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New route to justice one step closer to reality

By Karen Mullin
eople’s rights to education, adequate housing, water and sanitation, health and food are violated on a daily basis – particularly if they live in poverty. © George Osodi / Amnesty International

Imagine you have been forcibly evicted from your home. Your family is left homeless, but the law in your country offers you no protection and no compensation. What do you do? Who do you turn to?

You are pregnant, but cannot get the life-saving maternal health care you need without bribing hospital officials, a bribe that you cannot afford to pay. Who can you complain to?

People’s rights to education, adequate housing, water and sanitation, health and food are violated on a daily basis – particularly if they live in poverty.

These rights, known as economic, social and cultural rights, are essential elements for a life of dignity, security and freedom.

But all too often governments only pay lip service to guaranteeing them, even though they have the same status under international law as other human rights, such as the right to free speech.

And people living in poverty who have had their rights trampled on often have difficulties accessing justice.

Nigerian forced evictions

We can point to many examples, such as in Nigeria, where the local government in Port Harcourt on 28 August 2009 ignored a court injunction to demolish a waterfront settlement, leaving more than 13,000 people homeless; or in Slovenia, where many Roma families living in informal settlements are denied access to water and sanitation. The list goes on.

To give people more protection of their rights, the UN in 2008 set up a mechanism called the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (the Protocol).

It is a legal mechanism, which will allow people to seek justice from the UN if their rights are violated and their government fails to provide justice.

It has the potential to become a landmark achievement in human rights, which could provide justice and a life of dignity to millions of people around the world. The Protocol could become a vital tool for people, in particular for those living in poverty, to hold their government accountable for their rights – otherwise violations can continue with impunity.

The Protocol needs 10 countries to ratify it to come into effect and despite being open for signature since mid-2009, progress has been slow.

Portugal ratifies

On 28 January, however, we received great news that Portugal became the ninth state to ratify the Protocol – meaning that we need only one more country to join this treaty before it comes into effect. This was a big and very welcome decision by the Portuguese government, and one that shows genuine commitment to the full spectrum of human rights. It is fitting that Portugal holds a place among the first ten states to ratify the Protocol as it was Chair of the Working Group tasked with drafting the language of the Protocol and played a key role in pushing negotiations forward at the UN.

The other eight states that have ratified so far are Argentina, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mongolia, Slovakia and Spain. It is of course disappointing to not see any African countries, and just one from Asia, on that list.

The Protocol will enter into effect three months after 10 states join it, but will only be legally binding in the states that have ratified it – meaning that billions of people will still be excluded from its use until their governments step up to the plate.

We now hope, and think, that the crucial tenth ratification will come sooner rather than later. Until then, we can only urge that you join us in letting your government know about the importance of the Protocol – let’s make economic, social and cultural rights a reality for everyone, not just a lucky few.