< Viewpoints < 2006
rights require adequate protection in Europe too"
[16/10/06] There was a logic behind the
decision to award the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen
Bank. Their work against female poverty in Bangladesh has set an important
example and the Nobel Committee rightly wanted to underline that social
justice is necessary for building a more peaceful world.
The economic liberation of women in Bangladeshi villages has had a series of
positive effects. Not only have families developed, but their capacity to
participate in public life has also been strengthened. Through them we are
reminded that social and economic rights support civil and political rights
– and vice versa.
This truth is not always recognised in some of the richer countries, notably
the United States. There, economic and social rights have been seen as
“ambitions” rather than human rights in spite of the fact that they were
included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and now form part
of the body of agreed international treaties on human rights.
This earlier confusion is part of the explanation why the Council of Europe
adopted two separate treaties: the European Convention on Human Rights for
civil and political rights and the European Social Charter for social and
economic rights. However, the interrelationship between the two has been
recognised by their control mechanisms, and they both underline the
indivisibility of different human rights.
The European Court of Human Rights declared very early in its case law that
there is no watertight division separating the sphere of social rights from
the field covered by the Convention. The European Committee of Social Rights
has affirmed that the Social Charter complements the European Convention on
Human Rights and that the rights guaranteed by the Charter are not ends in
themselves but complement the rights of the Convention.
Experience has demonstrated that this indivisibility of rights is more than
theory. Political and civil rights can hardly be exercised by people who are
denied basic economic and social rights. If people are forced to spend all
their time trying to find ways to survive, they are in reality prevented
from taking part in public life.
It therefore does not hold that the Council of Europe standards on social
rights have not been ratified by all member states. The uniform protection
of indivisible rights throughout Europe is the core aim of the Council of
Europe. They are “the ideals and principles” which are the “common heritage”
of its member states, as the statute of the Organisation puts it.
The revised European Social Charter of 1996 contains a specific right to
protection against poverty and social exclusion. It also offers protection
against modern forms of violence – such as sexual harassment – or modern
forms of exclusion, such as homelessness. These are important standards and,
indeed, still highly relevant today on our continent.
The implementation of the same standards of social rights throughout Europe
is fostered by another important instrument: Protocol No. 12 to the European
Convention on Human Rights. It builds the formal bridge between the Social
Charter and the European Convention. The general prohibition of
discrimination makes social rights officially enter the scope of the
Convention and thereby come under the jurisdiction of the European Court.
The Court, while defining the scope of Protocol No. 12 in its rulings on
individual cases, will probably be inspired by the case law of the European
Committee of Social Rights. Similarly, states trying to avoid being taken to
the Court for breaches of Protocol No.12 might be guided by the measures
requested by the European Committee of Social Rights in the context of its
procedure of periodic reports and, even more so, in the context of the
collective complaints procedure.
At present only 14 states are bound by the collective complaints procedure.
The European Committee of Social Rights has addressed crucial human rights
issues under this procedure. Examples are the right of Roma to housing, the
right of autistic children to education and the prohibition of corporal
punishment of children.
This collective complaints procedure is unique in international human rights
law. Not only because of its collective dimension but also because of the
general measures it allows the states to take once they are found to be
non-abiding. Many states have redressed the situation which was criticised
with the help of this procedure. I recommend those states which have not yet
accepted it, to join the Collective Complaints Protocol.
Such procedures are needed to build effective safeguards for social rights.
In the midst of Europe’s glaring wealth, there is also crying poverty. We
have minorities of elderly people, persons with disabilities, migrants,
homeless people and others who live in conditions which should not be
When, tomorrow, the international day for the eradication of poverty will be
marked, we Europeans would do well to avoid complacent speeches. Instead we
should tighten the protection of the social rights.
Germany, Latvia and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” have not
signed the revised European Social Charter and are still bound by the
European Social Charter of 1961, which they have ratified. Liechtenstein and
Switzerland have only signed the European Social Charter of 1961. Austria,
Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary,
Iceland, Luxembourg, Monaco, Poland, the Russian Federation, San Marino,
Serbia, the Slovak Republic, Spain and the United Kingdom have signed but
not yet ratified the revised Charter. The Turkish and the Ukrainian
parliaments have ratified the revised Charter.
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