5. Additional United Nations Advocacy

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ESC rights advocacy with the UN human rights mechanisms

GI-ESCR undertakes advocacy with the UN human rights mechanisms to promote and advance ESC rights and to counter what has been described as the ‘marginalisation of economic, social and cultural rights.' To this end, we advocate for the realisation of ESC rights, at the Human Rights Council, with its Special Procedures mechanisms, with the Human Rights Treaty Bodies and with the Office for the Human Commissioner for Human Rights.

In 2018, this work included advocacy on the many ESC rights resolutions of the Human Rights Council, advocating for the recognition of the economic, social and environmental elements of the right to life, promotion of social protection floors, advocacy on sustainable development, the SDGs and human rights and on the importance of protecting the work of defenders of ESC rights.

Social protection

At the June session of the Human Rights Council, GI-ESCR co-hosted a side event about the role of the International Monetary Fund in social protection systems, which featured Mr Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, discussing his report on this topic.

Development, the SDGs and human rights

Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, the issue of sustainable development and human rights has received increasing attention in the work of the human rights mechanisms. Given the overlaps and synergies between ESC rights and the SDGs, GI-ESCR has been pressing for more active engagement from the Human Rights Council with the Sustainable Development Agenda to highlight the importance of a rights-based approach to sustainable development. We have continued to follow the developments in this respect in the Human Rights Council and the treaty bodies and have reported on them in our regular updates.

In the Human Rights Council, some States have been promoting a concerning narrative that economic development will lead to the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights. GI-ESCR has worked with NGO colleagues from ATD 4th World, Franciscans International and the Centre for Economic and Social Rights, to emphasise that economic development is not synonymous with the realisation of ESC rights and to underline States’ human rights obligations in the context of development.  In response to the call for submissions of the Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee on the topic ‘the contribution of development to the realisation of human rights,' we made a joint submission. The submission questioned the premise of the topic, that development is a precondition to the realisation of rights.  It pointed out the many examples of human rights abuses in the context of development projects and of countries considered highly ‘economically developed’ but where serious human rights abuses continue. The submission also insisted on using the language of sustainability, when talking about development, which was agreed by consensus in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

GI-ESCR also participated as an expert in a two-day Intersessional Expert Meeting on women’s rights, gender equality and the Sustainable Development Agenda, convened at the request of the Human Rights Council. Our contribution focused on accountability for the SDGs and for human rights, giving the example of climate change and its impact on women’s rights. We also participated in a two-day Expert Meeting on accountability and the rights to water and sanitation, convened by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation, Mr Leo Heller. The purpose of the meeting was to gather in-puts for his report to the General Assembly on this topic.

Human rights defenders of ESCR

Together with the Legal Resources Centre of South Africa and the International Service for Human Rights, we urged the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to address the situation of defenders of economic, social and cultural rights, in its review of South Africa. Our report highlighted the harassment of, and attacks on, those working on economic, social and cultural rights in South Africa, and in particular, defenders of the land and environment. We were very pleased to see this issue taken up by the Committee both during the dialogue with the State delegation and in its Concluding Observations on South Africa.

Strengthening human rights mechanisms

Key to the realisation of ESC rights is the effectiveness of the international human rights mechanisms and their accessibility to rights holders and advocates. GI-ESCR works to increase the visibility of the ESC rights work of the international mechanisms, to ensure that the voices of rights holders and advocates are heard in these international processes.  There are two main elements to GI-ESCR’s work: bridging the gap between Geneva and national ESC rights advocates, by providing advice, support and information to NGO colleagues; strengthening the treaty body system so that it is an effective accountability mechanism for ESC rights holders.

A bridge between Geneva and ESC rights holders and advocates - advice and support to NGOs

In 2018 GI-ESCR continued to prioritise its work to bridge the gap between the Geneva based human rights mechanisms and ESC rights advocates at the national and local levels. One of the ways we do this is by providing information, advice and support to NGO colleagues who wish to engage with those mechanisms.  For instance, in 2018 we provided advice to advocates from Israel, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Indonesia, China, Switzerland and Venezuela, about Committee processes and engagement opportunities, on advocacy strategies when in Geneva and from afar, on submitting Communications under the Optional Protocols, on jurisprudence of the Committees and on engaging in the process for the elaboration of general comments and on engagement in the Human Rights Council. 

We provided guidance on avenues for pursuing accountability for rights abuses in relation to the right to work for migrant minors and on extra-territorial corporate abuses of the right to water.  We also met with NGO colleagues from Mauritania, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Australia and Germany who came to Geneva for a treaty body review of their country and sought advocacy advice.

We provided training to students of the Geneva Academy on ESC rights and the international human rights mechanisms and to National Human Rights Institutions staff undertaking training in Geneva with the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI).

Reporting on the ESC rights developments of the human rights mechanisms

To increase the visibility and understanding of the important work of the human rights mechanisms and to ensure that ESC rights advocates are aware of developments and opportunities for engagement, GI-ESCR publishes regular updates on the ESC rights developments and discussions of the Human Rights Council (March, June & September) and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (March & October). We believe these are the only ESC rights focused regular reports of the Council and the Committee.

We have also continued to monitor the complaints procedure of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and to report on jurisprudential developments. We published a blog about the cases considered by the Committee to date.

A significant achievement this year was the publication of our first Yearbook on the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). With a welcome message from the 2018 Chair of the Committee, Ms Maria Virginia Bras Gomes, this on-line publication provides information and analysis of the work of the Committee during 2017. It provides information about the three functions of the Committee (State reporting procedure, Communications and Statements and General Comments) and about the Committee members and their working methods. The objective is to give greater visibility to the Committee and its work.

We received very good feedback from Committee members, the CESCR Secretariat and NGO and academic colleagues. We would like to publish this yearbook annually.

Strengthening the treaty body system: TB-Net

The UN human rights treaty bodies are a crucial part of the international system of accountability for the implementation of States’ obligations to realise economic, social and cultural rights.  Whilst the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is the most relevant treaty body for ESC rights accountability, the other treaty bodies are also important, for instance by monitoring ESC rights with respect to particular groups. The effectiveness, strength and credibility of the entire treaty body system also impacts each body. For these reasons, GI-ESCR works to ensure that the treaty body system is effective and accessible for rights holders. GI-ESCR is a member of an informal network of NGOs that work closely with each of the treaty bodies, called ‘TB-Net.' Together with our TB-Net colleagues we are working to advance 3 initiatives:

  • Enhancing the quality, independence and diversity of TB membership, through improving nominations and elections processes.

  • Follow-up procedures of the treaty bodies.

  • Participation in the ‘treaty body strengthening’ process.

In pursuit of these initiatives, at the annual treaty body Chairpersons’ meeting in New York in May, we worked together to prepare a submission and an oral statement to the meeting and a side event in the margins of the meeting. We also made a Joint Statement to the Human Rights Council on elections of treaty body members.

On follow-up, we published a report of the ‘Follow-up Retreat’ and undertook advocacy with each of the treaty bodies and at the Treaty Body Chairpersons’ meeting in May.

In November, we hosted a closed meeting with States to discuss treaty body elections. Switzerland and the UK co-sponsored the meeting. The meeting considered State practice and ideas for reform of the processes for the nomination and election of treaty body members. It was a very successful meeting with States sharing candidly their practices, challenges and ideas on this topic. One State representative described the meeting as the most useful discussion he had had on treaty body elections in his 16 years working on the human rights treaty bodies.

The next step is to see how we can move forward with some of the recommendations of the meeting, working together with States and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Human rights in the context of climate change

Since 2016 GI-ESCR has worked jointly with the Center on International Environmental Law on a project to: influence States to employ greater ambition in their climate and energy policies and ensure that those policies are based on human rights; to deepen the understanding and awareness regarding linkages between human rights and climate change; and to influence the development of human rights jurisprudence on climate change.  The project has focused predominantly on the work of the UN human rights treaty bodies.

2018 saw a significant increase in the engagement of UN human rights bodies with regards to the need for States to protect human rights in the context of climate change. Through the country-specific submissions that we prepared with national partners, we provided the basis for three UN human rights bodies to provide policy-relevant recommendations addressing the root causes of climate change such as the extraction and exports of coal and oil, fracking, as well as the need to uphold national emissions reduction targets.

In 2018, we submitted specific information on Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Japan, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine and the UK and we saw strong recommendations from the relevant Committees addressing issues such as coal exports, participation of women and indigenous peoples in climate decision-making, renewable energy, insufficient emissions reduction and ambition and fracking. A significant number of States are now facing questions on their climate policies when appearing before these expert human rights bodies. For example Spain was asked to ‘carry out an assessment of the impact of air pollution from coal-fired power plants on children’s health and on the climate as a basis for designing a well-resourced strategy to remedy the situation, and strictly regulate maximum air-pollutant emissions, including those by produced private businesses.’

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights asked Argentina to ‘reconsider the large-scale exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels through hydraulic fracturing in the Vaca Muerta region, in order to ensure compliance with its obligations under the Covenant, in the light of the Paris Agreement commitments. It also encourages the State party to promote alternative and renewable energy sources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and set national targets with time-bound benchmarks.

In order to share information and insights and to strategise with NGO colleagues working in the climate and human rights spaces, we convened two strategy meetings. The first was in Geneva in June and the second was in December in Katowice and discussed ‘Leveraging the human rights treaty bodies for legal strategies on climate action.' Building on a similar meeting in Bonn in 2017, we gathered together lawyers and advocates working on climate litigation and campaigns, and those working on climate change within the UN human rights treaty bodies (HRTBs) for a highly interactive and stimulating exchange of information and views and the very useful suggestions for enhancing our work in 2019 (such as a greater focus on deforestation and impacts on indigenous peoples). These meetings were invaluable for building connections and fostering dialogue on opportunities for engagement with the HRTBs and ways in which that work can support climate litigation and campaigns.

In order to encourage greater awareness and understanding of the implications of climate change for human rights, we undertook capacity building and advocacy activities targeting Committee members and Secretariat staff.  We conducted a number of briefings for Committee members and Secretariat staff to raise awareness and capacity to address climate change in their work.

As the body of jurisprudence and guidance on human rights and climate change continues to grow, we have prioritised monitoring, compilation and analysis of the outputs of the human rights treaty bodies.  We published a  Synthesis Note which provides an update on the work of the UN human rights treaty bodies with respect to human rights and climate change up to the end of 2017. It compiles the concluding observations of the treaty bodies in 2017 that address climate change and analyses what the treaty bodies' have said about States' human rights obligations in the context of climate change. It was a very popular publication that received much positive feedback, including from NGO partners and UN Committee members.

In order to promote the climate related work of the human rights treaty bodies and to raise awareness amongst States of the imperative of addressing climate change for the protection of human rights, we were involved in events at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March and June.

Both events focused on how women’s rights are threatened by climate change. The event in March discussed the adoption by the Women’s Rights Committee, of a new General Recommendation on the ‘gender dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change.' The event in June discussed women’s rights in the context of climate change and featured Ambassador Khan of Fiji, CEDAW Committee member Nahla Haidar and a representative of UN Women.

Right to adequate housing project

The realisation of the human right to adequate housing remains unfulfilled and violated daily throughout the world.  Reports of mass forced evictions are common, informal settlements housing people in unhygienic, unsafe homes with a lack of privacy, are growing, discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, social position, gender and disability, in access to housing is rife and there is a crisis in homelessness. We are also increasingly seeing those working to promote and protect the right to adequate housing, being targeted and attacked in an attempt to silence them.

In this context we are working to re-energise the right to adequate housing in international human rights mechanisms and debates and to focus attention, and build political commitment, for the realisation of the right to adequate housing on the ground. In February 2018 GI-ESCR, together with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, hosted its first workshop on the Right to Adequate Housing.   Held in Geneva, it was attended by housing rights advocates from across the world (Philippines, Indonesia, Canada, Argentina, Nigeria, Kenya, the US, Serbia and International) who shared their expertise on the housing rights situation in their country and their advocacy strategies. The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Sandra Liebenberg, member of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, participated in the workshop. The workshop also included a capacity building element on international housing rights law and a visit to the session of the Human Rights Council to observe the Special Rapporteur present her report.

We also undertook advocacy to influence the text of the resolution on the right to adequate housing which was adopted by the Human Rights Council during its session in March 2018. Together with participants from the workshop, we lobbied the responsible States to place greater emphasis on the continuing grave problem of forced evictions across the world.

GI-ESCR is also working with national partners to bring housing rights issues to the human rights treaty bodies on a more consistent basis. In relation to its review of the US, we submitted to the Human Rights Committee a joint report, with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and other US NGOs, in relation to the criminalisation of homelessness and another report on homelessness and lack of access to water as violations of the right to life.  The Committee highlighted both issues in its list of questions to the US, which will form the basis for the review in 2020.

We also urged the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to highlight the forced evictions and housing demolitions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in relation to its review of Israel. That Committee asked Israel to provide information on protections against forced evictions and housing demolitions and we will advocate for these topics to also be addressed during the review of Israel in October 2019.

Elections for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

For the CESCR elections in April 2018, we advocated for the principles of quality, independence and diversity of members to be followed when nominating and electing new members and for more transparent and rigorous processes. We disseminated information about the up-coming elections and wrote to States to encourage them, when voting, to take into consideration the poor gender balance on the Committee.