< Viewpoints < 2006

"Social 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 accepted.

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.

Thomas Hammarberg

Croatia, 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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