority languages in contact with local authorities was very limited. Those examples demonstrated the division of Estonian society along linguistic lines.
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation explained that compulsory education was closely monitored, and every child was followed to ensure that he or she attended school. Local Governments were responsible for ensuring that no child was left out of school. More boys tended to continue with vocational educational, while girls tended to continue towards general education options and towards university.
The root causes of gender imbalances in education were complex and they resulted from a mix of social and cultural circumstances. In 2018, the Ministry of Education began developing of a new education strategy for 2035.
The authorities still had to examine the impact of teenage pregnancy on school dropout among girls. The Government constantly monitored the supply and demand for teachers, and it worked to ensure that they were well paid and that they enjoyed adequate working conditions.
As for the use of minority languages, the delegation said that the authorities supported so-called “Sunday schools” and cultural associations where children and adults could preserve their mother tongue and national identity. Websites of municipalities were usually available in Estonian, Russian and English, and people could be served in their languages. They could also have their Russian paternal names in their passports upon application.
Multiculturalism was very much supported and appreciated in Estonia. In addition, traditional toponyms were displayed in certain regions, such as those inhabited by the Swedish minority. Toponyms in Russian were not used in the city of Narva because it had always been Estonian.
Some 97 per cent of the Estonian population used the Internet, and 82 per cent of inhabitants had it at home. The time spent on the Internet had increased to six hours per day. There were courses available to those who wanted to improve their digital skills.
Follow-up Questions by the Committee Experts
An Expert wanted to know which minorities were granted cultural autonomy in Estonia. He noted that Russian speakers in the country were not granted cultural autonomy. In addition, the Committee on the Rights of the Child had expressed concern that children of some ethnic minorities experienced discrimination in education.
Replies by the Delegation
Since Russian speakers were divided into three groups – Russian citizens, Estonian citizens and those with undetermined nationality status – it was complicated for them to obtain cultural autonomy, the delegation clarified. That said, there were Russian cultural centres and the State had invested a lot of resources to develop Russian culture in Estonia.
SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Country Rapporteur for Estonia thanked Estonia for having sent a very qualified delegation. There had been many achievements in the country, but some challenges persisted. The Country Rapporteur expressed hope that the Committee’s concluding observations would be widely distributed to all stakeholders in the country.
STEN ANDREAS EHRLICH, Deputy Secretary General on Labour and Employment Policy at the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia, appreciated the dialogue with the Committee. Being a small country, Estonia placed high importance on human rights because that was what kept small countries alive.
RENATO ZERBINI RIBEIRO LEÃO, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the enlightening answers it had provided and for the interactive exchange of views.
For use of the information media; not an official record