It is often observed that good news tends not to attract quite so many headlines as more negative events. Human rights defenders and social justice advocates the world over had reason to celebrate on May 5, however, as the long-awaited Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights finally entered into force.
The new mechanism represents a crucial step forward for economic, social and cultural rights, as it allows individuals and groups whose rights have been violated to file a complaint with the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights if their own government fails to provide a remedy. This means that fundamental rights such as health, education, housing, food, work, water and sanitation are now better protected at the international level.
Implementation of the ‘OP’ sends an important message to national governments, reaffirming their obligations under international human rights law. It also places economic, social and cultural rights on an equal footing with civil and political rights, which have enjoyed the protection of similar mechanisms for nearly 40 years.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the Optional Protocol confirms that economic, social and cultural rights are fully justiciable and that those responsible for violations can and must be held accountable through legal structures. While the OP is designed to complement, rather than replace, national mechanisms, it will serve an important function in furthering understanding of the duties that flow from states’ economic and social rights obligations. It will also, of course, offer a vital avenue for vulnerable people to hold their governments to account.
On May 10, leading economic, social and cultural rights defenders from around the world met up with High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the United Nations New York headquarters for a series of activities to mark the entry into force of the OP. The activities staged to celebrate the Protocol’s arrival included a panel discussion on human rights indicators in the post-2015 framework, in which CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz participated.
While the Optional Protocol has been a long time in the making, with discussions going back as far as 1990, Uruguay effectively opened the door for it to become a reality when it provided the tenth ratification in February this year. The minimum threshold of ten States Parties was thereby passed and the way cleared for implementation. So far, the OP has also been ratified by Argentina, Spain, Ecuador, Mongolia, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovakia, El Salvador and Portugal. Over 30 more countries have already signed up to the new mechanism, however, and it is to be hoped that they, along with all others, will soon take the final definitive step of formally ratifying it.