After 50 years, it’s time to close the gap between different human rights

wpid-mind-the-gap-2014-06-23-08-03It was the moment the UN General Assembly changed the face of international human rights law. Fifty years ago, on December 16 1966, the assembly passed a single resolution containing two new treaties: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), covering rights to housing, social security and adequate standards of living, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), regarding rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression and physical integrity.

Together, these two treaties constitute the core of the international system that protects human rights. Both treaties entered into force a decade later in 1976, only a few weeks apart. And both of them have received approximately the same number of ratifications to this day: 168 for the ICCPR and 164 for the ICESCR. Like all other European countries, the UK is a party to both of them.

Degrees of separation

But there are significant differences between these two treaties. The intention of those who drafted them was to flesh out the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by making the protection of rights legally binding for states. But considering that the 1948 Universal Declaration contained civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights in a single text, by creating two separate documents it was clear that the drafters wanted to introduce differences between these rights.

While all this happened during the political context of the Cold War, this was not the main reason why different types of human rights were treated differently. Rather, the decision had to do with states’ general preference for a weaker duty to protect their citizens’ economic, social and cultural rights. Countries were willing to proclaim these rights as long as this proclamation did not entail strong accountability mechanisms.

The second difference between the two treaties refers to the clarity and burden of words. Article 2(1) of the ICCPR talks about states’ obligations “to respect and to ensure [civil and political rights] without distinction of any kind”. Yet the same article in the ICESCR uses much more cryptic language about how the compliance of states to the treaty on economic, social and cultural rights will be monitored. It states:

Each state party to the present covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.

It’s difficult to assess compliance if rights are meant to be “achieved progressively”, or to decide the “appropriateness” of the “means” authorities are making use of. And can we blame governments if they promise “to take steps”, but not just yet?

There are also differences in the ways states who violate these two sets of rights are held to account. When the ICCPR was adopted, it brought with it an independent monitoring body known as the Human Rights Committee.

This had three responsibilities: examining states’ abidance by the treaty approximately every five years; dealing with interstate complaints (although to date this has never been used); and receiving complaints from individuals who consider themselves to be victims of a violation of any of the political and civil rights contained in the ICCPR. A complaint can lead to detailed recommendations on the specific case which countries are expected to implement. To date, 115 countries have let their citizens complain to the UN like this, but the UK is not one of them.

But when it came to economic, social and cultural rights, the ICESCR did not contain anything similar, and this was only partly corrected in 1985 when the UN created a body to periodically assess the general level of enjoyment of these rights in those countries which have ratified the treaty.

All this means that there are three degrees of separation between the two sets of rights: different treaties that states could pick and choose from, different legal wording, and different accountability mechanisms.

An unfortunate hierarchy

Something similar happened in the European context. In 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights was set up with a relatively resourceful European Court of Human Rights devoted essentially to civil and political rights. Then, in 1961, the European Social Charter was established (and then revised in 1996). This is monitored by the much weaker European Committee of Social Rights.

The impact of this hierarchy in which civil and political rights are given more weight than economic, social and cultural rights is visible at the domestic level, too. In the UK, for example, the very important Human Rights Act 1998 gives judges the means to apply the European Convention on Human Rights, but not the European Social Charter or the ICESCR, although the UK has ratified both treaties.


Not to pick and choose from.
StepanPopov/shutterstock.com

Half a century since the adoption of the two landmark human rights treaties, it is time to close the gap between human rights.

Independent human rights bodies, scholars and a growing number of practitioners have worked to define the meaning of economic, social and cultural rights and the contours of states’ obligations to uphold them.

Since 2013, individuals in 22 countries, ranging from Argentina to France and Mongolia, can also complain directly to the UN if their economic, social and cultural rights have been violated. This only applies to countries that have ratified the 2008 Optional Protocol to the ICESCR. Unfortunately, the UK is not one of them.

Yet, even in the UK, a minority of the judges in the Supreme Court has accepted that given their nature, some human rights treaties (although not the ICESCR for now) should be “directly enforceable in UK domestic law”, even without an act of parliament.

Half a century ago, human rights were internationalised with some degrees of separation. Luckily, we now have some tools that we lacked at that time – but we need to tell the government to make use of them.

The Conversation

Koldo Casla, PhD candidate: human rights, international politics and law, King’s College London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Britons’ fear of migration is not only anti-factual; it is also comparatively disproportionate

This article was published first in Left Foot Forward

cqk5itvwcauiysnI recently attended an event organised by the Foreign Policy Centre in partnership with the European Commission’s representation in the UK. The title could hardly be more topical: “Examining the EU’s democratic legitimacy”.

It really was about Brexit, like nearly every political debate in the UK for months if not years.

Hilary Benn delivered an eloquent keynote speech about the need of parliamentary oversight of the divorce process. After him, other articulate voices from both Chambers expressed their thoughts about the value of democracy, the history of Britain in Europe and the meaning of national and parliamentary sovereignty. Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and SNP had at least one voice in the panel; so did UKIP with its only MP (to Nigel Farage’s eternal sorrow), Douglas Carswell.

Judging by the interventions during the Q&A, had the referendum been held only in that room, Britain would have never chosen to leave; in fact, Conservatives would probably be a marginal force.

“How did we get to this point?” An incredulous audience asked with different words and tones.

“It’s immigration, stupid!”. The recurrent hypothesis was unsurprisingly put forward by Mr Carswell. It went unchallenged. It sinks in. It stays. And it stains. Continue reading

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The UK government cannot reconcile austerity measures with human rights

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Authors: Jamie Burton, Alice Donald and Koldo Casla
This article was published in Open Global Rights (Open Democracy)
A UN Committee of independent experts recently issued a harshly worded report on the extent to which public authorities have been complying with international law on socio-economic rights. The Committee monitors states compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UK has voluntarily ratified along with 163 other countries. Adherence to the Covenant is a matter of rule of law. However, after months of engagement with government officials and evidence gathering from civil society groups (including Just Fair), the Committee’s report could hardly have been more damning.

Continue reading

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Months ago I called for a vote out. Why did you have to listen, Britain? Why???

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Last February, I wrote a short piece praising British humour and weather, thanking London for hosting me and, yes, asking Brits to vote for Brexit. The text was full of irony, and I warned the reader that I would not do it if I were British. But, as a European citizen living in London, I did call for a vote out. And I regret it deeply now.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware my text didn’t make a difference on the 17+ million Brits who chose to leave the European Union yesterday. But I feel sorry anyway.

I feel sorry because last weeks I have added one more item to the long list of things I like from this country and its global capital.

I have discovered a European side to London and its British inhabitants that I had never seen before. Yes, most of my friends and London-based Facebook acquaintances are highly educated and sophisticated. And London is multicultural, multilingual and profoundly diverse. Unsurprisingly, it has gone 60/40 for Remain. England is an entirely different story. Still, one didn’t really see EU flags hanging out the window in London flats, and in common parlance locals used to refer to Europe in third person, as if the English Channel was not 20 mile long, as if Britain constituted its own continent. We may easily go back to that sooner than later, but somehow Brits and Londoners campaigning for Remain made me feel welcome in a way that I had never felt before.

Like most people, I was convinced Brexit was not going to happen. Hence I felt I could stand by my ironic and provocative “vote-out-if-you-dare”. And I believed (and still do) the EU had a lot to work on in terms of social rights protection and democratic accountability. So I didn’t want to line up behind Cameron and Osborne.

I felt welcome and confident with my predictions and convictions. So yesterday, when I put an “in” sticker on my t-shirt, I had to clarify to someone that it was “a critical in”. As if it made a difference.

If yesterday I felt welcome, confident and critical, today I feel sad, shocked and sorry.

We’ll have to resort to the trite keep-calm-and-carry-on. We need to live with the consequences. I say “we”, because I for one don’t intend to leave just yet. But I say “we” although I know that the burden will not be fairly shared among “us”. Disenfranchised English working people, many of whom voted out, will suffer the consequences of Brexit just as much they missed most of the benefits of being part of the EU. This strikes me as the most devastating outcome of this referendum.

There are other critical issues that Brits will have to face, of course. For example, the future of a Europhile Scotland outside the EU, the profound divide between London and the rest of England, or the generational gap between a Eurosceptic elderly and a younger generation that had envisioned their future as part of the European Union. That is gone now.

Other European countries will not be in a good mood, and EU institutions are unlikely to let the Tories regroup and trigger Article 50 TEU (the exit door from the EU) at their convenience: “Of course, Sir, we’ll wait until October for you. Anytime, really. Thank you very much for these lovely decades of charm”. England may see Scotland go, Northern Ireland join the Republic and Boris Johnson hold the keys of Number 10. And at this point it’s too early to tell if the meagre chances of having a socialist Labour opposition have just evaporated. After all, supposedly Jeremy Corbyn has also lost this referendum.

Recapitulating, Britain, I understand you couldn’t care less about my opinion, but I still want you to know that I regret urging you to vote out. If I had known, I would have kept quiet. To the 17+ million of you who voted out, I’m also sorry for bothering you with my presence in your country. For now, however, I don’t plan to do anything about that.

The postman just knocked on the door to hand me a parcel. “Thank you”, I say. “You’re welcome, my friend”. Well, at least, I have that.

Koldo Casla

@koldo_casla

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Open letter from a Eurocitizen living in London: Brits, vote for #Brexit.

This post was published first in Open Democracy.

London-Cable-Car-Emirates-Air-Line-1I have lived in England for nearly five years, mostly in London, but for personal reasons I have also become familiar with other parts of the country as well. I have always felt welcome here – for which I am grateful. I like England very much. I adore the preciseness of language, the humour, the diversity and buzz of the capital… I don’t even mind the weather! Ideally, I would like to stay for some time.

This is my caveat, which I believe to be necessary since I will argue that the European Union would be better off without the United Kingdom.

The UK has been part of the European Communities and then the EU for more than four decades. In the second half of this period it has enjoyed a special treatment granted by the other Member States. It did not adopt the Euro, it does not participate in Schengen, and it can pick and choose from within the areas of security, justice and police cooperation as it pleases. Even the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is not fully applicable in the UK.

But, as is well known, David Cameron promised to get more leeway or leave. After intense talks behind closed doors, on 19 February the European Council discussed and agreed on a new settlement for the UK in the EU. Brits will be called to an in-or-out referendum scheduled for 23 June.

I say it is time to fly free – both for the UK and for the rest of the EU..

As a EU citizen (Spanish national) living in London, I urge you to vote for #Brexit. Continue reading

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Why does the Basque Country seem so quiet about independence nowadays?

This article was published first in Open Democracy.

Basque nationalism has never held more institutional power.

Together, the Basque moderate nationalist party (PNV) and the pro-independence left (Bildu, “Unite”) hold 60% of the vote and 64% of the seats (48/75) at the Parliament of the Basque Country. Navarre, which constitutes a separate administrative region but lies at the core of the Basque motherland in the nationalist narrative, is now ruled by a coalition comprised by a pro-Basque party (Geroa Bai, “Yes to the future”), Bildu and the rather small Spanish Izquierda Unida (“United Left”). Nationalism is in command in all three provincial governments, the three main Basque cities, Pamplona (Hemingway’s and other San Fermin lovers’ delight), and the vast majority of towns in the region.

Considering the nationalist surge in Catalonia and elsewhere in Europe (Scotland, Belgium, Corsica…), why does the Basque Country seem so quiet about independence? I believe this is due to three main factors, one institutional, one historical and a strategic one, and that there is a common thread through all three of them: the economic crisis. Bear with me. Let me explain. Continue reading

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Ecocide: the international crime that could have been but never quite was

This post was first published in NBXMain in October 2015

Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are international crimes and, since 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate individuals accused of having committed acts of that nature. From 2017, under certain circumstances the ICC will also have jurisdiction in relation to the crime of aggression. These are the four international crimes recognised in the Statute of the ICC. There was a time, however, when scholars, international bodies and even some government officials spoke about a possible fifth international crime: Ecocide.

Ecocide was a crazy idea promoted by a bunch of visionary/loony academics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Aware of the fact that human action was causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem, they argued that humanity as a whole could be considered to be the victim of premeditated forms of aggression against the environment.

The idea could have remained an exercise of academic engineering had it not resonated, even if mildly, in international political discourse. Most famously, the then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olaf Palme, said in his opening address of the 1972 Stockholm Conference on Environment:

”The immense destruction brought about by indiscriminate bombing, by large scale use of bulldozers and herbicides is an outrage sometimes described as ecocide, which requires urgent international attention.”  Continue reading

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