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Optional Protocol to the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Excellencies, Colleagues, Friends,

I’m glad to have this opportunity to thank the Group of Friends to the Optional Protocol to International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for its work, and even more glad to see that this event is becoming an annual tradition.

Almost 70 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reaffirmed our determination “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”. The Declaration’s acknowledgement of the indivisibility of human rights – not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights – is, to me, an example of the United Nations at its best: a case of pluralism and diversity driving us to aim for higher goals. In subsequent decades, a gap opened up between the legal instruments addressing civil and political rights, on the one hand, and those on economic, social and cultural rights. That gap was finally addressed with the entry into force of the Optional Protocol, a milestone in the international human rights system, which we celebrate today.

Individuals can now seek out justice for violations of their rights enshrined in both Covenants, and this recognition that the individual is entitled to claim rights is rich with hope.

Since April 2014, when you met with my predecessor, Navi Pillay, seven States have become parties to the Optional Protocol, bringing the total to 20 – double what it was two years ago. I warmly welcome those ratifications by Belgium, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Luxembourg, Italy, France and the accession by Niger, and I hope that other States which have signed the Optional Protocol will also follow through with ratification.

Since this is an opportunity for celebration, I also would like to acknowledge several recent ratifications of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Optional Protocol’s “mother treaty”. Haiti ratified the ICESCR in 2013; the State of Palestine ratified it in 2014; and South Africa and Belize have ratified it this year, bringing the number of ratifications to 164 States. The days of ideological confrontations over the legal standing of economic, social and cultural rights are long gone, and the vital importance of economic, social and cultural rights is now very widely accepted.

This Group of Friends is a good symbol of this broad recognition. It is a cross-regional group, comprising Member States from developed and developing countries alike, with different legal and political systems and traditions. Yet all recognize that every individual has the right to demand that governments effectively observe economic, social and cultural rights, and that any violations of those rights must be met with effective remedies.

Some of you may be aware that in the past year the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has taken its first decision declaring that a communication was admissible under the Optional Protocol, and currently five communications are pending before it. Views by the Committee concerning individual cases provide States parties with guidance to address the specific situations under review, but they can also include general recommendations to prevent similar violations in the future. I encourage all States parties to set up a national body to monitor the implementation of these recommendations, and of all recommendations by the human rights mechanisms.

We also need to ensure that people are widely and fully informed about how they can exercise their rights under the Optional Protocol. Working with civil society groups, my Office has taken up activities to disseminate the Optional Protocol in several State Parties, and we will be glad to support your work to advance this goal.

My friends, I thank you for your efforts to promote ratification of the Optional Protocol. And I would like to make a suggestion. In 2016 we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This could be an opportunity for the Group of Friends to consider enlarging its scope beyond the Optional Protocol, to the International Covenant and to economic, social and cultural rights in general.

Nations thrive when they build institutions that empower their people and protect the full potential of every individual to develop – politically, economically, socially and culturally. That broad inclusion, and the promotion of all human rights, strengthen public confidence in the institutions of the State, and help to immunise society against extremism and violence.

Human rights are not only principles: they are also the most effective policy choices to build in resilience and stability. This is as true for the right to sound and inspiring education, the right to decent healthcare, and the right to clean water as it is for the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Economic, social and cultural rights build strong societies. When they are respected there is not only massive economic benefit to all – there is a dividend, in the form of stable peace.

Conflict, discrimination, poverty and inequality are man-made disasters that hammer too many communities and individuals. I deeply appreciate your work to alleviate this suffering, and I hope that my Office will be able to count on your support for the foreseeable future.