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In dialogue with Benin, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights asks about the weakening of labour rights and harassment of trade union activists

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

25 February 2020

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded today its consideration of the third periodic report of Benin on the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Experts noted with concern the backward steps in the legislation that weakened labour rights and protection of workers and created a climate of harassment for labour and trade union activists.

During the dialogue, Committee Experts praised Benin’s efforts to curb the corruption and protect whistle-blowers, promote socio-economic development and increase educational opportunities for girls, especially at the secondary level. 

They raised concern, however, that the recent legal changes had created a climate where human rights defenders and labour activists felt threatened.  The limitations on the right to strike, the weakening of hiring and dismissal practices and other restrictions seemed aimed at reassuring investors at the expense of employees, they said.

Timothée Yabit, Deputy Director of the Cabinet of the Minister of Justice of Benin and head of the delegation, said in his introductory remarks that the country’s the 2016-2021 programme of action prioritized the improvement in the living conditions, including through reforms in the area of labour, social security, education and others. 

The delegation said that the 2018 law on the status of the right to employment aimed to revive the public service and improve the performance of civil servants.  While it elevated the risk of dismissal to some degree, this remained a last resort in a hierarchy throughout the disciplinary procedure.  The law had been passed when the country needed it, it was in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and to the benefit of Benin’s people. 

The laws on hiring and fixed-term contracts had been passed in 2017 to stop the economic spiral downwards, boost the economy by allowing more investment and recruitment, and attract investors.

The delegation stressed that no one in Benin was incriminated, detained or threatened for defending human rights.  The questions raised about the persecution of trade union leaders and labour activists were based on disinformation; some individuals the Experts cited as having been the target of harassment had been involved in corruption, had a long list of penalties or had threatened to use arms.

Mohamed Ezzeldin Abdel-Moneim, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Benin, in his concluding remarks, said that Benin was a country of great assets and had made impressive progress across all sectors.  It should work to increase school enrolment rates and address the structure of the agricultural sector that drew children away from school.  The realization of economic, social and cultural rights was costly and Benin had an obligation under the Covenant to efficiently utilize available resources for development.

Mr. Yabit concluded by saying that at 60 years old, Benin was just exiting the state of infancy and said it would continue to make progress on fulfilling its obligations under the Covenant.

Renato Zerbini Ribeiro Leão, Committee Chairperson, concluded the dialogue by thanking the delegation.

The delegation of Benin consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the State Ministry for Planning and Development, General Directorate of Labour, and the Permanent Mission of Benin to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The concluding observations on the report of Benin will be available at the end of the session on the session’s webpage, where all the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found.

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 Tuesday, 25 February, to consider the sixth periodic report of Norway (E/C.12/NOR/6).

Report

The Committee has before it the third periodic report from Benin (E/C.12/BEN/3).

Presentation of the Report

TIMOTHÉE YABIT, Deputy Director of the Cabinet of the Minister of Justice of Benin, stated that Benin made it a priority to fight all forms of discrimination and to enable everyone to enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights.  In 2017, Benin had passed a new law to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, which had created an “equal opportunities” card that allowed holders to enjoy easier access to healthcare, equipment and financing.  The Government prioritized improving living conditions as part of the 2016-2021 programme of action, putting in place several projects and reforms impacting labour, social security, access to water, education, housing, health and more.

Benin was piloting the Insurance for the Strengthening of Human Capital policy to strengthen the social security system, improve regulatory and legislative frameworks and target the poorest sectors of the population.  The number of beneficiaries was estimated at 13’000 households in 15 villages in 12 communes.  The project was in its third year of implementation and would be extended throughout the entire country.  The most vulnerable sectors of society were further assisted by the Foundation in Support of Community Development, which had invested close to 39 billion CFA in 2019, a 42 per cent increase over 2018.

Progress had been made in education too, said Mr. Yabit, noting the improvements in the quality of education, teachers working conditions and school maintenance.  Access to education was free of charge, while 51 per cent of primary schools had canteens allowing 800,000 children to have at least one hot free meal per day.  The budget for the school feeding programme had increased from 1 billion CFA in 2017 to 14 billion CFA in 2019. 

The tarmac road construction project to increase mobility would be finalized in 2020, the construction of new sanitation systems in Grand Noukoué towns and habitats had started and the budget for 12,049 units of economic and social housing had been allocated.  The Government had mobilized 493 billion CFA to provide access to safe drinking water, of which 300 billion CFA were destined for the rural areas, where 199 wells had been drilled in 2019.  With regard to access to energy, a more scrupulous oil code had been introduced and the efforts to improve access to electricity continued - Benin was now able to produce 160 megawatts of power, half of the country’s needs during peak hours. 

The financing of development plans for rice, corn, cassava, cashew, pineapple, meat, milk and eggs, as well as soy and other types of agricultural products, combined with fish stock development, led to the improved food security of the population: the percentage of food-insecure people had dropped from 11 per cent in 2018 to 9 per cent in 2019.

The Government focused on assisting 17,000 young people in 77 communities, 50 per cent of whom were women, to find employment as part of a campaign to promote small and medium enterprises.  The launch of a special employment programme that would reach 2,000 young people per year and place them in companies for over two years was highlighted, as well as the partnership for the promotion of female entrepreneurship and recovery of raw materials, which had created 126 processing units that benefited 21 communities with 25,000 beneficiaries, including 8,000 women.  Despite these achievements, challenges remained, particularly in terms of access to drinking water and Benin’s dependence on its neighbours for electricity, concluded Mr. Yabit. 

Questions by the Committee Experts

MOHAMED EZZELDIN ABDEL-MONEIM, Committee Rapporteur for Benin, welcomed the delegation of Benin and the detail provided in its opening statement and praised Benin’s efforts throughout the reporting period. 

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Benin, requested the information about the financing of the Benin Human Rights Commission and the efforts to secure its status A under the Paris Principles.  Article 240 of the new Penal Code could be interpreted as a potential threat to human rights defenders, he said and asked the delegation to comment.

The answers received by the Committee about budgetary information and tax legislation did not provide much information regarding the tax structure of the country.  Noting that the latest information on the tax system was from 2015, he sought more recent data, including on the businesses exempt from tax.  Addressing the resulting budget shortfall affected the country’s capacity to promote economic, social and cultural rights, he remarked.

The Co-Rapporteur welcomed the 2011 law combatting corruption and asked about the means at the disposal of the National Authority of Combatting Corruption, given that its budget had been seemingly reduced over the years.  Were their mechanisms available to the public, non-governmental organizations and media to carry out oversight, how were they implemented?  Information regarding the implementation of the 2013 decree on whistle-blowers was also requested.

While article 619 of the Code of the Family in principle allowed equality in inheritance between women and men, in reality, customs and traditions were not fully in line with the legislation.  The Co-Rapporteur thus inquired about the efforts made by Benin to counteract this, to inform those responsible to empower women and to provide compensation in cases of appropriation.

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that because the Benin Human Rights Commission had been set up on 3 January 2019, it was too late to submit its 2019 budget to Parliament for approval.  The national budget for 2020 contained a separate budget line for the Commission’s funding amounting to 570 million CFA; in addition, the Government had authorised the recruitment of three volunteers in September 2019 to support the operations.  As the National Human Rights Commission was assured of funding for 2020 allowing it to fully operate, it was the highest aspiration of Benin that it would in time achieve the A status under the Paris Principles.

Regarding human rights defenders and the article 140 of the new Criminal Code, the delegation reaffirmed that no one would be incriminated for defending human rights in Benin and that nobody had been detained or threatened for those reasons.  The article related to demonstrations in public spaces, stating that persons were liable for criminal punishment if they took over public spaces without proper authorisation.

Regarding the budget, the delegation explained that due to the late submission of data, only some information was available.  For example, throughout the 2015-2019 period, the proportion of the national budget dedicated to social expenditure went from 21 to 51 per cent.  Of the total budget of 600 billion CFA in 2015, 130 billion had been spent on social expenditure, while 715 billion of the 2020 budget of 1,380 billion would be used for social purposes.

Value-added tax was set at 18 per cent.  Benin was a state with few natural resources and was thus focused on services, therefore, attracting investments was essential.  Any tax loss was compensated by wealth and employment creation.  New investments contracts had been signed and the Government took measures to ensure that companies contributed to the growth of national wealth and that the people and the State did not lose out from these arrangements.

Combating corruption was one of the President’s most significant concerns, as each diverted franc caused significant damage.   Benin had created specific courts for economic crimes, amended the criminal procedure law in 2018 and set up a court for terrorism and economic crimes, which had an almost unlimited budget.  To strengthen the fight against corruption, Benin had created a special brigade in the legal police to investigate financial crimes.  The courts were successful in eliminating the idea that there were “untouchable people” in the country.  One such case was the sentencing of the perpetrators from a company that, with the complicity of employees in the financial administration, had embezzled billions of francs. 

Currently, there were no cases or reports related to the implementation of the decree on the protection of whistle-blowers.  However, there was a case related to the fraud in the billing for water that had diverted the payments from the Benin water company.  An accountant who coordinated the network had assisted the police in identifying high-ranking members of the Government involved in the fraud and had provided testimony.  This was an example of the will to protect whistle-blowers. 
  
In several territories, women were not allowed to inherit land although the law was clear in that it prevented discrimination against women and protected them from violence.  Every such case was investigated and women were heard in the process.  Awareness-raising campaigns on the ground were also undertaken, especially in rural areas; the Association of Women Jurists of Benin was particularly active in these processes, working to ensure that the rule of law was applied equally.

Law 2019-40 of 7 November 2019 amending article 26 of the Constitution provided for positive discrimination to strengthen the representation of women in the National Assembly, which had reserved a share of seats in Parliament for women, despite the reticence due to traditions and customs.  Positive discrimination in favour of women had also been included in the provisions of the new Electoral Code of November 2019.

Questions by the Committee Experts

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Benin, noted with concern some backward steps and the weakening of the protection of employees, including the 2018-35 law on public functionaries fixed a maximum provision of two months of salary for abusive dismissal and the 2017-05 law on hiring practices which allowed for indefinite renewal of fixed-term labour, contrary to the 1998 law which prescribed that such contracts could only be renewed once.

LAURA-MARIA CRĂCIUNEAN-TATU, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Benin, remarked that the minimum wage, currently set at 14,000 CFA or €60 per month and to €2 per day, was very low.  The Co-Rapporteur asked how the amount was decided on, whether workers were consulted and how the minimum wage was enforced in the informal economy.  The delegation was also asked about the labour inspections in the informal sector and how the mutual social fund for the informal sector, seemingly an example of good practice, worked.

The Co-Rapporteur expressed alarm over the climate of harassment of labour and trade union leaders, noting specifically the situation of activists such as Clément Akiye, Patrice Trekpo, Louis Gbemenou, Laurent Metongnon and Edouard Adegoke.  Furthermore, recent amendments to the 2002 law had greatly limited the protection of the right to strike, while additional restrictions had been implemented, seemingly to reassure investors at the expense of employees.

Ms. Crăciunean-Tatu took note of the Insurance for the Reinforcement of Human Capital pilot project and stressed the need to identify the households living under the poverty line to ensure its effectiveness.  Considering that unemployment figures were three times higher in rural areas and that women workers were concentrated in the informal economy, when would Benin conduct a study on equal opportunity in employment?  She also asked about the measures to improve conditions for women in formal and informal sectors, to ensure equal pay for work of equal value and to address the gender wage gap.

The Co-rapporteur additionally inquired about the programmes contributing to improving the poor situation of youth in the labour market, and of young women in particular, and asked about the progress in the adoption of a national plan to protect migrant workers.

Replies by the Delegation

Concerning the 2018 law on the status of the right to employment, the delegation explained that the Government had chosen to rely on competence and quality of public employees to revive the inactive public administration sector, where competent individuals had been side-lined in the name of political support and recruitment had been based not on competence but on regional or religious lines.  Because public officials enjoyed job security and knew they had jobs for life, they did not participate as actively as possible.

The 2018 law was worth the possible drawbacks, said the delegation; while it elevated the risk of dismissal to some degree, dismissal remained a last resort in a hierarchy throughout the disciplinary procedure.  Two years after its entry into force, there had been no significant increase in dismissals but the performance of the civil service had improved.  The law had broken with the past, and the interests of civil service no longer took precedence over the public interest.  It had been passed when the country needed it, and it was in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and to the benefit of Benin’s people. 

The 2017 law on hiring came into force when the employment market was in a poor state and there was a drop in investment; economically, the country was spiralling down.  The most important resource in this resource-poor country was human capital, thus the Government had to adopt rigorous measures to attract investors.  The law was not in violation of Benin’s human rights obligations.  Before its entry into force, trials related to abusive dismissals gave rise to long-winded and intractable conflicts between employees and employers and businesses were shouldering a disproportionate burden.

On the subject of fixed-term contracts, the delegation noted that since the entry into force of the related law, there had not been an increase in the number of dismissals.  The law was a transitional measure that aimed to boost the economy by allowing more investment and recruitment.  In due time, the Government would assess the law’s impact and would change the approach if necessary.  The spiralling unemployment in 2017 and the logjam in recruitment had forced the Government to take difficult measures to get the largest number of people possible into work; the changes were hard but would bear fruit in the long run.

Questions by the Committee Experts

OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Benin, highlighted the situation of “witch children” and infanticides of children with disabilities and raised concern about the lack of implementation of article 169 of the Code of the Child which criminalised this practice.  What was being done to combat infanticide and stigmatization of children, in particular within Bariba, Peuhl, Gando, Yom, Nagot and Boo ethnic groups?

Regarding poverty and microcredit programmes, were these measures designed to accurately target the most vulnerable, and if households had to submit proof as evidence of their status, was the delegation aware that this was a disproportionate burden?

Existing sporadic information on the departments of Alibori, Atacora and Couffo showed that chronic malnutrition was rife and was estimated at 32 per cent nationally.  The existing measures aimed at encouraging breastfeeding were seemingly unsuccessful, he remarked and inquired about measures to combat malnutrition and ensure food security of the people.

Mr. De Schutter recognized the many efforts to increase access to safe drinking water both in rural and urban areas and raised concern about the corruption in water provision and the collection of household waste, noting reports from civil society service providers asked for backhanders (bribes) before providing water access.

The use of pesticides was prohibited, but according to alternative reports, those were still used in the production of both cotton and food crops, which could poison the food supply.

Replies by the Delegation

The law on the right to strike was a recent piece of legislation, adopted to curb the use of striking as a means of political pressure rather than a measure to protect labour rights. 
During the 2011-2016 period, significant disruptions had occurred in the justice sector, health, education and customs and finance sectors.  The law had also assisted Benin’s fight against corruption, as the relations between trade unions and political groups were often based on illicit monetary exchanges.  The delegation stressed that the law did not counter the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The National Framework for Social Dialogue promoted collective bargaining and other labour rights; it existed in each ministry and provided for mandatory interactions between trade union leaders and ministers.  The minimum wage was set with the involvement of all social partners, the delegate said, noting that the current amount did not cover the cost of living.  It would increase, but the schedule was not in place at the time. 

Labour inspectorate checked both formal and informal sectors and had the power to hand out fines and prison sentences if any irregularities were found.  Labour inspectorate courts carried out checks downstream, where individuals could file complaints regarding their wages.  The legislation was in preparation to simplify the complex formal procedures to minimise the negative effects on employees.

Disinformation influenced questions asked about the persecution of trade union leaders and labour activists, said the delegation. 

Patrice Trekpo had raised concerns regarding the employment of a well-known South African company to manage the water and forests in Benin.  Following up on his claims that he was armed and that he would use weapons, disciplinary sanctions had been imposed.  Louis Gbemenou, another union leader, had a long list of penalties; he had obstructed the loading of vessels at the autonomous port of Cotonou, for which he had been dismissed. 

Two other individuals cited by the Committee, Laurent Metognon and Edouard Adegoke, had been involved in corruption.  The leader of the police union, Clément Akiye, had assisted the escape of the mayor of Cotonou accused of corruption, thus his dismissal was unrelated to his activities as the trade union leader.

People living in poverty and extreme poverty had been identified in the recent census, according to precise scientific criteria; it thus enabled the selection of the beneficiaries of the ARCH programme.  Extreme poverty ceiling had been raised to 50,000 CFA per month.  Microcredit programs had been in place for a long time, often focusing on women; the use of digital technology and mobile networks had made them even more accessible. 

The law on strengthening human capital was designed to help the entire population of Benin, particularly through health insurance for all, which was compulsory.  At the moment, not everybody was contributing, but considering that the system was new and still in its pilot stage, it was expected that in the long term, it would improve social security for all.

Women were protected from risky occupations, but as recommended by the World Bank, Benin would soon remove the obstacles to employment opportunities for women.  There was no systematic labour discrimination as equal pay was guaranteed in the law.  The World Bank and other institutions support Benin’s microcredit programme, an experience that Togo and Ghana had replicated. 

Migrant workers in Benin were divided into two categories, refugees and ordinary migrants.  They had to obtain a work permit, which allowed full access to employment without discrimination on the grounds of nationality.  Because there was no discrimination against foreigners in the labour market, there was no reason to institute a specific programme to benefit migrant workers.

Reiterating the commitment to fighting corruption, including in water supply and waste management contracts, the delegation said that the 2018 law strengthened the governance and judiciary system to ensure the transparent participation of private companies in the delivery of some public services.  The law clearly stated that private persons had to pay for any shortfalls in the public budget as a result of corruption, fraudulent or unfavourable contracts.  The Urban Household Waste Collection Company, majority State-owned, was responsible for solid waste collection and was assisted by a private company that managed the collected waste.  The water provision State enterprise had been reformed in 2019 and immense progress had been made on the water provision services front over the past last five years.

The phenomenon of “witch children” was nearly eradicated.  Both the Children Code and the Criminal Code severely penalised any acts that harmed the life or development of children.  Penalties had been increased in recent years and there were awareness-raising activities among parents and families.  Comities on the rights of the child had been set up in villages to eradicate infanticide and female genital mutilation, while secondary centres for birth registration identified and monitored pregnant women provided further obstacles to these harmful practices.  Midwives were trained and education was strengthened, and – most importantly - health centres were much closer to the population, at around five kilometres on average.  A listening system had been set up to collect information on ritual infanticide.

Since 2014, significant progress had been achieved in the fight against malnutrition, thanks to the increased access of the poorest segments of the population to health services and trained health staff, including in remote areas.  Pregnant women were identified and sent to prenatal consultation, while free-of-charge caesareans reduced the number of mothers dying in childbirth.

Prejudices regarding breastfeeding existed mainly in the far-flung areas.  School enrolment for girls was increasing and women participation in the labour market was high, making many women seek alternatives for breastfeeding.  The Government was committed to awareness campaigns emphasizing the importance of breast milk.

Several kinds of pesticides used in cotton production had been banned and awareness-raising campaigns explained the risk they posed to the safety of food crops.  A plan was in place to treat household waste in a way that would allow the use of compost instead of pesticides.

Questions by the Committee Experts

LAURA-MARIA CRĂCIUNEAN-TATU, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Benin, said that 28.8 per cent of children were not enrolled in any form of education, due to the costs related to education and the refusal of the parents.  Despite an increase in the gross enrolment rate, there were significant regional disparities, disparities between rural and urban areas and the higher completion rates among boys. 

The Co-Rapporteur welcomed the provision of free secondary education for girls and asked about the impact of that policy of educational outcomes of girls, including their access to science and technology education.  She highlighted the problems of public school infrastructure and sought information regarding the integration of children with albinism in the school environment and the introduction of local languages in the school curriculum.

Other Experts asked about the impact of the 2016-2021 strategic plan on economic and social development, strategies to prevent the use of illicit drugs, and awareness campaigns to combat prejudice against persons with albinism.

Replies by the delegation

The statistics the Experts had quoted concerning the proportion of children out of school were obsolete, as a great deal of development had occurred in this area.  The classrooms were full and all children were in school as a result of measures that facilitated school attendance and retention, such as the launch of school canteens, the waiving of fees in some cases and ensuring schooling was free of charge.  Girls who dropped out of school mostly came from poor households, which was where the Government intervention was targeted. 

The disparity of enrolment rates by departments was true for the period between 2013-2015, but since then the trend had been reversed via a variety of measures.  The quality of teaching was consistent across departments because teaching staff was trained in the same way in every department.  Benin had made a substantial investment in the education sector, which together with health, took up most of the resources from the national budget. 

The Special Fund for the Individual Communes allowed the construction of a large number of schools and it was rare for an area not to have a school.  The lack of staff was a recurring issue due to many retirements in the last few years.  Recruitment efforts were supplemented by the creation of a database, allowing the deployment of 16,000 additional staff at the secondary level and 11,000 at primary level. 

Until the 2000s, French had been the primary language of education.  There were literacy programs in local languages and attitudes towards children speaking local languages in schools were changing.  Because of lack of teachers able to teach in local languages, training and the creation of textbooks in local languages were priorities.

There were programmes to eliminate gender-based stereotypes and prejudice against persons with albinism and persons with disabilities.  Two civil society organizations promoted the rights and inclusion of children with albinism and cooperated with the Ministry of Justice on strengthening the measures to prevent discrimination.  Problems in the integration of children with albinism in school were generally limited to schoolyard attitudes.  Benin was aware that persons with albinism were threatened in certain parts of the country, but those were rare cases.

Benin was currently undergoing significant state reforms that impeded the process of ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Covenant, but it remained committed to ratifying it in the future.  Not much progress had been made with regards to illicit drug use; the users were seldom prosecuted because Benin saw that the root of the problem was the sale rather than the use of drugs.

The economy had grown by 6.2 per cent in 2019, which had ushered unprecedented economic prosperity.  Many businesses had been created over the past five years, thus contributing to an increase in employment rates.

Concluding Remarks

MOHAMED EZZELDIN ABDEL-MONEIM, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Benin, in his concluding remarks, thanked the delegation for a constructive dialogue which had highlighted several issues.  Benin should work to increase school enrolment rates and address the structure of the agricultural sector that drew children away from school. 

Benin had been independent for almost 60 years, but the historical context of two centuries of slavery and a century of colonisation and economic exploitation weighed heavily and could not be discounted.  The realization of economic, social and cultural rights was costly and Benin had an obligation under the Covenant to efficiently utilize available resources for development.  International cooperation in itself was a panacea, it was an obligation to be fulfilled.  Benin was a country of great assets and had made impressive progress across all sectors. 

TIMOTHÉE YABIT, Deputy Director of the Cabinet of the Minister of Justice of Benin, concluded by thanking the Committee for the efforts to review Benin’s progress.  At 60 years old, the country was just exiting the state of infancy and would continue to make progress on fulfilling its obligations under the Covenant.

RENATO ZERBINI RIBEIRO LEÃO, Committee Chairperson, concluded the dialogue by thanking the delegation and wishing them a safe journey home. 

 

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