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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Holds Day of General Discussion on Sustainable Development and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
24 February 2023
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today held a day of general discussion on its proposed General Comment on sustainable development and economic, social and cultural rights.
Mohamed Abdel Moneim, Chair of the Committee, opening the discussion, said that, given the increasing global focus on sustainable development, the General Comment was very timely and urgently needed.
Michael Windfuhr, Committee Vice-Chair and head of the Committee drafting group, said the Committee had started drafting the General Comment four years ago. It had called for economic, social and cultural rights to be considered in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The Committee needed to consider how to realise economic, social and cultural rights in times of intersecting crises and planetary boundaries. After the discussion, a draft would be prepared, and the Committee aimed to adopt it by spring next year.
Megan Donald, Consultant for the German Institute for Human Rights and Fellow at the Geneva Academy, said participants in consultations presented valuable contributions to the Comment. Some of the statements made by participants included that women and indigenous persons, children, youth, persons with disabilities and persons without land tenure needed to play an active role in development, and the equal development of all countries needed to be stressed. Ms. Donald called on the Committee to address these recommendations in the General Comment.
Four panel discussions were held on the implications of sustainable development on key doctrines and State obligations under the Covenant; sustainable development from different perspectives; links between sustainable development and the right to development, labour standards and poverty; and implications of sustainable development on Covenant rights.
Presentations were given in the panel discussions by Sandra Liebenberg, former Committee member; Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Club of Rome member; Laura Santacoloma, Coordinator of Environmental Justice at Dejusticia; Aoife Nolan, Co-Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, University of Nottingham; Mikiko Otani, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child; Judith Bueno De Mesquita, Co-Deputy Director, Human Rights Centre; Saima Zia, Member of the Coordination Committee of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for Relations with the United Nations Committee on World Food Security; Tim De Meyer, Senior Adviser on Standards Policy, International Labour Organization; Mihir Kanade, Member of the Expert Mechanism on the Right to Development; Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights; Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights; Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; and David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on the Environment,
Representatives of national, regional and international organizations and institutions, as well as members of civil society also participated in the panel discussions.
In concluding remarks, Michael Windfuhr, Committee Vice-Chair, said there had been a wealth of input on sustainable development throughout the day. Discussions had revealed that the General Comment needed to consider human well-being, the rights of women and girls, access to technology and science, rights to social protection and redistribution of resources, greening the economy, extraterritorial obligations and investment strategies, cultural rights, the right to a healthy environment, and violence against women and girls. The advice provided during the discussion would guide the Committee in drafting the General Comment, which it hoped to ready by the end of the March 2024.
All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage. Webcasts of the meetings of the session can be found here, and meetings summaries can be found here.
The Committee will next meet in public at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, 3 March, to close its seventy-third session.
MOHAMED EZZELDIN ABDEL-MONEIM, Committee Chair, said discussion would be held on the Committee’s General Comment on Sustainable Development and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee’s General Comments provided authoritative guidance and contributed to the advancement of economic, social and cultural rights. Given the increasing global focus on sustainable development, this General Comment was very timely and urgently needed. The impressive array of experts in the panels reflected this importance.
MICHAEL WINDFUHR, Committee Vice-Chair and head of the Committee drafting group, said the Committee had started drafting the General Comment four years ago. It had called on economic, social and cultural rights to be considered in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The Committee needed to consider how to realise economic, social and cultural rights in times of intersecting crises and planetary boundaries. The Committee had held consultations with children and various experts on the Comment. After the discussion, a draft would be prepared, and the Committee aimed to adopt it by spring next year.
MEGAN DONALD, Consultant for the German Institute for Human Rights and Fellow at the Geneva Academy, said participants in consultations presented valuable contributions to the Comment. Participants said that understanding of development must not be limited to economic growth, and needed to consider people. Women and indigenous persons, children, youth, persons with disabilities and persons without land tenure needed to play an active role in development, and the equal development of all countries needed to be stressed. Communities should be considered as partners in sustainable development. Economic, social and cultural rights needed to be linked to civil and political rights. Achieving gender balance was critical, as empowering women contributed to economic growth. The Committee had been asked to elaborate on extraterritorial implications of climate change. Countries with greater greenhouse gas emissions needed to be held accountable. There was a need for greater work in adaptation and mitigation measures. Coordinated, global responses were needed. Participants expected the General Comment to address the challenges of business and human rights. The private sector needed to respect human rights, and States needed to be transparent in their dealings with businesses. The revenues from exploitation projects needed to be shared with local communities, and the land rights of indigenous communities needed to be respected. The Covenant stated that people, not States, had the right to environmental resources. The Committee needed to consider what the right to a healthy environment meant in terms of economic, social and cultural rights. Ms. Donald called on the Committee to address these recommendations in the General Comment.
Panel I: Implications of Sustainable Development on Key Doctrines and State Obligations under the Covenant
SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Professor and H.F. Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law, Faculty of Law, University of Stellenbosch, and former Committee member, reviewed key doctrines and state obligations under the Covenant.
Unsustainable models of production and consumption were exceeding the Earth’s capacity. Humanity faced the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. These were undermining the environmental bases for the realization of all human rights for present and future generations. Current models of development were unsustainable and inequitable. The richest 10 per cent of the global population contributed 50 per cent to global carbon dioxide emissions, whereas the bottom 50 per cent contributed 12 per cent. The burden of climate change impacts and environmental degradation fell disproportionately on indigenous peoples, vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, and developing and fragile States. There were steep increases in income and wealth disparities globally, with the richest 10 per cent of the global population owning 76 per cent of all wealth. To address these issues, models of development that took both human rights and ecological limits seriously were necessary. Ms. Liebenberg introduced “Doughnut Economics” and discussed how this model could be applied to the Covenant’s doctrine.
JOHAN ROCKSTRÖM, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Professor at the Institute of Earth and Environmental Science at Potsdam University and Club of Rome member, discussed four interconnected global crises or “polycrises”: the climate crisis, the ecological crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and geopolitical instability. Inflation, economic recession, and conflicts, among other factors, could have lasting effects on the Earth over the long term. 2022 was the fifth warmest year on record, but also was also a La Nina year.
Environmental crises were no longer only environmental threats. These crises could lead to displacement, instability and potential conflicts. Stressing that humanity was entirely dependent on the balance of nine planetary boundaries, Mr. Rockström explored how to achieve prosperous development for humanity through respecting the planet. A giant leap was required. The world needed to reduce inequality, invest in economic development, foster social trust, and push for a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable development was at the centre of such an approach.
LAURA SANTACOLOMA, Coordinator of Environmental Justice at Dejusticia, stressed that climate change was a monumental injustice. Climate change needed to be addressed in a just way, protecting the least responsible and ensuring that the greatest costs of transition and adaptation were shouldered by those with greater capacity and responsibility. The Paris Agreement system had been ineffective because fulfilment of commitments was voluntary, targets were limited, and the reduction of emissions was slow given the rising temperatures. Extraterritorial mitigation obligations needed to be proportional to historical and current responsibility for the emission of greenhouse gases. Sustainable development required understanding of the maximum availability of resources in relation to climate emergencies and environmental deterioration. The clause “maximum available resources” needed to be understood as “maximum sustainable resources available”. In this context, States needed to design and implement a plan to identify the impact of economic activities and move toward a model of development based on sustainable resources and respect for human rights.
Extraterritorial obligations affected all States. The General Comment needed to propose an accountability system to monitor whether States were reducing their emissions. The Committee needed to provide a regulatory guide to implement energy transitions that were human rights friendly. States needed to incorporate norms that protected human rights in the context of climate change, as well as adjust their institutions to guarantee human rights without destabilizing their economy.
AOIFE NOLAN, Professor of International Human Rights Law and Co-Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, University of Nottingham, said that, given the implications of sustainable development on children, it was vital that children and child rights issues were accorded particular attention within the General Comment. This required child rights to be integrated and mainstreamed across the document. Drafters needed to bear in mind that children’s economic, social and cultural rights under the Covenant were not necessarily identical to those relating to adults. A focus on “future generations” and their rights would not be sufficient; the General Comment needed to take proper account of children and the rights. For the first time, children had had the opportunity to have their thoughts and ideas included in the process of drafting a General Comment by the Committee. Children's contributions had reflected common areas of concern, such as unequal access to education, land and housing, as well as socio-economic inequalities and age discrimination. Children had emphasised how environmental damage affected their living conditions; discussed discrimination in relation to race and gender; and children’s ability to meaningfully participate in decision-making.
A general discussion was held, in which speakers said that the concept of “maximum available resources” was not only about money. The concept also applied to human and environmental resources. A human rights-based approach to development was needed. The Committee needed to consider the blue economy, and the negative impact of economic activity on marine life. Speakers called on the Committee to increase States’ accountability regarding promoting women’s participation in all areas of sustainable development. Speakers called on the Committee to address unequal accumulations of wealth and planetary boundaries in the General Comment. The General Comment should place environmental rights ahead of businesses’ rights. Businesses needed to be held accountable for their present and past activities and their impact on the climate and local communities. The gender dimension of sustainable development was also critical, including thinking in terms of the care economy, where women were disproportionately reflected. The Committee needed to consider a model of development to pursue to support enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. The benefits of scientific progress and its application needed to be fairly distributed to promote development and human rights.
Panel II: Sustainable Development from Different Perspectives
MIKIKO OTANI, Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, welcomed that children’s rights were given clear prominence in the General Comment, and that children were consulted widely in drafting the Comment. The Committee on the Rights of the Child had collaborated closely with the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on drafting its own General Comment 26 on Children's Rights and the Environment with a Special Focus on Climate Change. Public consultation on this Comment had been closed on 15 February. The Committee on the Rights of the Child planned to adopt the Comment in its May session. The objectives of the Comment included promoting international cooperation and intergenerational equity, improving environmental legislation and bolstering the rights of children to a healthy environment. Sustainable development, which was included as a key concept in the draft Comment, was vital for achieving intergenerational equity. The Committee on the Rights of the Child had not had the opportunity to discuss sustainable development in depth, making this discussion timely.
63 per cent of children believed that they were affected more than adults by climate change. Discussions of future generations needed to consider the rights of children, including their right to development. States needed to implement their obligations under the Convention, and provide children with the right to a healthy environment. The Committee’s discussion on sustainable development would inform the Committee on the Rights of the Child regarding States’ obligations in relation to sustainable development.
JUDITH BUENO DE MESQUITA, Co-Deputy Director, Human Rights Centre, Senior Lecturer in International Human Rights Law, School of Law, University of Essex, noting how progress on Paris Agreement commitments was offtrack, referred on the negative impact of climate change on economic, social and cultural rights. Malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, heat stress alone caused more than 250,000 deaths per year from 2030 to 2050. A rise in average temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to 2 degrees Celsius could reduce climate-related risks for 457 million people, and prevent up to 190 million early deaths over this century. Noting inequalities in cause and effect, Ms. De Mesquita discussed global inequity in the responsibility for climate change and the burden of its impacts.
Post-development approaches to climate change should be non-hegemonic, non-universal approaches that included shared commitment to social and environmental well-being. Good lives did not have to cost the earth. The General Comment should be informed by climate science; address equality, non-discrimination, international assistance and cooperation; move beyond a human/nature duality; and recognise alternative environmentally sustainable lifestyles.
SAIMA ZIA, Member of the Coordination Committee of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the United Nations Committee on World Food Security, said that most of the world's farmers were engaged in small-scale agriculture in developing countries. Farmers faced a series of intersecting challenges: increasing competition for land and water; changing markets; rising fuel and fertilizer prices; land grabs; and climate change. Decades ago, small-scale farmers used to preserve their own seeds for the next crop, giving them control over their own resources and seeds. Now, they were buying seeds from multinational companies that would not germinate. Ms. Zia raised concerns about how the jobs of agriculture workers, who were mostly women, could be ensured, given the growing role of digitalization and technology in agriculture. She noted that States could support small-scale farmers by sponsoring resources such as seeds and services such as education and health; by providing land rights, and accepting food sovereignty for small farmers could make a real change.
SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Professor and H.F. Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law, Faculty of Law, University of Stellenbosch, and former Committee member, said the Maastricht Principles focused on the human rights of future generations. Sustainable development was about securing development over time, and for generations to come. The Principles had been adopted after a six-year process, including significant consultations with different parties. Ms. Liebenberg noted synergies between the Maastricht Principles and the forthcoming Committee of Cultural, Economic and Social Rights General Comment, and expressed appreciation that the Maastricht Principles had been referenced in the development of the General Comment.
In the ensuing discussion, reference was made to a Sustainable Development Goal – Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities resource package. It was noted that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would start developing a General Comment on risks in humanitarian emergencies. Addressing the disproportionate impact of climate change on persons with disabilities, including in natural disaster situations, speakers stressed the importance of including persons with disabilities in the conversation on recommendations and response measures. Speakers said significant work was needed on the impact of new technologies on economic, social and cultural rights, something that the next General Comment should further explore.
Speakers inquired as to whether sustainable development in accordance with the 2030 Agenda was able to cover all problems related to guaranteeing economic, social and cultural rights; and as to how States could cooperate in advancing indigenous practices, considering that some local legislation significantly stifled the practice of indigenous groups’ agricultural traditions.
Speakers said the General Comment should address the obligations of States to protect the Covenant rights from the adverse effect of productional and consumption of fossil fuels. Speakers stressed the importance to bear in mind the rights and needs of different groups. Speakers said norms and synergies could contribute to guaranteeing economic, social and cultural rights and human rights in general. Questions of economic growth needed to be addressed at the global level, considering the Global North’s impact on climate change. The 2030 Agenda was not the only approach to guaranteeing sustainable development or human rights.
Panel III: Links Between Sustainable Development and The Right to Development, Labour Standards and Poverty
TIM DE MEYER, Senior Adviser on Standards Policy, International Labour Standards Department, International Labour Organization, stressed the common nature of human rights and labour rights. It was essential that every human being could work in the knowledge that their freedom, dignity and decent work was protected by States and respected by businesses as human rights. Mr. De Meyer highlighted the interoperability of the human rights mechanisms, including those mandated to supervise the application of international labour standards. Universal human rights and international labour standards were fundamental to sustainable development. Accountability was important, but it alone could not protect workers’ rights, dignity and freedom.
He recommended reaffirming international labour standards and the normative foundations of all Sustainable Development Goal targets. On climate change, the transition to an environmentally sustainable society was imperative. The green transition could not occur at the expense of economic or social rights. The green economy had great potential for decent job creation. The transition would require coordinated and relevant employment policies, social protection and social dialogue. Attention needed to be paid to labour market standards. States needed to work together to realize human rights and international labour standards.
MIHIR KANADE, Member of theExpert Mechanism on the Right to Development, said realizing the right to development was needed to achieve sustainable development. Development could be sustainable when it was operationalised as a human right; unsustainable development was a key obstacle to the realization of the right to development. The General Comment should place a spotlight on such mutually dependent relations. The Committee should elaborate on this relationship by incorporating an understanding of development as a human right of all. Development was a self-standing human right, with rights holders self-determining what development meant to them and what their priorities were. National development targets and policies needed to be based on the participation of rights-holders.
States were obliged to adopt development measures that did not have adverse extraterritorial impact on the right to development of those outside their jurisdiction; and to collectively adopt policies in international and regional partnerships that helped realise the right to development. States should seek international cooperation when they lacked adequate financial or technological capacities.
OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, challenged the perception that the realization of economic, social and cultural rights as stipulated in the Covenant was in tension with the objective of sustainable development. He emphasized that the Sustainable Development Goal on eradication of poverty was fully consistent and a contribution to Goals on responsible consumption, production and climate change action. The opposition between the realization of economic, social and cultural rights and sustainable development was a myth. Covenant Rights helped to define how the different pillars of sustainable development could be best reconciled.
The principle of leaving none behind should lead to strengthened action towards environmental sustainability. People in poverty were the most effected by climate change and biodiversity loss. Many depended on the ecosystem for their livelihoods. By restoring the ecosystem and combating climate change, the world could supporting people in poverty affected by climate destruction and environmental degradation. Universal basic services and public goods should be prioritised. Measures were needed to mitigate environmental impacts; create decent jobs for people with low levels of qualification; ensure essential goods and services be available for people with low income. By investing in public transportation, pollution could be reduced, jobs created, and more people with low income would have access to mobility. At the heart of the reconciliation between Covenant Rights and sustainable development was the idea that inequalities must be reduced, something that was key to success in the ecological transformation.
Speakers appreciated remarks on the relationship between poverty and sustainable development, and on the compatibility between greening the planet and banishing poverty. Lack of access to a healthy environment needed to be considered as a form of poverty. Regarding labour standards, the negative impacts of agro-industrial food systems on food system workers, particularly in rural areas, were stressed. The need to analyse a transition to agroecology was highlighted.
Panel IV: Implications of Sustainable Development on Covenant Rights
LAURA-MARIA CRACIUNEAN-TATU, Committee Expert, said the panel would address the implications of sustainable development on Covenant rights. The Covenant was a living instrument that needed to respond effectively to the challenges of today. Speakers would illustrate these challenges.
ALEXANDRA XANTHAKI, Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, said that she had submitted a report to the General Assembly on sustainable development and cultural rights. Culture was a driver of sustainable development, but had been neglected in discussions on development. The Committee needed to address cultural rights in a comprehensive way in the General Comment. All persons had the right to participate in cultural life. The destruction of cultural sites was ongoing around the world. The General Comment needed to address the need for indicators regarding cultural rights. “Cultural development” needed to be considered as a fourth pillar to sustainable development. Museums, art and cultural heritage sites were important resources that shaped human development. Businesses and government organisations needed to consider cultural rights in development projects. Access and participation in cultural activities needed to be promoted. There was a need to clarify cultural rights within the framework of sustainable development.
MICHAEL FAKHRI, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said the right to food had always been closely linked to the concept of sustainable development. Since the 1940s, “underdeveloped countries” were considered to be countries that relied on agricultural production, and development was tied to industrialisation. Developed countries had increasingly invested less in agriculture and more in the industrial sector. There was a strong bias in favour of industrialising agricultural production. Industrial agriculture was not sustainable. It polluted the environment and weakened small-scale producers.
The Covenant had articulated the right to an adequate standard of living, and specified the right to food. The Food and Agricultural Organization had in 1960 added the right to food as part of its mandate. Countries were now trying to redirect resources into local food production in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There had also recently been normative developments connecting the right to food to “food sovereignty”. The aim of these was to ensure good relationships between humans, and between humans and the environment. Food represented life itself.
DAVID R. BOYD, Special Rapporteur on the Environment, said the needs of millions in terms of environmental rights were not being met. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment should be a catalyst for the right to sustainable development. The Committee had recently recognised in its General Comment on land that the sustainable use of land was key to sustainable development. The right to a healthy environment was protected by Constitutions and international norms in 156 States. The right to a healthy environment empowered people to hold States accountable; to require States to limit greenhouse gas emissions, to prevent the use of harmful chemicals, and prevent practices that led to disease outbreaks. Climate change had a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups. The Committee should reinforce that pledges to promote sustainable development within international treaties were legally binding.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers discussed how promoting children’s participation in decision-making processes was essential in achieving sustainable development. Colonial legacies and other root causes of inequalities in development needed to be addressed. Culture and arts should be placed at the centre of knowledge co-production. Economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights were indivisible.
Speakers asked questions on how the rights of women could be protected in the face of increasing austerity measures and privatisation; on how harmful cultural practices affected women’s development; on impediments to linking economic and cultural rights; on how to address the loss of species and cultural practices in the General Comment; and on how to develop an alternative model of agriculture to promote the right to food.
In response to these questions, speakers said effective participation of marginalised groups in decision-making processes was important. Cultural rights standards were needed to empower women and give them tools to make informed choices. Stereotypes around women’s roles needed to be challenged. There was work to be done to promote women’s right to agricultural land. Certain international organisations sought to avoid discussions on cultural rights and were violating cultural rights in creating one-size-fits-all development models. There needed to be clear collaboration between these organisations and United Nations human rights bodies.
Food production and environmental preservation needed to be improved. Food systems needed to be reformed to ensure that food was available in equitable terms. There needed to be a commitment to fair and equitable rights in trade markets. The value of species and culture needed to be considered, rather than sacrificed for the sake of development.
Investment treaties prioritised the rights of foreign investors over communities affected by development. Laws aiming to reduce offshore oil drilling had been abandoned due to fears of violating investment treaties. These treaties needed to be addressed. There needed to be measures implemented to provide debt relief to indebted countries. There were opportunities to reduce emissions and the cost of energy through renewable energy production in developing countries. Indigenous knowledge and lifestyles needed to inform new concepts of sustainable development.
MICHAEL WINDFUHR, Committee Vice-Chair, said there had been a wealth of input on sustainable development throughout the day. The Covenant was a living document, and the Committee needed to learn how to reinterpret its concepts. Sustainable policies helped those in extreme poverty and marginalised communities. Humanity needed to meet the needs of current generations without harming future generations. The General Comment needed to consider human well-being, the rights of women and girls, access to technology and science, rights to social protection and redistribution of resources, greening the economy, extraterritorial obligations and investment strategies, cultural rights, the right to a healthy environment, and violence against women and girls. The advice provided during the discussion would guide the Committee in drafting the General Comment, which it hoped to ready by the end of the March 2024.
MOHAMED EZZELDIN ABDEL-MONEIM, Committee Chair, said the idea of a General Comment was to enhance the implementation and interpretation of the Covenant. The Committee’s General Comments should be taken as a set, and were informed by the Committee’s concluding observations. Sustainable development was related to maximum available resources. Conflicts affected funding of development policies. Money spent on fake luxury products was close to the amount needed by developing countries to achieve sustainable development goals. The General Comment dealt with all the rights covered by the Covenant. Every idea contributed in the discussion would be considered carefully in the drafting of the General Comment.
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