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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights discusses situation in Benin and Norway with non-governmental organizations

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this morning met with non-governmental organizations that briefed it on the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Benin and Norway, whose reports will be considered during the week.

Speakers from Benin expressed concern about limited resources available to the Human Rights Commission and discussed recent restrictions to the trade union rights, labour exploitation of children and harmful traditional practices against children deemed to be “witches”. They expressed concern about the high level of food poisoning caused by pesticides used in cotton cultivation and pointed to disparities between rural and urban areas in access to education and health, especially concerning malaria treatments and access to sexual and reproductive health.

In Norway, the opening of a new area for oil and gas exploitation in the Arctic region violated the constitutionally guaranteed right to a healthy environment. Speakers highlighted extraterritorial human rights obligations concerning the investments in companies benefitting from Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and raised concern about the regression in access to healthcare for irregular migrants, including children. The political will and resources to preserve the rights, culture and way of life of the Sámi indigenous peoples were lacking.

Speaking on the situation in Benin were Changement Social Benin, Franciscans International and Enfants Solidaires d’Afrique et du Monde, while Church City Mission, Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted, We Shall Overcome, FIAN International and Sámi Parliament spoke about the economic, social and cultural rights in Norway.

All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/.

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. on Monday, 24 February, to review the third periodic report of Benin (E/C.12/BEN/3).

Discussion on Benin

Changement Social Benin said that the limited resources available to the Benin Human Rights Commission severely restricted its operations. One of the central issues was related to the recent law Number 2018-34 that severely restricted the right to strike and which lacked a dispute resolution mechanism. The lack of information regarding the negative effects of pesticides meant that there was a high level of food poisoning in the country. While 95 per cent of women received prenatal care in Cotonou, the number was only 79 per cent for rural areas.

Franciscans International focused on children called “witches” in the northern areas of Benin, recommending to impose restrictions on harmful cultural practices that caused families to murder or abandon their children who were then housed in privately funded centres without the support of the Government. New standards for these centres complicated the protection of children due to a lack of resources. Benin should raise public awareness of the negative effects of cultural practices and disseminate information on prenatal care and sexual and reproductive health.

Enfants Solidaires d’Afrique et du Monde raised concern about labour exploitation of children, noting that a third of children aged five to 17 participated in work, with the problem more pronounced in the rural areas. The Committee should urge Benin to fairly distribute resources and disseminate the Childhood Plan to Combat Child Labour. Universal access to proper treatment and prevention of malaria should be ensured and women should have full and free access to caesarean sections. Finally, primary education enrolment figures were low at 60.24 per cent overall, but highly divergent by region; there was a lack of teaching staff, classrooms and the quality of teaching was poor.

In the discussion that followed, Committee Experts asked about the role and impact of child-friendly courts established in 2014. Concerns were raised related to the Government’s policies in support of farming and the potential effects of pesticide use in cotton production on Benin’s overall food security. An Expert sought information about the trade union law number 2017-5 of 29 August 2017, in particular with regards to the unlimited renewal of fixed-term contracts.

The Experts inquired about the action the Government was taking to stem the trafficking of children and girls; whether the medical facilities and anti-malarial treatments were sufficient; how children were encouraged to go to school rather than to stay on the farm and the availability of universal free primary education.

Responding, non-governmental organizations’ representatives explained that Benin was at an experimental stage in regards to child-friendly courts, which focused on children caught up in petty crime. Because they were in an experimental stage, no information was available on their impact, although there was no evidence they helped children stay out of prison. Children were unable to go to school because either infrastructure is unavailable or parents were unable to pay for school equipment. A catch-up program called the Accelerated Education System was in place at the primary education level. Speakers underlined the disparity in the situation of children’s rights between rural and urban areas.

The Constitutional Court had decided that the trade union law of 2017 was constitutional. The existing labour law, which was optimal for employees, was seen as an obstacle for investment; that was why the new laws seriously relaxed labour protection and allowed for the indefinite renewal of fixed-term contracts. The reform in Benin pushed privatization and limited the right to strike to 10 days but did not provide a platform for negotiation and social dialogue to remedy this situation. People could be fired without any protection or compensation. Many new laws were put into place recently, resulting in the confusion surrounding trade union rights.

Cotton was the primary product in Benin, but it did not have any positive impact on sustainable development given the negative ramifications on environment, poverty or indentured labour. No effort was made to raise awareness regarding the dangers of pesticides, with significant harm being done to workers. Cotton farming limited the planting of cereal crops, which weakened the food security of farmers.

The Government was taking steps to address malaria, but a coordinated approach was lacking, while corruption hampered equal access to health services. Citizens were unaware of the cost and sources of health services, and the way in which they were organized. A universal health care regime set up by the previous Government had been replaced the Arch project; because it was being implemented on a pilot basis in three of the four health zones, people did not have adequate information about the project and services it offered. The project sought to distribute biometric cards to people living in extreme poverty, but at the pilot stage, it was again very limited.

As for the identification of those who lived in poverty and extreme poverty, speakers said that the 2017 census had been carried out in a sub-optimal way; the rules were vague and there had been a lack of capacity to ensure the correct recording of the number of the poor.

Discussion on Norway

Church City Mission said that Norway had not yet taken any steps to implement the Committee’s recommendations to ensure access to the necessary health care services for irregular migrants. In 2011, it had passed a deliberately retrogressive measure and had restricted access to emergency and other forms of healthcare to irregular migrants. It was particularly disturbing that irregular migrant children were not entitled to a general practitioner, unlike all other children in Norway. Destitute European Union citizens, mainly Roma, faced similar obstacles in accessing healthcare.

Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted said the Committee should recommend Norway to incorporate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into the Human Rights Act 1999 as soon as possible and so give this treaty the same legal status as other human rights conventions. The speakers also pointed to difficulties in accessing employment for persons with disabilities.

We Shall Overcome said that, regrettably, the Government of Norway had not yet given any indication as to the abolition of forced psychiatric interventions. The use of coercion in the mental health system was still very high: since 2013, around 8,000 people were involuntary admitted every year. The use of physical restraints, solitary confinement and non-consensual electroshocks was still common. The speaker raised concern that the reform of the Mental Health Act had not yet aligned domestic legislation with international human rights obligations.

FIAN International brought to the Committee’s the situation of elderly people in care, noting that every third person living in an elderly home was undernourished. There was an urgent need to strengthen the efforts to prevent undernourishment in one of the world’s richest countries. Norwegian businesses, including the Norges Bank Investment Management, invested in companies benefitting from Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, thus the Government should recognize its extraterritorial human rights obligations. Norway was the third-largest exporter of oil and gas globally and supplied two per cent of global oil, which meant it was a significant contributor to climate change. It was opening up a new area in the Arctic region for oil and gas exploitation, in violation of the Constitution that guaranteed the right to a healthy environment.

Sámi Parliament expressed deepest concerns about the lack of Government’s follow-up to the Sámi Rights Commission proposals made in 2007, concerning the right to land and resources outside Finnmark County. The increasing outside pressures and encroachment threatened Sámi industries such as small scale fishing and farming. The Mineral Act was adopted without the consent of the Sámi Parliament and the increasing need for “green energy” threatened Sámi people’s industries and culture due to the growth of the land-based windmill industry. Sámi culture was also threatened by the lack of funding for museums, a lack of a permanent exhibition of art and a lack of funding to translate literature in Sámi languages.

In the dialogue that followed, Committee Experts asked about the application of universal design in information and communication technologies in the workplace, the procedure governing consensual electroshock, the funding provided for the preservation of the Sámi culture. Civil society organizations representatives were asked whether Norway was fulfilling its commitments under the Paris Agreement and whether Norway had due diligence legislation or policies on its extraterritorial obligations, including about business activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Speakers from non-governmental organizations said that the Government had ordered a study into the consequences of the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which did not find any obstacle to its ratification. Barriers to the inclusion into the labour market for persons with disabilities included accessibility, lack of universal design in planning and attitudes to persons with disabilities in the workplace.

The Mental Health Act specifically discriminated against people with psycho-social disabilities. Forced electroshock was a unique practice in Norway and the country was high on the list of countries that used coercion in general. Doctors were subjective in their evaluation of the uses of psychiatric drugs, while data showed that their effectiveness was highly limited, therefore the treatment should be based on trust rather than coercion. A need to delink “danger to self and others” from disability was highlighted because these criteria were inherently discriminatory.

There were Sámi museums, but due to lack of funding, they were unable to provide good conditions for the cultural objects. There were approximately 2’000 Sámi cultural objects but institutions that are capable of taking care of them properly must be created. Sámi drums, for instance, were sacred objects, but none were in Sámi ownership due to a lack of museum space.

If the Norwegian state continued to open oil and gas regions, it would be unable to meet the broader goals of the Paris Agreement on combating climate change. Regarding Norwegian overseas business activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a lack of due diligence regulation beyond the borders was identified.

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For use of the information media; not an official record