Thursday, December 11, 2008

UN adopts Optional Protocol to Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

On December 10 – International Human Rights Day – the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. A draft treaty had been approved by consensus by the UN Human Rights Council in June and by the UN General Assembly's Third Committee in November.

Adopted 42 years after a similar complaint mechanism was adopted for the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights this treaty provides for individual complaints, interim measures to avoid irreparable harm, and an inquiry procedure:

- States Parties agree that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has competence to receive and consider communications alleging a violation of the rights in the Covenant

- communications may be submitted by -- or on behalf of -- individuals or groups of individuals claiming to be victims of a violation of the economic, social or cultural rights in the Covenant

- Pending a determination on the merits, the Committee may send the State Party a request that interim measures be taken in exceptional circumstances to avoid irreparable damage to those alleging a violation.

- Through an opt-in clause, States Parties may declare acceptance of an inquiry procedure. Under this procedure, the Committee may initiate an inquiry if it receives reliable information indicating grave or systematic violations by a State Party of the economic, social or cultural rights in the Covenant. The inquiry may include a visit to the state in question.

- States Parties are to take measures to ensure that anyone who communicates with the Committee under the Protocol is not subjected to any form of intimidation or ill treatment.

- In what I believe is a first for a human rights treaty, the clause requiring States Parties to disseminate information about the treaty widely requires that they do so in accessible formats for persons with disabilities.

Entry into force. The Optional Protocol requires ten ratifications to enter into force. The treaty will be open for signature at a signing ceremony in March 2009 in Geneva.

Next steps? NGOs in the coalition that has worked for many years toward development of an Optional Protocol to the Covenant are now turning their efforts to securing wide ratification. More information here.

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