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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 rights.

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 women.

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 Portugal.

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 ground.

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 10, 1948.

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 protocol initiative.

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 legal obligations.

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 initiative.

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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