Human Rights Made Whole

Yesterday, the U.N. General Assembly marked Human Rights Day by unanimously adopting the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (OP-ICESCR). This historic step fills in a crucial gap in the human rights framework; former High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has described the OP-ICESCR as making human rights whole.

But to the media this looks like U.N. inside baseball, and they haven’t so much as mentioned it. (ReliefWeb, a U.N. humanitarian information portal, covered it; and here’s AI’s press release.)

So what’s it all about? In a word, it provides a means for redress for violations of economic, social and cultural rights.

One way of dividing up human rights obligations is like this:

  • To prevent human rights violations from happening.
  • To stop human rights violations that are currently happening.
  • To offer redress for human rights violations that have already happened.

The Counter Terror With Justice campaign’s call to the Obama administration in its first 100 days is a good illustration:

  • announce a plan and date to close Guantanamo;
  • issue an executive order to ban torture and other ill-treatment, as defined under international law;
  • ensure that an independent commission to investigate abuses committed by the U.S. government in its “war on terror” is set up.

That is, the call is to stop (close Guantanamo), prevent (ban torture), and begin to redress (set up an independent commission) human rights violations committed by the U.S. government in the “war on terror”. (You should, of course, sign the 100 days petition!)

Anyone who’s suffered a violation of his or her civil and political rights — like freedom of expression, freedom from torture, and the right to a fair trial — can file for redress with the United Nations. This is a matter of international law, and it empowers people in countries whose domestic courts won’t recognize their civil and political rights. That mechanism was established by the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966.

But there’s never been an analogous system for economic, social and cultural rights – until yesterday. The OP-ICESCR finally provides a means for redress, under international law, for violations of the rights to water, food, health, housing, education and decent work.

This is a new tool for justice for refugees forcibly returned to North Korea and punished by starvation; for Roma children systematically segregated in Slovakia’s schools; and for poor families forcibly evicted from their homes in Angola to make way for new development projects.

Or, in other words:

For more, see the OP-ICESCR Coalition (which included AI).