ESC Rights Update from Geneva: 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council (27 February to 24 March 2017)
This Update aims to provide a summary of the initiatives regarding economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council (March 2017).
This Update provides information about:
ESC rights and the Sustainable Development Goals
Economic, social and cultural rights
Right to adequate housing
Right to work
Right to food
Environment and climate change
Other initiatives of interest
ESC rights and the Sustainable Development Goals
The SDGs continued to be prominent in resolutions and debates on ESC rights at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council. The annual report on ESC rights of the High Commissioner and the ESC rights resolution (see discussion below) both focused on the SDGs, and the annual full Day Meeting on the rights of the child addressed the theme ‘Protection of the rights of the child in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ led by Uruguay and the EU. This was also the theme of a report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/34/27) and a resolution adopted by the Council (A/HRC/RES/34/16) which noted the foundation of the 2030 Agenda in human rights:
‘Recalling further that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights treaties ……and that the Agenda is to be implemented, followed-up and reviewed in a manner that is consistent with the obligations of States under international law.’
The resolution encouraged States to take account of recommendations from human rights mechanisms in their SDGs processes and requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to engage in the SDGs follow-up processes.
At least five other ESC rights resolutions adopted at this session, referred to the SDGs. In negotiations and discussions throughout the session, States’ continued to be interested in highlighting the 2030 Agenda and some were keen to underline the links with human rights (seen in the Child rights and ESC rights resolutions), but most remained reluctant to identify specific ways in which the human rights mechanisms could engage in the SDGs process. In addition, many States continued to insist on only referring to the SDGs by quoting the language of the Agenda or relevant GA resolutions and to insist that Geneva based mechanisms should not be discussing the SDGs as it was a matter for New York.
In an interesting and positive development, Chile, Denmark, Ecuador Luxembourg, Portugal, Rwanda and Uruguay made a Joint Statement on this topic under Item 8. The Statement announced a new initiative on Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda, beginning with an informal open-ended meeting later in 2017, to discuss how the human rights pillar can best contribute to the realisation of, and follow-up to, the SDGs, with the ultimate aim of pursing ‘a practical programme of work premised on seizing every available opportunity provided to the UN Human Rights system to support States as they work to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, leaving no one behind.’
More information about these SDGs initiatives at the 34th session of the Council can be found in our Snapshot – the SDGs at the Human Rights Council, March 2017.
Economic, social and cultural rights
The 2030 Agenda was also the theme of Portugal’s annual omnibus resolution on ESC rights (A/HRC/RES/34/4) which was adopted by consensus at the Council’s 34th session.
Important statements in the resolution include that the Council:
‘Also recognizes that the commitments made by States in the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind, and to reach the furthest behind first, founded on the dignity of the human person, and reflecting the principles of equality and non-discrimination, require the collection of quality, accessible, timely and reliable disaggregated data;’
‘Notes with appreciation the contributions of international human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council and its subsidiary bodies, international human rights treaty bodies, the special procedures and the universal periodic review in promoting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in accordance with States’ human rights obligations, encourages States to give due consideration to information, observations and recommendations from human rights mechanisms when implementing and monitoring progress of the 2030 Agenda, and to promote the cooperation of all stakeholders towards the full integration of human rights into the said processes;’ and
‘calls upon States to implement the 2030 Agenda consistent with the principles of equality and non-discrimination, and in this regard encourages States to consider appropriate measures to promote de facto equality.’
Finally, the resolution requests the Secretary-General to prepare and submit to the Human Rights Council a report on ‘the role of economic, social and cultural rights in the transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies.’ The topic was chosen to align with the theme for the 2018 High Level Political Forum (HLPF) of the Sustainable Development Agenda ‘transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies.’
The US and the UK both registered an explanation of position before the adoption of this resolution. The US raised concerns about the references to the right to development and the UK stated that the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was not incorporated into domestic law and does not require States to do so.
The report of the Secretary General on ESC rights (A/HRC/34/25) was also presented to the Council. It provides a comprehensive discussion of the linkages between economic, social and cultural rights and the SDGs framework, highlighting that the two agendas are converging and that many of the SDGs targets mirror the human rights framework, the concept of indivisibility of rights and the normative content of ESC rights, such as the concepts of availability, accessibility, affordability, and quality. Further, it highlights that the central principles of the 2030 Agenda, such as leaving no one behind and reaching the furthest behind first, reflect the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination which cut across all of the SDGs and that reducing inequality within and between countries is targeted in Goal 10 and is also crucial for achieving many of the other Goals. The report notes that extreme income inequality slows poverty reduction; perpetuates social exclusion, social inequalities and discrimination; is a causal factor in bad health outcomes; and creates and exacerbates disparities in access to housing, health, education and other ESC rights services.
On accountability, the report calls for the 2030 Agenda accountability framework to be strengthened and linked with established human rights accountability mechanisms. It underlines the importance of international co-operation in this context and the need to address global inequalities and power imbalances, such as in the area of trade, finance and investment and to combat corruption, illicit financial flows, trade mispricing and tax evasion. The report also identifies participation of rights-holders in decisions that affect the enjoyment of their rights and accountability of multi-stakeholder partnerships, including business and private sector partners, as essential elements of effective accountability.
One of the very interesting aspects of the report is the discussion of the contributions of international human rights mechanisms. The report notes that more than half of the SDGs targets are already being monitored by UN human rights mechanisms and that recommendations and Concluding Observations of those mechanisms can ‘play an important role in identifying key human rights issues at the country level and in prioritizing the most excluded and marginalized individuals and groups that will be relevant to the implementation of the Goals.’ A number of the human rights treaty bodies and many of the Special Procedures mandate holders are already engaged in work to highlight and exploit the linkages between the SDGs and human rights. The Human Rights Council has also explored this topic through resolutions, panel discussions and the UPR and inputs to the HLPF. The report urges that this engagement be deepened and become the norm.
Right to adequate housing
The Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Ms Leilani Farha, presented to the Council her report on the financialisation of housing and its impact on human rights (A/HRC/34/51) and her mission reports on India and Portugal.
The report describes how structural changes in the housing and financial markets and global investment have commodified housing and disconnected it from its social function which has undermined its realization as a human right. ‘Financialised housing markets respond to preferences of global investors rather than the needs of communities’ such that in many cities large numbers of homes are empty while the homelessness problem increases. Specifically, it has led to housing precarity, foreclosures, evictions, spatial segregation between rich and poor, the demolition of informal settlements and homelessness.
The Special Rapporteur also shines a light on investment treaties which often protect investments in housing and real estate for the purposes of speculation and the accumulation of wealth, and expose government measures to regulate investment to protect the right to housing, to claims for damages by private investors.
In developing countries, the influence of international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF and regional development and finance institutions) is frequently the central driver of housing financialisation policies according to the report, despite evidence that such policies fail to address housing need for poor families and lead to greater socioeconomic inequality. In the formulation of policy, neither IFIs nor States take into account the right to adequate housing or the views of people affected by those policies. Frequently, informal settlements are demolished to make way for luxury housing and commercial developments, leaving residents homeless, or displaced and rarely adequately compensated.
The Special Rapporteur calls for States to:
‘reclaim the governance of housing systems from global credit markets and, in collaboration with affected communities and with cooperation and engagement by central banks and financial institutions, redesign housing finance and global investment in housing around the goal of ensuring access to adequate housing for all by 2030.’
She prescribes a transformational shift in States’ approaches to housing policy so that they recognize the social function of housing and are centered around States’ obligations with respect to the right to adequate housing. She recommends greater dialogue between States, human rights actors, international and domestic financial regulatory bodies, private equity firms and major investors to bridge the worlds of corporate and government finance, housing, planning and human rights.
GI-ESCR made an Oral Statement during the Interactive Dialogue with States in support of the Special Rapporteur’s report.
A resolution on the right to adequate housing was adopted at this session by consensus (A/HRC/RES/34/9). The resolution was merely procedural and focused on extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing for another three years. The Council encouraged the Special Rapporteur to:
‘submit proposals that could support states in the implementation of the housing-related Sustainable Development Goals and targets and the New Urban Agenda. ’
Right to work
Pursuant to the mandate contained in the Human Rights Council resolution on the right to work last March (RES/HRC/RES/31/15) the report of the Secretary General on ‘the relationship between the realisation of the right to work and the enjoyment of all human rights by women, with a particular emphasis on the empowerment of women’ (A/HRC/34/29) was presented to the Council. The report is an excellent summary of the well documented issues relating to women and the right to work, covering topics such as: women’s labour force participation; women’s disproportionate representation in non-standard and precarious forms of employment and in the informal economy; legal obstacles to women working; the situation and vulnerability of domestic workers; occupational segregation; discrimination in recruitment; women’s unpaid domestic and care work; barriers to women’s entrepreneurship; discrimination in women’s working conditions; discrimination in relation to pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding; sexual harassment; systemic discrimination in remuneration and equal pay for work of equal value.
Of particular interest was the discussion of horizontal and vertical workforce segregation and the recommendation of temporary special measures as the most effective means to address them and to achieve substantive equality. Also of note is the section on women’s unpaid work which states:
‘Women carry out the bulk of unpaid caregiving and household work in society, which keeps them out of the workforce and public life. In addition to social norms, the lack of affordable care services and the gender remuneration gap perpetuate women’s disproportionate engagement in unpaid care work.’
The report notes the adverse impact that this has on women’s pension and retirement savings, the unrecognised and under-valued nature of this work and the fact that it subsidises the provision of care in society. It promotes the ‘Recognise, Reduce, Redistribute’ approach, through measuring and recognising the social and economic value of unpaid care work.
The report also addresses the difficulties in ensuring non-discrimination in working conditions for women working in manufacturing and other sectors in export-processing zones, for domestic workers and women migrant workers.
Given the strong content of the report, it was disappointing to see that this did not translate through to the content of the resolution, which despite being long, was not nearly as strong as it could have been.
The Council adopted a resolution on the right to work (A/HRC/34/14) by consensus. The core group described the resolution as focusing on women and the right to work, however, the text missed the opportunity to engage with this topic in depth and instead made some simplistic overarching statements which did not really advance the issues. For example: ‘Encourages States to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment in order to ensure, on the basis of the equality of men and women, the same rights.’ The resolution also promoted economic growth and job creation as a key recipe for the realisation of women’s right to work and contained paragraphs dealing with child labour, international cooperation, the role of the private sector and private investment, which were unrelated to women’s rights. For example, this paragraph:
‘Stresses that the Sustainable Development Goals promote inclusive and sustained economic growth, higher levels of productivity and technological innovation, and encourage entrepreneurship and job creation, which can be effective measures to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, forced labour, contemporary forms of slavery and human trafficking and to ensure that no one is left behind.’
Some of the strongest language was:
‘that equal access to work is pivotal to the full enjoyment of all human rights by women, while recognizing that women are on many occasions subject to discrimination in the context of realizing their rights in that regard on an equal basis with men and are disproportionately exposed to the most precarious working conditions, including work in the informal economy, limited or no legal protection, lower levels of representation in leadership and decision-making positions, lower levels of remuneration and involuntary temporary and part-time employment, and are disproportionately burdened with unpaid care and domestic work within the household and the family, which may constitute on many occasions a barrier to women’s greater involvement in the labour market.’
Another notable paragraph addressing women in the informal economy stated:
‘Notes with concern that… women’s labour force participation in 2015 is estimated to be 49.6 per cent globally compared with 76.1 per cent for men, and that women workers are disproportionately represented in the informal economy as well as non-standard forms of employment, such as part-time and temporary contracts or self- employment, which can on many occasions compromise their job security, working conditions and social protection; and that in developing countries, the share of women in underemployment exceeds that of men.’
Again, continuing the SDGs theme of this session, there were quite a few references to the SDGs in this resolution and in conclusion, the resolution called for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report for the March 2018 Council on the relationship between the realization of the right to work and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Right to food
The Council adopted a resolution on the right to food (A/HRC/RES/34/12) after a vote called by the US, which was easily carried with 45 votes for, 1 against (US) and 1 abstention (Korea). The resolution reiterated many of the issues addressed in previous resolutions on the right to food such as the world food crisis, progress in the Doha round of trade negotiations of the WTO, the importance of small-holder and subsistence farmers, a gender perspective on the right to food, traditional agricultural practices, concerns about the level of hunger and under-nourishment and international cooperation and development assistance. Despite the fact that the Special Rapporteur’s report addressed the use of pesticides and how they impact the right to food, the resolution only included one sentence on this topic.
Describing the resolution as ‘unbalanced, inaccurate, and unwise,’ the US explained its opposition to the resolution on the grounds that: the issue of pesticides is a matter for the FAO, WHO and UNEP; trade is a matter for the WTO; it ‘does not support the resolution’s numerous references to technology transfer’; it objects to the ‘inaccurate linkages between climate change and human rights related to food’; and it does not accept that States have extraterritorial obligations regarding the right to food. Whilst these are not entirely new positions for the US and it has made these points during negotiations of ESC rights resolutions in the past, it is less usual for the US to make a statement articulating these points and to call a vote in respect of an ESC rights resolution.
The report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food (A/HRC/34/48), Ms Hilal Elver, was also presented to the Council. It was prepared jointly with the Special Rapporteur on Toxic Substances, Mr Baskut Tuncak, and focused on pesticides. The 2 mandate holders call for the negotiation of a new international treaty on toxics which would regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides.
The Human Rights Council adopted a resolution (A/HRC/34/2) on ‘Promotion of the enjoyment of the cultural rights of everyone and respect for cultural diversity.’ Presented by Cuba and adopted without a vote, the resolution did not take up a particular theme or focus but made broad statements about the importance of cultural diversity, such as:
Recognizes that respect for the cultural diversity and cultural rights of all enhances cultural pluralism, contributing to a wider exchange of knowledge and understanding of cultural heritage and background, advancing the application and enjoyment of human rights throughout the world and fostering stable, friendly relations among peoples and nations worldwide.
The Council ‘took note’ of the report of the Special Rapporteur on cultural rights (A/HRC/34/56) which tackles the sensitive topic of fundamentalism and extremism and their grave impact on the enjoyment of cultural rights.
The Special Rapporteur writes that fundamentalist and extremist ideologies are a threat to human rights, and more specifically to cultural rights and they require a human rights-based response. She argues that cultural rights can play a key role in combating fundamentalism and extremism, by promoting free self-determination of individuals, respect for cultural diversity, universality and equality.
Environment and climate change
The Council adopted a resolution (A/HRC/RES/34/20) without a vote, after oral revisions. The resolution retained some general provisions from previous year’s resolutions and added some paragraphs addressing, biodiversity, the theme of the Special Rapporteur’s report. The resolution encourages States to ‘adopt an effective normative framework for the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including biodiversity and ecosystems’ and to strengthen efforts to protect biodiversity, including through national targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity. It also asked States to address compliance with human rights relating to the environment it their UPR and treaty body reviews and to ‘collect disaggregated data on the effects of environmental harm, including the loss of biodiversity and the decline of ecosystem services, on persons in vulnerable situations.’
The resolution continued to address climate change in a couple of paragraphs, including welcoming the entry into force of the Paris Agreement, ‘taking note with appreciation of the work undertaken by the Geneva Pledge for Human Rights in Climate Action … in helping to mainstream the human rights perspective into the climate change and environment agenda,’ and asking States to consider respect for and promotion of human rights within the UNFCCC framework and COP23 to be held in Bonn in November 2017.
The US also made an ‘Explanation of Position’ in relation to this resolution, although did not call a vote. The US stated ‘Pending review of U.S. policies relating to climate change and the Paris Agreement, the United States reserves its position on language in this resolution relating to these issues.’
Biodiversity was the theme of the report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, which was presented at this Council session. The report (A/HRC/34/49) explains that the full enjoyment of human rights depends on ecosystem services and biodiversity:
‘The full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food and water, depends on the services provided by ecosystems. The provision of ecosystem services depends on the health and sustainability of ecosystems, which in turn depend on biodiversity. The full enjoyment of human rights thus depends on biodiversity, and the degradation and loss of biodiversity undermine the ability of human beings to enjoy their human rights.’
‘Ecosystem services’ include:
‘provisioning services such as food, water, timber and fiber, which are necessary for basic material needs, including nutrition, shelter and clothing. Regulating services such as purification of water and protection against erosion support clean water and human health. …….cultural services to the many people around the world whose religious and spiritual values are rooted in nature.’
The report focuses on the following connections between biodiversity and healthy human life: medicinal drugs (the derivation of medicinal drugs from natural products), microbial diversity, infectious diseases and mental health. For example, on medicinal drugs the Special Rapporteur notes that biodiversity is an important resource for new medicines and there remain hundreds of thousands of plant species and other living resources, including the marine and the microbial, which have not been studied for their medicinal potential.
The report discusses how some people are more vulnerable to the human rights impacts of biodiversity loss than others. For instance, for ‘indigenous peoples, forest-dwellers, fisherfolk and others who rely directly on the products of forests, rivers, lakes and oceans for their food, fuel and medicine, environmental harm can and often does have disastrous consequences.’ It is noted that any economic benefits resulting from activities and projects that lead to loss of biodiversity, usually accrue to those who did not depend directly on the resource and the costs are imposed disproportionately on those who did.
The Special Rapporteur explains the State’s procedural and substantive human rights obligations relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The procedural obligations include ‘(a) to assess impacts and make environmental information public; (b) to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making, including by protecting the rights of expression and association; and (c) to provide access to remedies for harm.’
In relation to substantive obligations, the report explains that, since the loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity threatens many human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water, culture and non-discrimination, States ‘have a general obligation to safeguard biodiversity in order to protect those rights from infringement,’ including to protect against environmental harm from private actors.
The report describes the global failure to protect biodiversity despite numerous rounds of efforts to agree goals and targets under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The extent and rate of loss of biodiversity is alarming and likely to significantly impact on human rights in the near future, says the Special Rapporteur. Given the transboundary and global dimensions of biodiversity benefits, threats and protection, the Special Rapporteur stresses States’ duty of international co-operation. He notes that the drivers of ‘biodiversity loss include the destruction and degradation of natural habitat, the overexploitation of valuable plants and animals, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change’ and these are issues that must be addressed internationally.
Finally, the Special Rapporteur looks at the heightened obligations of States to protect from the adverse effects of exploitation of natural resources, the rights of indigenous peoples and of people who also have close relationships to the territory that they have traditionally occupied and who depend directly on nature for their material needs and cultural life. He points out that ‘protecting the rights of those who live closest to nature is not just required by human rights law; it is also often the best or only way to ensure the protection of biodiversity. The knowledge and practices of the people who live in biodiversity-rich ecosystems are vital to the conservation and sustainable use of those ecosystems.’
The Special Rapporteur also presented his report on his mission to Madagascar (A/HRC/34/49/Add.1).
Panel discussion on climate change and the rights of the child
Climate change and the rights of the child was the subject of a panel discussion during the Council session, led by representatives of the Philippines, Vietnam and Bangladesh. The Council also heard from UNICEF, a member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and an NGO, Green Hope Foundation. Further information is available here and a report of the discussion will be made available in due course.
Other initiatives of interest:
Independent Expert on Foreign Debt The mandate of the ‘Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights,’ was extended for a period of three years, and the Council requested the Independent Expert to pay particular attention to: the effects of foreign debt on the full enjoyment of all human rights; the impact of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations on the capacity of States to design and implement their policies and programmes; and measures taken by Governments, the private sector and international financial institutions to alleviate such effects in developing countries. The Council also requested the Independent Expert to develop guiding principles for human rights impact assessments for economic reform policies and to organize expert consultations for that task. The resolution (A/HRC/RES/34/3) was adopted after a vote of 34 for, 16 against and no abstentions.
Mental health and human rights
A report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on ‘mental health and human rights’ was also submitted to the Council (A/HRC/34/32). The report identifies some of the major challenges faced by users of mental health services, persons with mental health conditions and persons with psychosocial disabilities. These include stigma and discrimination; violations of economic, social and other rights; and the denial of autonomy and legal capacity.
The report concludes that a comprehensive approach to addressing the situation of persons with mental health conditions and persons with psychosocial disabilities requires the protection of autonomy, agency and dignity policy shifts that recognize exclusion and marginalization as the causes and consequences of poor mental health. It recommends that States introduce measures to improve the quality of mental health service delivery, to put an end to involuntary treatment and institutionalization and to create a legal and policy environment that is conducive to the realization of the human rights of persons with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities.
Appointment of new Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development
A new mandate on the Right to Development was established in September 2016 pursuant to resolution 33/14 and the mandate holder was appointed at this 34th session of the Council. Following the recommendation of the Consultative Group, the President of the Council appointed Mr Saad Alfarargi from Egypt. The Consultative Group describes Mr Alfarargi as ‘a development expert and a former Permanent Representative of Egypt and Permanent Observer of the League of Arab States to the UN Office at Geneva.’ He was formerly UN Assistant Secretary General of UNDP, a senior adviser to the Prime Minister of Egypt and Chief of the Presidential Bureau for Economic Affairs at the Egyptian Presidency.
Special Procedures mandate holders
The OHCHR submitted a report entitled ‘Facts and figures with regard to the special procedures in 2016’ (A/HRC/34/34/Add.1) which provides interesting statistics and information on the activities of the Special Procedures such as information about gender balance on the Special Procedures, the State responsiveness to Communications from Special Procedures, follow-up activities undertaken, statistics on sponsors of resolutions establishing mandates.
Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
30 March 2017
 A/HRC/RES/34/16, preambular paragraph 8.
 A/HRC/RES/34/16, operative paragraph 17.
 A/HRC/RES/34/16, operative paragraph 27.
 Human Rights Council resolution on economic, social and cultural rights, March 2017, A/HRC/RES/34/4, paragraph 7.
 A/HRC/RES/34/4, paragraph 8, emphasis added.
 A/HRC/RES/34/4, paragraph 12.
 See General Assembly resolution A/RES/70/299 on ‘Follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the global level,’ paragraph 3.
 Report of the Secretary-General to the Human Rights Council, ‘Question of the realisation in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights,’ 14 December 2016, A/HRC/34/25, paragraph 15.
 A/HRC/34/25, paragraph 17.
 A/HRC/34/25, paragraphs 22-25.
 A/HRC/34/25, paragraph 41.
 A/HRC/34/51, paragraph 75.
 Report of the Secretary-General on ‘the right to work and the enjoyment of all human rights by women, with a particular emphasis on the empowerment of women,’ March 2017, A/HRC/34/29, paragraphs 30-35.
 paragraph 70.
 paragraph 18.
 paragraph 9, emphasis added.
 paragraph 14, emphasis added.
 A/HRC/RES/34/2, OP6.
 A/HRC/RES/34/20, operative paragraph 6(m).
 A/HRC/34/49, paragraph 5.
 A/HRC/34/49, paragraph 6.
 paragraph 22.
 paragraph 33.
 paragraph 52.
 paragraph 59.