Monday, December 15, 2008

An optional protocol

Something I missed: on human rights day, December 10, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

For those who don't know, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 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. But unlike other human rights instruments, the ICESCR doesn't have any teeth; parties promise to protect, preserve, and progressively implement those rights, but they are not legally enforceable, and there is only the power of public embarrassment to make sure they do.

The Optional protocol will change all that. Based on similar protocols to the ICCPR and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, it will allow individuals to bring complaints directly to an international body. So for example, if the government hadn't decided to change its mind, the "Herception heroes" could have argued that PHARMAC's refusal to fund their preferred drug violated their right to health, and complained to the UN about it. The Protocol will also allow parties to complain about other parties' (lack of) implementation of the Covenant, and allow the monitoring body to launch inquiries of egregious breaches. These are all Good Things; they will ensure that governments live up to their commitments, rather than just treating them as platitudes and lies to children.

The interesting question is whether New Zealand signs up to it. We claim to be a world-leader in human rights, and in order to preserve that reputation, we will have to. But National opposes the whole concept of economic, social and cultural rights, and is unlikely to subject itself to a regime where they can be enforced. So, we'll probably have to wait until they lose power before we can join the civilised world on this.