US blocks protocol for 'neglected' rights
By Gustavo Capdevila
GENEVA: Economic, social and cultural rights are the pariahs of international
human rights legislation and will continue to be relegated to the second order,
mostly due to US obstructionism, say activists.
The Washington delegation on Friday blocked a proposed agreement to grant
economic, social and cultural rights the same status as civil and political
A working group created by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights ended
two weeks of sessions without achieving consensus on drafting an optional
protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
There is no mechanism in the international arena for legally requiring full
recognition of these rights, nor those included in the Convention on the Rights
of the Child.
In contrast, a "complaints mechanism" is in place for the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the conventions against
race discrimination and torture and on the elimination of discrimination against
The US delegation said that the fundamental differences that persist in the
working group prevented it from approving the conclusions and recommendations
presented by chairwoman Catarina de Albuquerque, human rights expert from
The fact is that the United States does not form part of the Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights because it has yet to ratify the treaty
established in 1966 by the United Nations.
Taking a similar stance, even though it has not even signed the Covenant, is
Saudi Arabia, which alongside the United States has taken the offensive against
the Portugal-led initiative to draft a protocol.
"We are disappointed in the lack of balance in the panelists chosen to make
presentations to the working group. We have mostly heard from panelists who have
expressed a single opinion, that of the necessity for a complaints
mechanism," said the US delegation.
In some of their presentations, the experts went beyond their mandate, proposing
"a more drastic approach, such as a world court for human rights,"
according to the US representatives.
The idea of drafting an optional protocol to the Covenant "is one whose
time is not yet ripe," they said.
But the non-governmental American Association of Jurists (AJJ) says just the
contrary, that this procedure has become "imperative" in order to
counteract the creation of a "world scale corporate law".
Alejandro Teitelbaum, AAJ representative in Geneva, said this corporate law
denies the fundamental principal of equality before the law and establishes
exorbitant privileges for the transnational consortiums, responsible, he said,
"for most of the violations of economic, social and cultural rights."
Another civil society organization, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ),
warned that if the optional protocol is not proposed for economic, social and
cultural rights, it would undermine recognition of the universality,
interdependence, indivisibility and interconnection of all human rights.
In the human rights doctrine the idea of unifying the two covenants - on civil
and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights - is gaining
Originally, the plan was for a single pact that would make binding the
provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN on Dec
The distinction between the two covenants emerged during the Cold War, an era
that was not very propitious for maintaining the two sets of rights as equals,
said members of the Portuguese delegation.
It does not make sense that there continue to be human rights of first and
second order, they told IPS. The top category is civil and political rights,
because they have a committee with the authority to process complaints.
But in the 1960s, there re was a great deal of stigma when it came to collective
rights - which is what economic, social and cultural rights are, to large extent
- said a source from the Portuguese delegation, the main sponsor of the optional
For this reason, there were two covenants, which had qualitative differences,
because the civil and political rights were immediately applicable, while the
economic, social and cultural rights were of a gradual nature and defined as
"aspirations", said the source.
Some of the leaders of the industrial world, like the United States, Britain,
Canada and Australia, have reservations about the latter
"programmatic" rights, which are seen as objectives rather than as
The United States maintains that they are not even rights, but only national
policies, commented a Latin American diplomat in Geneva.
Nevertheless, there are other industrialized countries that back Portugal and
encourage the drafting of a protocol to the Covenant. The European Union, which
usually acts as a bloc on matters of human rights, is divided on the Portuguese
Amongst the developing countries, the majority supported the position laid out
by India and the African bloc, which would condition progress in creating a
complaint mechanism on policies for international cooperation and resources to
ensure recognition of the rights in question.
If cooperation funds are not increased, it is unlikely that poor countries
"will put a noose around their necks and applaud a protocol that is going
to jeopardise them," the Latin American source told IPS, speaking on
condition of anonymity.
The bloc of Latin American and Caribbean countries in the working group
supported Portugal's initiative and the proposal of renewing the group's mandate
in order to begin drafting the optional protocol.
Albuquerque said she would personally take the proposal to the UN Commission on
Human Rights, which is to hold its annual sessions in Geneva, March 15 to April
23. -Dawn/The InterPress News Service.
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