9 April 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to welcome you to this first anniversary of the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. We a few weeks ahead of the formal date, May 5, but I am delighted to celebrate this landmark.
Sixty six years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly stated that human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent. Its framers wisely chose not to rank rights in importance, recognising that political and civil rights go hand in hand with economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development. Violations of one set of rights reverberate on other rights, and undermine them all.
For decades, recognition of economic, social and cultural rights was slow in developing. Yet they too are the inalienable birthright of all human beings. A child excluded from decent education because of poverty or gender; a woman paid less than her male colleagues for the same work; a family forcibly evicted from its home or land; men left to starve when food stocks lie unused – these are people whose fundamental rights as human beings are denied.
During my mandate as High Commissioner, we have witnessed considerable progress regarding the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. When my mandate began, in September 2008, the Optional Protocol had only recently been approved by the Human Rights Council, following many years of debate. A few months later it was adopted by the General Assembly, on 10 December 2008 — the day of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration. When the Optional Protocol was opened for signature and ratification, on 24 September 2009, I joined the ceremony here in New York. And last year, when the Optional Protocol entered at last into force, I was delighted to be involved in the celebrations, during which this Group of Friends was constituted.
The Optional Protocol enables individuals whose economic, social and cultural rights have been violated — and who have been unable to find remedy at the national level — to submit their case to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It thus contributes significantly to ensuring access to justice, as well as prompting States to adopt adequate remedies nationally.
The Optional Protocol also allows for an inquiry procedure in cases of grave and systematic violations, and for inter-state communications. However, in order to be bound by these procedures, State parties need to make a specific declaration accepting the inquiry procedure. Currently only two States have done so. I encourage member States that have already ratified, as well as those considering ratification, to take a clear stance in favour of the protection of economic, social and cultural rights and to make these specific declarations.
The entry into force of the Optional Protocol means that the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights can now be empowered to issue expert clarification regarding both the provisions of the treaty, and the scope of State obligations in concrete situations. I am confident that it will create a robust body of case law — one that can offer continuing guidance to States and national courts, as they work to devise adequate remedies for victims and to identify and correct the causes of violations.
Across the globe, the legal protection of economic, social and cultural rights is increasingly underway — not only internationally, but also regionally and nationally. I have seen this evolution in my country, South Africa, where we moved from the near-complete denial of economic, social and cultural rights – of all human rights, in fact – during the apartheid regime, to the recognition of these rights and their justiciability in our Constitution. This access to justice regarding economic, social and cultural rights has prepared the ground for their fruitful judicial adjudication, and today the South African Constitutional Court is considered one of the world’s leading courts in this regard. I hope that South Africa will further lead by example, and I encourage it to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and its Optional Protocol.
Speaking of leading by example, I would like to welcome the important role Portugal has played in promoting and chairing the Open-Ended Working Group in which the Optional Protocol was negotiated. I also congratulate Uruguay for its ratification, which prompted the Optional Protocol's entry into force. Commendably, both Portugal and Uruguay lead the Group of Friends to the Optional Protocol. This group, by virtue of its composition of developed and developing countries, highlights that economic, social and cultural rights concern all people, everywhere, particularly in today's context of financial crisis.
I would also like to thank the Group of Friends for its proactive outreach to create awareness about the Optional Protocol, and to promote more ratifications. The number of ratifications has grown slowly but steadily. Twelve countries have now ratified the Optional Protocol, Montenegro and Finland being the most recent ones. Indeed, Finland, one of the members of the Group of Friends, committed to ratify the Optional Protocol at this very event last year, and has now fulfilled its commitment.
I strongly encourage other State Parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and signatories to the Optional Protocol, to proceed with ratification, in order to ensure the widest possible protection of economic, social and cultural rights. My Office is ready to assist you in this endeavour.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would like to emphasize the importance of civil society actors in this process. Civil society organisations can raise awareness, both among national stakeholders and the general public, about the content of the Optional Protocol and the possibilities that it opens. They can play a key role in identifying and assisting victims in their submission of individual communications, or requests for inquiries, to the Committee. Yet in many countries, civil society actors are working under increasing pressure and constraint. We must do everything we can to widen the space for civil society organisations to continue their important work.
Thank you for your attention, and I encourage you to continue to move forward in furthering the protection of economic, social and cultural rights for all.