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Civil Rights

New UN social rights mechanism gets teeth

An optional protocol to the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enters into force this year. It conveys the right to an individual complaints mechanism. But few countries have signed up so far.

From May of this year, citizens can directly seek justice from the UN if their fundamental rights are violated. However, few will actually have the right to access the individual complaints mechanism. For while 160 countries have signed the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, only about a quarter of them are party to the additional Protocol - and so far, only 10 have actually ratified it. Uruguay was the latest to sign in February of this year, thereby fulfilling the necessary quorum for the mechanism to enter into force. Only those 10 countries' citizens will enjoy access to the complaints mechansim.

The UN Covenant is an international treaty on economic, social and cultural rights, which is often referred to as "social pact." It entered into force in 1976 and addresses fifteen major legal issues, including the right to access to jobs, the right to strike, to education, protection against discrimination as well as the right to health and work and participation in the cultural life, according to Professor Eibe Riedel from Mannheim University.

Eibe Riedel
(photo: private)

Eibe Riedel from Mannheim University

Countries are hestitant about signing

For fifteen years, Riedel was a member of the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights in Geneva. He points to article 12 of the covenant, which guarantees the right of every citizen to "the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health." These and other rights are guaranteed by the Covenant - but individuals can only recur to the complaints procedure provided that their countries have signed the optional protocol to the Social pact. However, most of the countries, which have ratified the Covenant, are in fact hesitant about signing the protocol as well.

Germany is one of them. 

The Government believes that German national laws have to be changed before the protocol could be ratified. Germany's federal ministry for labour and social matters told DW that “the German government only agrees to ratify a treaty when the obligations under such international agreements are already in line with German national law, or if German national law has been adjusted accordingly."

Opposition pressing for ratification

The opposition parties, however, think that it's a lack of will, not legal details that keep Germany from ratifying the protocol. Christoph Strässer, spokesman for the Social Democratic Party's parliamentary group, believes that ratification is not very difficult. Contrary to what is often being claimed, it requires only minimal changes in German law, he said. "Obviously, this is something not wanted politically, and that's just not understandable"

One problem is that the UN Convenant grants the right to strike - which in Germany civil servants and most teachers don't have, Claudia Mahler explains. She is an expert on economic, social and cultural rights at the German Institute for Human Rights.

Other examples of groups who might want to recur to the complaints mechanism are those in precarious working conditions or those living in rural areas with bad health care - the right to work and health are both set out in the UN Convenant. "These are rights that Germany has in fact already signed up to", she told DW. She doesn't understand why Germany is hestitant about ratifying the additional Protocol.

This is disappointing for human rights activists like Lucie Veith. The lawyer heads the "Association of Intersexual People" in Germany. For her, it would be a major breakthrough if Germany ratified the protocol.

Lucie Veith
(Photo: Private)

Lucie Veith fights for intersexual peoples' rights

Human rights activists pushing for ratification

Intersexual people's genitals are often somewhere in-between what would normally be termed “female” or “male”, meaning that they have both male and female sexual organs. In Germany, intersexual children usually undergo surgery to remove either the male or female genitals - an ‘illegal practice' according to activist Lucie Veith, whereby healthy genitals "are destroyed to create something artificial."

Veith says that the surgery often leads to future health complications, which cannot be treated. She believes the practice violates the UN Social Pact. However, intersexual people are as yet unable to go to court to seek redress, as the practice is legal in Germany.

Should Germany ratify the additional protocol, intersexual people may well turn to the UN complaints mechanism, Claudia Mahler told DW.

That is why activists like Mahler and Veith hope that Germany will, one day soon, ratify the protocol.

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