It is often observed that good news tends not to attract quite so many headlines as more negative events. Human rights defenders and social justice advocates the world over had reason to celebrate on May 5, however, as the long-awaited Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights finally entered into force.
The new mechanism represents a crucial step forward for economic, social and cultural rights, as it allows individuals and groups whose rights have been violated to file a complaint with the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights if their own government fails to provide a remedy. This means that fundamental rights such as health, education, housing, food, work, water and sanitation are now better protected at the international level.
Implementation of the ‘OP’ sends an important message to national governments, reaffirming their obligations under international human rights law. It also places economic, social and cultural rights on an equal footing with civil and political rights, which have enjoyed the protection of similar mechanisms for nearly 40 years.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the Optional Protocol confirms that economic, social and cultural rights are fully justiciable and that those responsible for violations can and must be held accountable through legal structures. While the OP is designed to complement, rather than replace, national mechanisms, it will serve an important function in furthering understanding of the duties that flow from states’ economic and social rights obligations. It will also, of course, offer a vital avenue for vulnerable people to hold their governments to account.
On May 10, leading economic, social and cultural rights defenders from around the world met up with High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the United Nations New York headquarters for a series of activities to mark the entry into force of the OP. The activities staged to celebrate the Protocol’s arrival included a panel discussion on human rights indicators in the post-2015 framework, in which CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz participated.
While the Optional Protocol has been a long time in the making, with discussions going back as far as 1990, Uruguay effectively opened the door for it to become a reality when it provided the tenth ratification in February this year. The minimum threshold of ten States Parties was thereby passed and the way cleared for implementation. So far, the OP has also been ratified by Argentina, Spain, Ecuador, Mongolia, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovakia, El Salvador and Portugal. Over 30 more countries have already signed up to the new mechanism, however, and it is to be hoped that they, along with all others, will soon take the final definitive step of formally ratifying it.
The video below, which was produced by the global network ESCR-Net, brings together the voices of member organizations all over the world on the occasion of the Optional Protocol's entry into force:
Greater accountability for the socio-economic wellbeing of vulnerable groups has come one step closer after Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bolivia ratified the Optional Protocol (‘OP’) to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Their commitment to the new human rights complaints mechanism brings the total number of ratifications to seven.
Their endorsement is significant, as the question of justiciability lies at the very core of the challenges facing economic and social rights. If the dignity and inherent human rights of individuals and communities are to be effectively protected, those individuals must have access to justice, and thus accountability mechanisms, when their rights are put at risk.
In an age when austerity-driven fiscal policies are undermining social protection systems, the Optional Protocol can offer an important tool for people to defend their economic and social rights (ESCR). Given that lacklustre accountability systems have also undermined progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, while a lack of effective monitoring and poor enforcement of human rights standards continue to impede progress towards these rights, the importance of the OP should not be underestimated.
Once it comes into force, the ‘OP’ will allow persons within States Parties whose rights have been violated to present complaints before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The existence and international backing of the OP will also serve to further the cause of justiciability of economic and social rights worldwide, and may thereby may have an effect in strengthening ESCR recognition at the national level as well.
Indeed, domestic implementation of the ICESCR has already led to changes in national laws and policies, including constitutional amendments, in many countries. In this way, greater awareness and recognition of states’ obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfill economic and social rights has been achieved. Full implementation of the OP will help take this process one step further, providing these rights the full and equal status they deserve, and thereby reinforcing the indivisible and interdependent character of all human rights.
The OP must be ratified by ten countries before it comes into force, however. And even though some 39 countries have already signed it, thereby signalling their intention to ratify in the future, only seven have thus far taken the definitive final step. Ecuador, Mongolia and Spain were the first to do so, in 2010, before El Salvador and Argentina followed suit in 2011. There are high hopes that three more ratifications will be delivered before the year is out, though, after Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bolivia added their names to the roster in January. The Republic of Ireland may soon become the second European country to ratify, and eighth overall, having indicated this intention at its recent appearance before the Universal Periodic Review.
When the OP finally becomes operational, it will mark an important milestone in the advancement of economic and social rights. To this end, CESR will continue to collaborate with the NGO Coalition for the Optional Protocol to ICESCR to help narrow the long-standing gap in accountability and justice for economic, social and cultural rights violations.
Photo of Haitian women collecting water by Marco Dormino, (c) UN Photo.