Today the snappily named 'Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' (ICESCR) opens for signature at the United Nations. 42 years after a similar mechanism was adopted for civil and political rights, the equal status of those suffering from deprivations of their economic, social and cultural rights has been recognized.
Today the snappily named ‘Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (OP-ICESCR) opens for signature at the United Nations. 42 years after a similar mechanism was adopted for civil and political rights, the equal status of those suffering from deprivations of their economic, social and cultural rights has been recognized.
It is hard to see anything with ‘optional’ and ‘protocol’ in the title becoming a rallying call for the disenfranchised masses, but the blandness of the name belies its importance. The establishment of the protocol helps balance the long-neglected asymmetry between the UN human rights treaties, by allowing victims denied redress in signatory countries to bring complaints directly to the committee monitoring the implementation of the ICESCR.
Currently, those states who have ratified the Covenant are obligated to progressively realise the rights, for example, to work in just and favourable conditions. They must also produce progress reports for committee review. The OP-ICESCR allows individuals to demand government accountability for everything the reports leave out.
While we are unlikely to see many of the 14 per cent of the world’s population who are starving storm the committee rooms to demand their right to food, the symbolism of the move is important. The ratification of this protocol would send the message that all human rights are of equal value, challenging the assumption that the economic, social and cultural rights are somehow lesser entitlements for which legal and quasi-judicial remedies are not relevant.
As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, emphasized at the Protocol’s adoption last year, the Universal Declaration “underlined that all rights are inextricably linked.” But perhaps the most important function of the protocol will be to act as a lightening rod for national and regional efforts to establish sorely needed protection mechanisms, and to “provide an important impetus for renewed and focused attention to economic, social and cultural rights,” as Louis Arbour concluded.
Now if only the US would ratify the ICESCR, Obama’s healthcare debate might get much more interesting.
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