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Social Justice delayed at the United Nations

Social Justice delayed at the United Nations

The New Zealand Council of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

On Monday, 19 April 2004 53 states at the United Nations Human Rights Commission voted to continue open-ended working groups for two years with a view to possibly drafting an Optional Protocol for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which is a complaints procedure for those subjected to economic, social and cultural rights violations. It would enable such serious social injustices to be heard at the United Nations Human Rights Committee which presently only deals with violations of civil and political rights.

Economic, social and cultural rights include the rights to employment, fair wages, housing, health, education, an adequate standard of living and some workers, family and cultural rights.

New Zealand, who only had observer status at the Commission, continued its ‘light’ opposition to the drafting of an Optional Protocol, that it displayed at the earlier open-ended working group meetings which were open to all governments. The working group, which was poorly attended by states, effectively set the frame of reference for the Commission.

‘No consensus’ was reached at the working group regarding the immediate drafting of the OP, instead the working group arrived at a resolution, later endorsed by a vote at the Commission, ‘to renew the mandate of the open-ended working group for a period of two years to consider options regarding the elaboration of an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’. The resolution was eventually passed by the Commission by 48 votes to zero with Australia, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the USA abstaining. Only 53 states form part of the Commission each year and each sub-region of the world has equal representation.

New Zealand was last a member of the Commission from 1966 – 1971 so now only has observer status. At the first informal consultation at the Commission New Zealand expressed support for the resolution adding that the extension of the mandate should be seen as ‘a process of confidence building’ and that it was ‘too early to draft (an OP)’. New Zealand maintained the same position it held at the working group meetings where Maria Graterol, Programme Officer, of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, said that while New Zealand would not oppose the renewal of a mandate it did not want an mandate that moved to drafting an OP.

She added: “My take is that the government (of New Zealand) will tell you they are neutral when in fact they are ‘light’ opposition to the OP – ICESCR”. The US was the staunchest opponent of drafting an OP. The ‘American camp’ at the working group often included Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, India and Saudi Arabia .

On March 29 at the Commission the US stated that economic, social and cultural rights (unlike civil and political rights) do not fall under international decision making (because) ‘while all rights were universal, there is a clear distinction between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. Economic, social and cultural rights must be progressively realised, while civil and political rights are immediate’. Austria put a contrary view stating that ‘economic, social and cultural rights establishes core obligations on states to respect, protect and fulfil ( Austria is referring to a state’s core obligation with respect to the core content of each economic, social and cultural right)'.

Austria added that ‘many aspects of these rights requires a progressive realisation, but certain elements needs immediate realisation. Concerning the right to education for example, some elements need immediate realisation’. (Austria is referring to primar y education, a core content of the right to education, where Article 13(2)a of the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that ‘primary education shall be compulsory and available to all free of charge).

An amendment by Saudi Arabia to have a resolution on international cooperation included in future work group meetings narrowly failed by 26 votes to 25 with two abstentions. The subject of international cooperation to assist in achieving economic, social and cultural rights (Article 11, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) was of particular concern to the developing countries.

However the ‘Saudi’ amendment was regarded by the NGO coalition as designed ‘to kill the OP process’ because most western countries oppose such international co-operation. Megna Abraham, Programme Manager, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, World Organisation Against Torture, states: “…I agree that this is an issue of importance to developing countries…The problem with the amendment was the fact that it appeared that it was introduced by Saudi Arabia not to advance the discussion but to kill the OP process.

One of the sad realities is that most western countries are or maybe against this (international co-operation with respect to economic, social and cultural rights) being a wide reaching and binding obligation and therefore would resist attempts to bring this within a complaints procedure”. She said that Sweden has already articulated this and adds: “The problem for NGO lobbying (in future) will be to balance bringing this in while still getting agreement for the OP”.

Anthony Ravlich, Chairman,


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