Wednesday, April 09, 2008

An Optional Protocol for the ICESCR

Over the last couple of weeks, I've spent a lot of time reading about the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (observant Wikipedia users will also notice I've spent a lot of time writing about it as well; if you have anything else to add, please contribute). For those who don't know, the ICESCR is one of the core international human rights instruments, aimed at encouraging and enforcing the economic and social rights affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include rights to health and education, social security, an adequate standard of living, and labour rights. However, unlike other core human rights instruments such as the ICCPR or Convention Against Torture, it doesn't have a mechanism for individuals to make complaints. However, that's about to change. For the past few years, an open-ended working group has been busy drafting an Optional Protocol to the ICESCR establishing a compliance mechanism. They finished their work last week, and have transmitted their draft to the Human Rights Council for its consideration.

The draft Optional Protocol [DOC] follows roughly the same procedure as that used for the ICCPR. Individuals or groups who believe their rights under the Covenant have been violated and who have exhausted all domestic remedies can complain to the monitoring body (the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), which will ask the party for information, consider the case, and ultimately make recommendations. So for example the "Herceptin Heroes" could argue that the government's refusal to fund certain drugs violated their right to health, and could complain to the UN about it. Or a group which believed that they suffered systematic discrimination from the social welfare system could complain about that. In each case, the government would be obligated to respond, and would have to deal with any report from the CESCR. The Protocol also includes articles allowing the Committee to inquire on its own motion into grave and systematic breaches by a party, and for parties to complain about one another.

If adopted, the Protocol will require ten ratifications to enter into force. The question I'm interested in is whether New Zealand will be one of them.