February 24, 2013
On 5 May 2013, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will enter into force. For the first time in history, a Protocol to an international treaty will enable individual complaints on economic, social and cultural rights.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, applauded the upcoming entry into force and called it a major breakthrough: “The Protocol will provide an important platform to expose abuses linked to poverty, discrimination and neglect, which up until now victims have had to endure without any possible recourse at the international level. It will provide a way for individuals, who may otherwise be isolated and powerless, to make the international community aware of their situation,” the High Commissioner said.
The Optional Protocol was adopted four years ago, on 10 December 2008, by the UN General Assembly. It gives the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – the body which monitors the International Covenant to which the Protocol is attached – the competence to examine complaints from individuals or groups of individuals who claim a violation of rights protected under the Covenant, for instance with regards to the right to health. It also enables the Committee to conduct inquiries if it receives reliable information indicating grave or systematic violations by a State party of any of the economic, social and cultural rights covered by the Covenant.
Ten countries only
“People who have their economic, social and cultural rights routinely trampled on are set to gain a fresh route to justice via the UN”, Amnesty International wrote “– but once in force it will only immediately apply to 10 nations.” So far, only ten countries have ratified the Protocol, Uruguay being the latest in line earlier this month. The Protocol is only legally binding in those countries which are party to it. The other countries are: Argentina, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mongolia, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain.
The High Commissioner strongly encourages other States among the 160 that are already party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to ratify the Protocol as soon as possible. “Access to justice is essential for victims of all human rights violations and the Protocol is a key step towards accomplishing this,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “In addition to joining the Protocol, governments must also ensure that there are national mechanisms in place such as courts and human rights commissions with the mandate and capacity to enforce economic, social and cultural rights.”
The full text of the Optional Protocol can be found at: www2.ohchr.org/english/law/docs/A.RES.63.117_en.pdf