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New route to justice becomes reality – but not yet in Africa

By - | May 5th 2013

By Netsanet Belay

Imagine not having enough to eat or, worse still, watching your children go hungry. What would you do if your house was torn down and you had nowhere to live? Would you be confident about your children’s future if they could not go to school or see a doctor if they were sick?

These are not abstract questions – they are the reality of daily life faced by millions of people across the world as a whole and in Africa in particular.

Every 90 seconds a woman or girl dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Every day thousands of people move into slums because they have nowhere else to go.

On current trends, by 2020 an incredible 1.4 billion people will live in make-shift shelters on the fringes of the world’s cities. On a daily basis, vast numbers of people are denied the right to adequate housing, food, water, sanitation, health, work and education. And this is not due to a lack of resources – it’s because there’s little political will to do anything about it.

There is hope though. On May 5, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will come into force. This text gives people possible redress if they feel these basic rights have been trampled upon.

For 65 years the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has helped secure a range of rights that all human beings are entitled to: The right to be free from torture, to speak out, the right to a fair and just trial, and the right to vote are just some of the fundamental principles and values outlined in perhaps the most remarkable global document of the 20th century. Even those who do not yet enjoy the rights laid out in the declaration have something to aim for – and know exactly what they are being denied.

The UDHR is embedded into our collective consciousness. But few may realise that it also contains a comprehensive set of economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights that are as equally vital for ensuring that we lead decent and dignified lives.

The right to food and clean water, the right to go to work, the right to an education and a home, social security benefits and the right to take part in cultural activities are all enshrined in the UDHR.

The United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides a firm legal foundation for these fundamental essentials of human life.

This treaty was adopted in 1966 – coming into force 12 years later – and has been ratified by 160 States. Yet despite its binding nature, few if any States, including the wealthiest, observe the letter let alone the spirit of the Covenant when it comes to ensuring that all their people can enjoy these rights to the fullest extent.

Amnesty International can point to dozens of examples where governments routinely flout the international law protecting these rights.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there is for example the case of the Nigerian Rivers state Government demolishing a waterfront settlement in Port Harcourt in 2009 while the matter was still in court, leaving more than 13,000 people homeless. In Burkina Faso, the government fails to lift financial barriers preventing women from receiving life-saving treatment and leaving the cost of obstetric care to families.

The Protocol is a side agreement to the Covenant and sets up an international individual complaints mechanism. The Protocol establishes a vital tool for people, in particular for those living in poverty, to hold their government accountable if their rights are abused.

The UN General Assembly opened the Protocol for ratification in December 2008 and it had to be ratified by 10 countries before it could come into force.

You might think that this would not be hard to do. After all, it’s only a handful of countries. It took until just a few months ago, when Uruguay ratified the Protocol, that the world had 10 nations willing to support this very necessary change. Well done to Uruguay.

And well done to the other nine countries that ratified, Argentina, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mongolia, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, which all deserve to be named because they have now formally acknowledged the importance of rights that should be enjoyed by everyone. Thanks to their action the Protocol will come into force on 5 May 2013.

But what about Africa? A year ago, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a resolution in March 2012 announcing its support for the Protocol. Almost a third of the countries that have formally signed the Protocol are African and have only one more step to take to ratify it.

However, it is extremely disappointing that not a single African country has taken the next step and ratified the Protocol - it is one of the regions in the world where people could benefit the most from being able to claim redress if their rights contained in ICESCR are violated.

It is also surprising; given the strong support many African countries have shown to the process. Many of these States have been at forefront of calling for the recognition of economic, social and cultural rights.

It is disappointing to see that leaders around the world are not willing to put political action behind their words. We urge all countries to ratify the Protocol, which is a real milestone for human rights, to ensure that people come closer to living a life of dignity.

The new legal avenue for redress opened by the Protocol could make a crucial difference to people’s lives not least in ensuring that the Millennium Development Goals which are due to end in 2015 deliver on their promises including effective accountability.

Governments often profess they have their people’s best interests at heart. In the year of the 50th anniversary of the African Union, proclaimed by Heads of State as the year of Pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance, there could be no more fitting means of realising these aspirations than by States ratifying the Protocol and, in so doing, increase the confidence of all African people that they can share in the Continent’s economic and social progress.

The writer is Programme Director Amnesty International Africa


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