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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights meets with civil society representatives from Belgiué and Ukraine

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

ESC/20/01
17 February 2020

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this afternoon heard from civil society organizations on the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Belgium and Ukraine, whose reports the Committee will review this week.  The Committee will also review the report of Guinea this week but there were no civil society representatives present from that country.

Civil society organizations from Belgium pointed out that Belgium’s report did not respond to the Committee’s questions on poverty nor provide actual data on poverty.  Belgium was in breach of its commitment to lift 380,000 people out of poverty by 2020.

On Ukraine, speakers drew attention to the fact that the Government continued to discriminate against people who lived in the temporarily occupied districts of Donetsk and Lugansk; it had not taken steps to ensure the provision of pensions to residents there.  Pensions were still only paid out to those registered as internally displaced persons. 

Speaking on Belgium were FIAN Belgium and Association for the Promotion of Francophonie.

Speaking on Ukraine were Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Eurasian Harm Reduction Association, Égalité Intersex Ukraine, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, NGO Centre Women’s Perspectives, PSI and Network of People Who Use Drugs. 

The Committee will next meet in public on Tuesday, 18 February at 10 a.m.  when it will consider the initial report of Guinea (E/C.12/GIN/1). 

Opening Remarks

RENATO ZERBINI RIBEIRO LEÃO, Committee Chairperson, welcomed all those present, and thanked them for their interest in the work of the Committee. 

Statements by Civil Society Organizations from Belgium

FIAN Belgium said Belgium’s report did not respond to the Committee’s questions on poverty nor provide actual data on poverty.  Belgium was in breach of its commitment to lift 380,000 people out of poverty by 2020.  Persistent poverty and the failure of the dominant food system, characterized by a strong presence of the food industry in Belgium, had a direct impact on the enjoyment of the right to food and nutrition.  The Committee should encourage Belgium to enshrine the right to food nutrition in the Constitution and national law.  Further, the Committee should urge Belgium to implement the provisions of the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants; abolish policies promoting agrofuels; raise its nationally determined contributions to a minimum of 55 per cent of emission reduction by 2030; and comply with its extraterritorial obligations to control the activities of its companies to prevent human rights abuses.

Association for the Promotion of Francophonie said that, despite Flanders’ behaviour towards its French-speaking minority, Belgium had still not ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.  During the Universal Periodic Review in 2016, over 30 countries had recommended that Belgium accelerate the creation of a national human rights institution.  Why did Belgium not regularly meet with civil society representatives to monitor the implementation of the United Nations’ recommendations?  The French-speaking minority in the Flemish region faced numerous discriminations.  For instance, Flanders did not grant subventions to French-speaking cultural associations and had petitioned a court to prevent the Wallonie-Brussels Federation from doing so.  The Committee should recommend that Belgium ensure that the Federal Institute for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights be able to process individual complaints; ratify the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and Protocol number 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights; and name an organization in charge of dealing with discriminations based on language, as provided for by article 29(2) of the anti-discrimination law.

Questions by the Committee Experts

On poverty, Committee Experts inquired about the monitoring and assessing tools in place.  What were their limits?  They asked about Belgium’s efforts to limit its carbon emissions, and whether additional nutrition-related regulations could be implemented to foster eating habits that were healthier.  Experts also requested information on the bodies that could be competent to process complaints related to linguistic discrimination.

Answers

FIAN Belgium said that, on poverty, there were detailed evaluations that had shown that the Government’s plan had not had an impact on poverty reduction: poverty levels were the same as 15 years ago.  On climate change, Belgium would not be, along with three or four other European countries, meeting its commitments by 2030, only reducing its emissions by 30 per cent, rather than 50 per cent.  It would be positive for Belgium to put in place measures to regulate certain foods in order to foster healthier eating habits.

Association for the Promotion of Francophonie said that UNIA, a B-level national human rights institution, was ready to take on the responsibility of addressing linguistic discrimination.  Flanders had recently declared that it would leave UNIA, which would create additional problems, notably as regard the creation of a national human rights institution.  Victims would continue to be left to their own devices.  This would discourage them from reporting cases of discrimination.

Statements by Civil Society Organizations from Ukraine

Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union said the Government continued to discriminate against people who lived in the temporarily occupied districts of Donetsk and Lugansk; it had not taken steps to ensure the provision of pensions to residents there.  Pensions were still only paid out to those registered as internally displaced persons.  The rights of civilians from the temporarily occupied territories who had developed disabilities as a result of wounds incurred in the conflict were also infringed upon.  Some of them were denied the status of a person with a war-related disability.  Activities seeking to uphold the rights of internally displaced people were included in local anti-poverty programmes.  And yet, a large number of community-level social programmes provided only for a limited number of measures aimed at supporting internally displaced people, and were not included in the general local anti-poverty policy.

Eurasian Harm Reduction Association requested that the Committee recommend to the Government of Ukraine that it depenalize drug-use related behaviour, such as simple possession of narcotic drugs (article 309 of the Criminal Code), and ensure that such behaviour triggered interventions of social support, education and medical help on the part of the State rather than policing and punishment.  Furthermore, the Government should address discrimination against people who used drugs and drug dependent people, ensuring that drug use and drug dependence were not listed as barriers to parenting, education, obtaining a driving license, and other rights and freedoms.  The Committee should also recommend that the State party continue improving the access of people with drug dependence to appropriate health care, psychological support services and rehabilitation.

Égalité Intersex Ukraine said intersex people were denied the right to self-determination as well as the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.  This was a result of harassment and lack of access to employment and official identity documents, amongst other issues.  In the dialogue with Ukraine, the Committee should make the following recommendations to Ukraine: that it adopt clear legislative provisions explicitly prohibiting the performance of unnecessary surgical or other medical treatment on intersex children until they reach an age when they can give their free, prior, and fully informed consent; provide redress for intersex people who had undergone such unnecessary procedures, without fear of retribution or stigmatization; ensure access to non-discriminatory health services for intersex people by raising awareness amongst providers; develop a comprehensive legislative and policy framework to raise awareness; and safeguard intersex people from abuse, discriminatory stereotypes and exclusion.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom flagged the impact of the conflict, austerity measures and the decentralization process on women’s rights; discrimination against women with regard to access to work; the specific challenges faced by internally displaced persons with regard to, for example, access to work and to housing; access to health and psychological support in conflict affected communities; and gender based violence, including domestic violence.  The impact of the conflict had been compounded by the negative effects of macroeconomic reforms implemented as part of the conditions attached to loans provided by international financial institutions.  Feminists and activists on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender plus issues were among the main targets of street violence and confrontations with far-right groups.

NGO Centre Women’s Perspectives said there were no social housing facilities, which increased poverty amongst women, especially those who were internally displaced.  This also made women more at risk of being victims of gender based violence.  Psychological programmes were needed in areas affected by conflicts, notably for former combatants and their families.  As a result of tolerance to sexual violence and stereotypes about wives’ marital duties, victims of sexual violence did not consider sexual coercion as violence and faced obstacles in access to justice.  Lack of training and lack of gender-sensitivity among law enforcement officials, the persistence of a victim-blaming mentality mindset in society, and the increase in conservative and far-right rhetoric about the defence of so-called family values, amongst other issues, posed serious challenges to the effective implementation of the law.  A significant number of women had been subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, both by armed groups in conflict zones and by Ukrainian armed and security forces.

PSI said that at the end of 2019, the Government and a group of Deputies of Ukraine from the ruling party had submitted to Parliament a number of amendments to the labour legislation and new draft laws on labour issues, which, if finally passed, would erode fundamental rights in breach not only of the Covenant, but also of International Labour Organization standards.  These legislative amendments had been developed behind closed doors and without full and frank consultations with trade unions.  Among other restrictions or violations, they provided for the unilateral termination of employment contracts without severance pay, were likely to particularly impact trade unionists and whistle-blowers, and provided for the expansion of short-term contracts and the introduction of zero-hours contracts, which would create more job and income insecurity, unpredictability of working hours and stress. 

Network of People Who Use Drugs said that in Ukraine drug use was decriminalized, but “possession and purchase” was criminally punishable by law.  In 2018, 84 per cent of all people convicted for drug-related crimes were convicted of possession for personal use.  According to existing legislation, even the amount of narcotic substances remaining in the syringe after it was used was enough to initiate a criminal case.  In Ukraine, the disposal of syringes had practically been stopped.  With the transition of harm reduction programmes to State funding, the number of services had fallen sharply, and the quality of those that remained had greatly deteriorated.  The Committee should urge the Government of Ukraine to stop prosecuting people who used drugs as well as to abolish all forms of punishment for the possession of substance for personal use and ensure the provision of health social services instead.

Questions by the Committee Experts

Committee Experts sought to obtain information on civil society space in Ukraine.  Had there been any laws passed recently that would restrict the space for civil society organizations?

They requested information about the situation of medical personnel regarding operations performed on intersex children and persons, more generally.  As the non-governmental organization had asked the Committee to raise this issue with the State party, additional information on this matter would be appreciated.  Experts also sought clarification regarding the criminalization of the possession of drugs.

Answers
Ukraine Helsinki Human Rights Union said the situation was difficult for human rights defenders.  Police investigations into violations faced by human rights defenders were “very poor”.

Representatives from non-governmental organizations explained that the possession of drugs, even in small quantities, was criminalized.  On the situation of intersex people, the media had reported on some of the cases, expressing criticism of the treatments imposed on them.  This had led to some treatments being postponed.  The debate on the situation of intersex people in Ukraine was ongoing.  The Committee could ask the Government if it was ensuring consent to the treatment imposed on intersex people, and if there were any plans to ban some of these treatments.

 

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