Economic and social rights in the UK in 2016: A whole year under the UN spotlight… and more is coming

downloadThis article was published first by Housing Rights Watch

After nearly two years of evidence gathering and interaction with civil society and government officials, last June the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued its Concluding Observations on the extent to which UK authorities have been complying with international law on these rights.

To the government’s sorrow, the picture was bleak, but the report also included 60 very specific recommendations. For example, the Committee recommends making economic and social rights enforceable in court, just like civil and political rights are, without regressive changes to the Human Rights Act 1998. Authorities must adopt measures to address the deficit of affordable housing, particularly rental housing. The UK should review its fiscal policy to make sure that taxes provide the necessary resources to satisfy economic and social rights. The government must also enact Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that authorities have socio-economic equality in due regard when designing and implementing their policies. Decisive measures must be taken to eliminate the gender pay gap, and reduce the use of temporary and precarious forms of employment, such as “zero hour contracts”.  The Committee also expressed serious worries about the negative impact of welfare reforms introduced since 2012, in particular benefit cuts and freezes, the use of sanctions, and the disconnect between state benefits and costs of living.

These findings can only be explained if one factors austerity into the equation. The Committee expressed serious concerns about “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”. The Committee had seen the link between austerity and human rights retrogression before in the Czech Republic (2014), Slovenia (2014), Romania (2014), Portugal (2014) and Spain (2012). The connection had also been noted by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (2013).

2016 was a busy year for the UK government. The Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations in June, and so did the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October. In September, the UN made public a joint letter sent to the UK government some months earlier by the Special Rapporteurs on Housing, on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on Extreme Poverty, and on the Right to Food, with specific questions about the compatibility of welfare reforms with international human rights obligations of the UK, and the report of the inquiry of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was published in October. This Committee stressed a series of concerns about the negative impact of austerity-led welfare reforms on the rights of people with disabilities.

UN human rights oversight does not end here. Every five years or so, countries are grilled for three hours in the UN Human Rights Council in what is known as the “Universal Periodic Review”. Next turn for the UK will be May 2017. We don’t know what sort of recommendations the UK will receive from other countries, but many organisations and coalitions, including Just Fair, have already made some suggestions. The joint report produced by the British Institute of Human Rights gathered information from 175 organisations, including Just Fair.

Ok, so the UN has spoken categorically, and more is surely coming in mid-2017. But what now?

The UK has voluntarily assumed the commitment to bring to live the rights proclaimed in international treaties. International human rights mechanisms provide advocacy opportunities, but they are only as effective as civil society makes them to be. Organisations and society at large must hold the government to account and demand policies that fulfil the human rights promise.

As soon as she entered into office, PM Theresa May promised that her government would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” For now, however, apart from some minimal announcements in the Autumn statement in November, the government has not changed course from the austerity path initiated by Cameron and Osborne. The government has not reacted to the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in its response to the inquiry report of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ignored entirely the criticism of the deliberate and unjustified retrogressive measures of recent years.

Even in turbulent waters, there is room for good news. Following the lead of Scotland (since 2012) and Wales (since 2015), a bill is currently being discussed in Westminster Parliament that would create a new duty to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness in England, which would stop councils turning non-vulnerable single people away without any assistance at all. In November, the Supreme Court ruled on the human rights compliance of the so-called “bedroom tax” (or “spare room subsidy”), which essentially means the lowering of housing benefit for those living in social housing that is deemed to have spare bedrooms. The Court ruled that disabled adults who cannot share a room with another person should not have their spare room subsidy removed, and also that treating children and adults differently in this regard would breach Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on private and family life, and non-discrimination. The Scottish government is considering legalising the right to food in accordance with international human rights standards, and has also announced its intention to introduce a new socioeconomic equality duty on public authorities in 2017.

Brexit has taken the UK to an unchartered territory. We don’t know when and how the UK will leave the European Union, and we don’t know the effect that this may have for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular. But it is fair to say that the UK is not heading out in order to protect and promote economic and social rights better. At times of enormous political and social uncertainty, in Just Fair we will continue using the international human rights machinery in defence of human rights for all.

Koldo Casla

Policy, Research and Training Officer, Just Fair

Advertisements

Order versus Justice in the selection of the next UN Secretary General

aban2The battle to replace Ban Ki-moon has begun. A recent article by Colum Lynch (@columlynch) in Foreign Policy speaks about the race, the likely competitors and the interests at play. The author explains how the most powerful countries tend to prefer contestants from nations with little weight in international politics. He also talks about the strategies previous nominees have followed, and foresees that the next Secretary General may come from Eastern Europe, notwithstanding the quiet movements of certain players from Latin America to Australia and the ongoing EU-Russia tensions. Not in vain, the UN Secretary General is appointed by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council (Art. 97 of the UN Charter), where vetoes are always an option.

This time some people are committed to change the way the Secretary General gets chosen. A number of civil society organisations are campaigning under the platform #1for7billion (@1for7billion), calling for a “process that meets the higher standards of transparency and accountability that UN Member States and civil society have been demanding for years, (…) a process that provides meaningful involvement from all Member States, appropriate input from civil society, and that matches that of other high-level international appointments”. They demand transparency and citizens’ active participation. They oppose the business as usual that has ruled the nomination since 1945. They want 1-for-7-billion, not 1-for-193-mostly-15-really-5. Continue reading “Order versus Justice in the selection of the next UN Secretary General”

UN bodies insist: Human rights have extraterritorial effects

fronterasThe United States and the Vatican have recently been criticised by three UN committees for the very same reason: Because both States refuse to accept that their human rights obligations have effects beyond their national borders.

In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) demanded the Vatican to put an end to the impunity in relation to sex abuse and to remove immediately all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers (find CRC’s Concluding Observations here). In its defence, the Vatican representative argued that “priests are not functionaries of the Vatican”; they are “citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country”. The CRC rightly responded applying the general principle of International Human Rights Law that says that States must respond for the human rights abuses committed wherever they exercise “effective control”, regardless of whether it is within or beyond national boundaries. Continue reading “UN bodies insist: Human rights have extraterritorial effects”

International Liberalism and R2P. Have liberalists given up on the ICC?

bashar-al-assad-650x433Granted. The title is a little unfair. The truth is that I am only referring to Michael Ignatieff, but I have the impression that the point is extendible to other international liberals, or rather liberalists. This is pure perception. I would be very happy to be proven wrong. I encourage you to use the space below for that.

The UN inquiry mission on Syria has expanded their list of suspected war criminals. When they presented their report at the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, they assured that their evidence is solid enough to prepare any indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute, but the case could be referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council, as it did unanimously with Libya in 2011 (Resolution 1970).

Michael Ignatieff gave an eloquent lecture at King’s College London on Monday. The title was “Legality, Legitimacy & Intervention After Ukraine”. Initially it said “Syria”, but I guess the organisers (or the speaker) decided to adapt the name to the most current events. In any case, Ignatieff talked about both countries.

At first he assured he was not going to advocate an intervention, but I suppose he could not help it and in the end he supported an action based on the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), a concept proposed in 2001 by the ICISS, a commission he was member of. Continue reading “International Liberalism and R2P. Have liberalists given up on the ICC?”

Ruggie versus Ecuador: Will a human rights norm ever emerge regardless of Western support?

unhrcIn September 2013, a number of countries issued a joint statement in favour of an international treaty on business and human rights. The statement was drafted by Ecuador and signed also by the African Group, the Arab Group, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru. These countries believe that a legally binding treaty “would clarify the obligations of transnational corporations in the field of human rights” and “provide for the establishment of effective remedies for victims in cases where domestic jurisdiction is clearly unable to prosecute effectively those companies”. More than 90 national groups, international NGOs and trade unions have expressed their support for this initiative.

On 28 January, John Ruggie, Professor of International Relations at Harvard University and UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights between 2005 and 2011, released a response to the mentioned statement. Thereby he defends the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework developed during his mandate as Special Representative and praises the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that he himself drafted and were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011. The Guiding Principles were severely criticised by several civil society organisations that deemed them overtly ineffective to regulate the human rights responsibilities of transnational companies. However, Professor Ruggie is pleased with his own framework and expresses in this way why he believes Ecuador and the NGOs are mistaken: Continue reading “Ruggie versus Ecuador: Will a human rights norm ever emerge regardless of Western support?”

NSA surveillance confirms the realist paradigm, and I am not happy about that

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and Barack ObamaOnly a few days ago I briefly presented the research of my life, which I have just started and deals with the influence that human rights make on foreign policy making in Europe. In particular, at the moment I am reading and thinking about why countries choose to embrace and foster certain human rights norms rather than others. Right when I was about to accept that principles, ideas and identities play a significant role in the construction of national interests and, therefore, in the way countries interact with each other (“anarchy is what states make of it” and so on), we read in the papers that the US has been spying on foreign allies for a good number of years.

In making sense out of it, no other analyst has been more spot on than Thucydides and his Melian Dialog back in the 5th century BC: “The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Continue reading “NSA surveillance confirms the realist paradigm, and I am not happy about that”

Intervening militarily in Syria? Many more questions than answers

Kal Syria The EconomistOnly last week, a US-led military intervention in Syria seemed inevitable. Today, the immediate future looks more uncertain. In a historic debate, the UK Parliament refused to endorse a military action. President Obama referred the matter to Congress. NATO Chief announced that they would not be part of a strike. And the Arab League Secretary General said that a military action outside the UN mandate “is out of the question”.

As of this writing, since the UN research team has not announced its findings, there is no official truth about whether chemical weapons were used in Damascus on 21 August. I think we should first wait for this team to complete their job, although I am personally ready to accept that it happened. MSF treated patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” and Amnesty International has gathered information from survivors of the attack. Nevertheless, the scale of the effects remains unknown. France speaks of 281 deaths, MSF counted 355 and so did the UK Government, while the meticulous US intelligence mysteriously raised the number to 1429 victims. (Toby Helm rightly asks: “Why, if UK relations with Washington were so close, and the UK had known it was facing a crucial parliamentary vote, was Cameron not given access to new, higher casualty figures from US intelligence, cited by Kerry?”). The UN team will not be able (it is not in their mandate either) to determine who used or released the chemical agents, but the attack was directed against areas under control of the opposition forces, which gives us a relevant clue.

Future evidence may prove me wrong, but I believe that the Syrian Government used chemical weapons against its own population, which is clearly prohibited by customary international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime (Rules 74 and 156 of the ICRC study on Customary International Humanitarian Law). However, when I am confronted by the possibility of a non-UN sponsored military attack in Syria, I ask myself many more questions than I can answer. Continue reading “Intervening militarily in Syria? Many more questions than answers”