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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights hears from human rights institutions and civil society from the United Kingdom, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Angola.

13 June 2016

GENEVA (13 June 2016 ) - The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this morning heard from civil society organizations from the United Kingdom, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Angola.
Non-governmental organizations from the United Kingdom highlighted the severe impact of the cuts in social protection budget on low-income working families, adding that an increasing number of such families and their children were using food banks.  Ethnic minorities and women were the most affected groups, and it was noted that the reductions in the social protection budget were permanent rather than temporary in nature.
As for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, civil society representatives raised the issues of the criminalization of possession of cannabis for personal use, lack of harm reduction services throughout the country, and the criminalization of sex work.  They also drew attention to the lack of evidence-based and non-biased sexual education in schools, and the lack of sexual and reproductive health services for Roma women.  The problem of access to social services by transgender persons was also discussed.
On Angola, a civil society organization reiterated a profound concern over the obstacles to the defense of economic, social and cultural rights in the country.  Human rights defenders in Angola were harassed and intimated, and the Government had not responded adequately to the Committee’s concerns raised in 2009.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will next meet at 3 p.m. today to start the consideration of the combined second and fourth periodic report of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (E/C.12/MKD/2-4).
The United Kingdom
Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted the importance of enhancing the status of Covenant on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in domestic law.  If the Government took forward proposals for a Bill of Rights, any changes to the human rights framework should not be regressive and should consider options for better protecting economic, social and cultural rights.  The Government’s consideration of the impact of policy and legislation on potentially vulnerable groups should be strengthened, including by conducting cumulative impact assessments.  Significant progress needed to be made to achieve targets set out in the Child Poverty Act of 2010, which had recently been repealed.  As for access to work and just and favourable conditions of work, young people, Muslims and disabled people had disproportionately high unemployment rates.  Low-paid work affected 5.5 million people in the United Kingdom.
Scottish Human Rights Commission drew attention to social and health inequalities, the right to adequate standard of living, noting that Scotland had no appetite for the British Bill of Rights because of the regressive environment in the United Kingdom.  Scotland had taken a different approach through a national action plan and was committed to implementing economic, social and cultural rights.  Welfare, tax and borrowing powers were granted to the Scottish Parliament, and they would be crucial in the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights across Scotland.  Some minorities, including Roma, Traveler women, prisoners and mental health patients had difficulties accessing healthcare.  There was a decline in social construction, some 40 per cent overall increase in poverty levels, and many children used food banks, as the result of the reductions in public spending and cuts in the social budget.  The Commission asked the Government to confirm that those measures would be temporary.
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission focused on the lack of political stability and impasse on the welfare reform.  In November 2015, political talks had resulted in an agreement which had set out the approach to implement a social security reform in Northern Ireland.  It urged the United Kingdom Government to report on the effectiveness of the mitigation scheme in protecting the most vulnerable ones from the adverse impacts of social security reform.  It was essential that a robust monitoring arrangement was in place in order to assess how the reform respected the principles of non-retrogression, non-discrimination, progressive realization and the use of maximum available resources.  The Commission noted that the use of food banks had increased by 48 per cent in 2014 and 2015, as compared to the previous years.  It raised objection to the law on termination of pregnancy, noting that it was incompatible with Article 8 in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, or rape or incest.
Just Fair drew attention to the unprecedented cuts to public services in the United Kingdom.  Between 2010 and 2015, the Government had cut the annual social security budget by 20 billion British pounds.  It was clear that the cuts were permanent and an independent research had shown that the cumulative impact of the social security reforms had deprived many of an income sufficient for an adequate standard of living.  The current levels of benefits for persons with disabilities were already failing to meet their essential living needs, and a rising numbers of people were using food banks.  Rates for asylum seekers and migrants were grossly inadequate, whereas cuts in State benefits had impacted directly on the enjoyment of the right to housing.  In addition, the tax policy was regressive.  More than 1.25 million people were living in absolute destitution, among them 312,000 children. 
Human Rights Consortium of Northern Ireland noted that, despite its significance, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland had not yet been introduced.  The United Kingdom Government had failed to take any significant action in that regard since 2009.  The State party had asserted that there was no political consensus in Northern Ireland on a Bill of Rights, which was why there had been no progress.  However, there had been no requirement for a  local political consensus on the content of a Bill of Rights, which was stipulated in the Belfast Agreement.  A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would be an ideal mechanism for the domestic application of the rights contained in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  The Consortium thus called on the Committee to consider recommending that the State party fulfilled its obligations under the Belfast Agreement.
Minority Rights Group drew attention to the issue of the Chagos Islands located in the Indian Ocean, specifically the island of Diego Garcia, which the United Kingdom had leased to the United States to be used as a major military base.  It was noted that the continued exile of the Chagossian people was a violation of the rights to an adequate standard of living under Article 11 of the Covenant.  It recommended that the United Kingdom Government recognize the violations endured by the Chagossians’ right to return immediately, pay them adequate compensation for the violation of their rights over the previous 40 years, and to appropriately seek informed consent of the Chagossians in relation to return and compensation process.
Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights noted that the United Kingdom, through its development agency, DFID, was funding the privatisation of education in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, India and Pakistan.  Of particular concern was the funding of “low-cost” for-profit private chain schools, such as those operated by the Bridge International Academies.  The growth of private actors in education systems increased segregation between socio-economic groups and discrimination against children from low-income families, and often, girls.
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom highlighted the impact of the United Kingdom’s arms sales to the members of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.  The coalition was using explosive weapons in populated areas, killing and injuring civilians and causing destruction of civilian infrastructure, and having a direct impact on the rights to adequate housing, health and education.  It called for an immediate suspension of the United Kingdom’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia and an international independent inquiry into the Kingdom’s military campaign in Yemen. 
International Baby Food Action Network stated that the rights of mothers to breastfeed their children in public places needed to be better communicated, as mothers continued to be asked to stop breastfeeding and had even been refused service in some cafes, restaurants and other locations.  Services that did exist to support mothers in that regard were now being reduced or cancelled due to the Government’s austerity measures.
Amnesty International raised a concern over the United Kingdom Government’s proposals to replace the Human Rights Act with a “British Bill of Rights”.  That reform project was dangerous and unnecessary, and appeared to be focused on allowing the Government to lower the protection of human rights.  As for the legislation governing abortion in Northern Ireland, it was one of the most restrictive ones in Europe both in law and practice, and it carried the harshest penalties. 
Questions by Experts
An Expert asked about the Scottish Government’s commitment to making economic, social and cultural rights a reality, the impact of the public budget in the United Kingdom on access to education, and shared concern about the United Kingdom intention to replace the Human Rights Acts with a “British Bill of Rights.”  What were the provisions of the draft bill? 
Another Expert asked for clarification on the issue of the privatization of education, wondering whether it was total or partial privatization of education in developing countries.  He reminded that there had been a trend of privatization of education in developing countries, but only at the higher level. 
An Expert asked how the social security reform in the United Kingdom had undermined the realization of social, economic and cultural rights since the previous dialogue.
Replies by the civil society organizations from the United Kingdom
Scottish Human Rights Commission said that there was a specific commitment by the Scottish Government to explore the benefits of an incorporation of economic, social and cultural rights.  In practice, there existed a working group formed in cooperation with civil society and independent experts. 
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission explained that one of the fears was what would happen when the mitigation scheme ended; another concern was over changes to benefits and tax credits.  The Commission thus urged for a review of the effectiveness of the mitigation scheme.
Equality and Human Rights Commission flagged the United Kingdom Government’s strategy of getting people to work as the best way to reduce poverty.  However, there was still the issue of low pay.  As a result of the social security reforms, the funding for education had experienced an 11 per cent drop in funding. 
Amnesty International said that it would respond to the Experts’ questions in writing. 
Just Fair noted that the scale of the cuts was important in itself, adding that the cuts were permanent and so many people relied on social security because of low salaries.  It had a direct impact on working families, which had experienced a 12 per cent drop in their incomes and were forced to use food banks.  That had been a major change since 2009.
Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explained that its work had focused on primary-level education.  In many cases the State was not aware or was unable to regulate private schools.  In Liberia, the entire primary education was handed over to a private operator.      
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Coalition for Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities drew attention to the poorly developed and implemented drug policies, which contributed to an environment where individuals were at an increased risk of experiencing violations of their economic, social and cultural rights.  The new amendments to the Drug Law introduced sanctions for the possession of cannabis for personal use, whereas the new National Strategy on Drugs (2014-2020) was an unfortunate step back, removing all reference to harm reduction.  It recommended that the Government remove provisions that criminalized the possession of cannabis for personal use and to scale up harm reduction services throughout the country.  It also recommended that the Government re-examine laws related to the criminalization of sex work, in light of the evidence that such criminalization undermined both health and human rights of sex workers.  It added that sexual orientation and gender identity should be explicitly added as grounds for protection in the Constitution, in the Law on Prevention and Protection against Discrimination, and in the Criminal Code.
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights noted that the country had underestimated the refugee crisis and had begun preparations for an organized reception too late, which had resulted in the numerous violations of the basic human rights of the refugees.  The refugees were accommodated in camps which did not meet the minimum living standards.  The State did not take any actions and measures to address the discrimination of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons in their right to social services.  The State also failed to ensure efficient application of the Law on Prevention, Deterring and Protection against Domestic Violence.  The inefficient health protection system had caused several death cases and thus endangered the right to life.
Health Education and Research stated that a few young people in schools received information on how to use contraception, whereas the current curricula and textbooks contained irrelevant, outdated and biased information.  Modern contraception was not accessible for women and girls, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had one of the lowest uptakes in Southeastern Europe and Europe in general.  In addition, in 2013 the Government had adopted a restrictive new abortion law.  It asked the Committee to urge the Government to ensure that all individuals and groups had access to comprehensive sexuality education that was non-discriminatory, non-biased, evidence-based and that took into account the evolving capacities of children and adolescents.  Access to safe abortion should also be ensured, without subjecting women to mandatory counselling and a medically unnecessary waiting period.
Initiative for Women Living in Shuto Orizari briefed the Committee on the availability and accessibility of services for sexual and reproductive health for Roma women, and on the discrimination against Roma when accessing healthcare services.  With the 2007 health system reforms, Shuto Orizari was left without any primary healthcare gynecologist, which left only 5.9 per cent of Roman women with access to gynecology services.  There were also numerous cases of Roma women being rejected by reproductive health service providers and the implementation of legal mechanisms for protection against discrimination was poor.
Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality for Women noted that there was no publicly available health statistics disaggregated by ethnicity, which represented a serious obstacle for proper planning and implementation of activities aimed at the improvement of Roma people’s health.  As for women’s health, women in the country were insufficiently covered with primary gynecological health care due to the insufficient number of selected gynecologists.  In addition, the public health budget failed to meet the principles of non-discrimination and equitable access for all.  On violence against women, limited progress had been achieved to address all forms of violence against women, including victims of domestic violence, victims of trafficking and sex workers.
Questions by Experts 
One Expert pointed out the discrepancy of official and unofficial estimates on the number of the Roma minority in the country.  Did that happen across all sectors?  The Law on Social Protection was not sufficiently monitored and thus led to discrimination.  Was that because social services were conditioned upon bribe?  As for the access to abortion, what was the number of women performing abortion in unsafe conditions?
Another Expert asked for examples of an unlawful retroactive application of social services laws.
Replies by the civil society organizations from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons in access to social services was present in various forms.  For example, transgender persons did not have any access to the buildings of social services centers.  In 2015, the Government had proscribed that any persons receiving money through wire services could not receive social welfare.
As for the lack of disaggregated data on ethnicity across sectors, that was indeed a general problem and there was no publicly available data, especially when it came to the violence against women.  There was a great number of unregistered Roma persons, to which civil society organizations had access and the State did not.  Relevant official data on unsafe abortions was missing because of the severe penalties for doctors.

International Service for Human Rights reiterated its profound concern over the obstacles to the defence of economic, social and cultural rights in the country.  Human rights defenders in Angola were harassed and intimidated, and the Government had not responded adequately to the Committee’s concerns raised in 2009.  The International Service encouraged the Committee to recommend that Angola enshrine the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in its national law and policies; to modify the legislation regarding registration and operation of non-governmental organizations; to take steps to guarantee due process to human rights defenders and journalists and end the criminalization of their work; and to enact clear laws and policies guaranteeing the proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies and by private bodies when that pertained to human rights protection.
Questions by Experts 
One Expert asked for more and detailed information about the examples of harassment of human rights defenders in Angola.
Replies by the civil society organization from Angola
International Service for Human Rights informed that it would share information in writing.
Non-country specific non-governmental organizations
Minority Rights Group drew attention to the urgent need for the Committee to address the issue of land rights in the context of growing threats and violence targeting land rights defenders.  Large-scale land acquisitions and land grabbing exacerbated inequalities, adversely affecting small-scale rural producers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, hunter-gatherers, forest dwellers, fishermen and other who relied on the land and natural resources for livelihoods.  Community land rights had to be recognized and protected.  There was a need to strengthen the legal framework to promote and implement the human right to land.  A strong and comprehensive communication from the Committee was needed to provide a much needed clarity for States in fulfilling their duties with respect to the right to land, and for holding them to account. 
FIAN International expressed deep concern over the aggravation of the systematic violence and discrimination suffered by rural people, which affected their right to an adequate standard of living.  The time had come for the Committee to make explicit the human right to land as a right implicit in Article 11, through an adoption of a general comment.  Such a comment should explain the legal context, State obligations and the accountability mechanisms that States should recognize, comply with and implement in order to ensure the right to an adequate standard of living, in connection with the rights to self-determination and non-discrimination. 


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