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Support For Poor At UN Despite USA Resistance

Greater support for a ‘fair go’ for the poor at the United Nations despite the resistance of the United States.

By Anthony Ravlich

An increasing number of States are expressing support for people to be able to lay complaints at the United Nations when faced with social injustice. This is despite a group of countries led by the United States who are continuing to resist drafting of the complaints procedure which potentially could be of significant benefit to the poor.

This is the third year of discussions at the United Nations, Geneva, on whether to draft a complaints procedure (optional protocol) for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which requires a ‘fair go’ for the poor). The covenant regards employment, fair wages, health, housing, education and an adequate standard of living as human rights.

The open-ended working group is meeting from 6th February to 17th February with the final decision on whether to draft or to continue talks being made at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in March 2006.

After the first two days of discussion the NGO Coalition concerned with the complaints procedure reported ‘stronger support to draft the OP’ with the greatest support coming from South America, Africa and to a lesser extent the European Union. Those most opposed were the USA, Poland, Australia and Japan although a number of other countries continue to take ‘a predominantly negative view’ such as Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany. No mention was made on New Zealand’s stance although in the past New Zealand has opposed immediate drafting but has been happy to continue with discussions.

The NGO Coalition also reports progress on contentious issues such as justiciability, international cooperation, and whether an ‘a la carte’ approach or a comprehensive set of rights should be adopted.
The Coalition state that ‘there has been no questioning that these rights are indeed justiciable’. It appears that the growing domestic and regional jurisprudence on economic, social and cultural rights may have allayed the fears of some countries that these human rights (unlike civil and political rights) were not justiciable (i.e. not amenable to judicial determination). Also the Coalition states that ‘an increasing number of States emphasis the importance they place on international cooperation’. For instance, this could apply where States need assistance to deal with extreme poverty. In addition there was a rejection of the ‘a la carte approach’ with ‘a great majority of State representatives having expressed their support for a comprehensive approach’. The latter includes all economic, social and cultural rights while with an ‘a la carte’ approach complaints could only be made on those human rights permitted by the State.

An optional protocol for civil and political rights was adopted at the United Nations in 1966. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists of both civil and political rights (freedom and democracy) and economic, social and cultural rights (social justice). New Zealand ratified the covenants on both sets of rights in 1978 and acceded to the optional protocol on civil and political rights in 1989. This was immediately following by the introduction of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (1990), the Human Rights Act (1993) and various commissions providing for complaints at a domestic level. Only civil and political rights are in law in New Zealand although the Human Rights Commission’s New Zealand Plan of Action for Human Rights, released in February 2005, have included economic, social and cultural rights. Only fourteen countries have so far developed action plans.


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