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UN Week – 2/25/13

April 13, 2013

This blog entry is written by members of our blogging community and expresses those experts’ views alone.

John and Douglas Carey, Editors

In this issue: petitions to UN bodies.

In 1960, many colonies became independent states, especially in Africa. The process of decolonization was spurred by the General Assembly committee on decolonization, known as the Committee of Twenty-Four. A prominent feature of its activity was its hearing of petitions from persons seeking decolonization of their own and other homelands.

The hearing of petitioners became so familiar a feature of GA committees that its use was grafted onto treaties then being drafted, most notably the two human rights covenants, one on civil and political rights and the other on economic, social and cultural rights. Here, the petition process was made part of instruments separate from the main treaty, in what is called optional protocols. In this way, a country can sign on to the main treaty without committing itself to having a committee receive and consider complaints against it from petitioners.

In a little more than two months, on May 5th, the Optional Protocol to the Economic, Social and Cultural rights Covenant will come into force, now that ten countries have both signed and ratified it. The US has neither signed nor ratified the Protocol, though we have signed the Covenant itself, back in 1977.

We have not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which was adopted by the  General Assembly in December 1966, and came into force from January 1976. It commits its parties to work toward the granting of economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) to individuals, including labor rights and the right to health, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living. As of October 2012, the Covenant had 160 parties. A further seven countries, including the United States of America, had signed but not yet ratified the Covenant.The Covenant is monitored by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The ICESCR has its roots in the same process that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A “Declaration on the Essential Rights of Man” had been proposed at the 1945 San Francisco Conference which led to the founding of the United Nations, and the Economic and Social Council was given the task of drafting it. Early on in the process, the document was split into a declaration setting forth general principles of human rights, and a convention or covenant containing binding commitments. The former evolved into the UDHR and was adopted on 10 December 1948.

Drafting continued on the convention, but there remained significant differences between UN members on the relative importance of negative civil and political versus positive economic, social and cultural rights. These eventually caused the convention to be split into two separate covenants, one to contain civil and political rights and the other to contain economic, social and cultural rights. The two covenants were to contain as many similar provisions as possible, and be opened for signature simultaneously. Each would also contain an article on the right of all peoples to self-determination.

The first document became the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the second the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The drafts were presented to the UN General Assembly for discussion in 1954, and adopted in 1966.

A non-governmental organization pressing for ratification of the Optional Protocol by Germany is called the Association of Intersexual People, which would like to be able to petition the relevant UN committee for enforcement of the Covenant’s guarantee of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. It is reported that in Germany intersexual children are subjected to surgery to remove either male or female genitals.

I had not previously heard about intersexual people, only about LGBT (lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual) people, but now I have become aware of the broader formulation of LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual).

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