ESC Rights Assessments at the UN

Human Rights Dialogue 1.10 (Fall 1997) "Efforts, East and West, to Improve Human Rights Assessments"

An official, but limited, United Nations system for monitoring implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is in place. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural (ESC) Rights in 1985 to monitor the covenant, which entered into force in 1966. The 18-member committee, which convenes only twice a year in Geneva, seeks to determine, primarily through reports submitted by states parties every five years, whether or not the norms contained in the covenant are being adequately applied in states parties and how the implementation and enforcement of ESC rights could be improved. To this end, the committee has issued General Comments on the covenant, which enunciate the committee’s consensus on the interpretation of the norms in it. General Comments assist states parties in carrying out their reporting obligations and clarify the intent, meaning, and content of the covenant. The committee also issues specific legislation, policy, and recommendations to assist governments in fulfilling their obligations under the covenant.

According to the committee’s first General Comment, the seven objectives of states parties reporting under the covenant are:

  1. a “comprehensive review of national legislation, administrative rules and procedures, and practices” in the country to assure the “fullest possible conformity with the covenant”;
  2. regular monitoring of the actual situation in the country with respect to each right;
  3. government elaboration of targeted policies to implement the covenant;
  4. facilitation of “public scrutiny of government policies”;
  5. provision of “a basis on which the state party and committee can evaluate progress toward realization of covenant obligations”;
  6. development of a better understanding by the state party of the obstacles to its realization of ESC rights;
  7. facilitation of information exchange among states parties “to develop a fuller appreciation of both common problems and possible solutions.”1

However, these objectives are thwarted by nonreporting and late and poor reporting by states parties, as well as by the general conceptual underdevelopment of ESC rights. Many states obviously lack the political will, resources, and methodological capabilities to conduct systematic and sustained monitoring of ESC rights.

Under its current chairperson, Australian human rights lawyer Philip Alston, the committee has been more proactive in its activities, routinely urging states parties to repeal laws, reform policies, and eschew acts that violate ESC rights. Recently, for example, the committee has declared states violators of the covenant for committing forced evictions, a practice on which it issued a General Comment in June 1997. However, the leverage of the committee, like that of any international human rights body, is determined by the good faith exhibited by states to comply with its decisions.

Finally, much of the good work of the committee must be partially credited to the information received from and procedural approaches shared by influential international NGOs that work on specific ESC rights issues and that attend and contribute to reporting proceedings.2 These NGOs have had considerable influence in the committee’s attempts to define ESC rights better and to develop improved ways to monitor them, especially with regard to the right to housing, the topic of the committee’s fourth General Comment.

1 Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,“General Comment 1: Reporting by States Parties,” reprinted in Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. E/1989/22 (1989), paras. 2-9.
2 Examples of such NGOs are the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and Habitat International Coalition (HIC).
We are grateful to Scott Leckie of COHRE, who contributed to this article.

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