The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 2200 A (XXI) of December 16, 1966, following almost 20 years of drafting debates. It finally gained the force of law a decade later, entering into force on January 3, 1976.
The Covenant contains some of the most significant international legal provisions establishing economic, social and cultural rights, including rights relating to work in just and favorable conditions, to social protection, to an adequate standard of living, to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health, to education, and to enjoyment of the benefits of cultural freedom and scientific progress.
As of April 12, 1996, 133 States had ratified the Covenant, thereby voluntarily undertaking to implement its norms and provisions. Although, in 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed the ICESCR, the United States Senate has thus far failed to ratify it.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights monitors compliance by States parties with their obligations under the Covenant, and the level of implementation of the rights and duties in question.
The Committee works on the basis of many sources of information, including reports submitted by States parties and information from United Nations specialized agencies. It also receives information from non-governmental and community-based organizations working in States that have ratified the Covenant, from international human rights and other non-governmental organizations, from other United Nations treaty bodies, and from generally available literature.
Unlike the five other human rights treaty bodies created by their corresponding treaties, the ICESCR did not mention a Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Rather, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) created the Committee, following the less than ideal performance of two previous bodies entrusted with monitoring the Covenant.
The Committee was established in 1985 and met for the first time in 1987. Meeting initially on an annual basis, the Committee currently convenes twice a year, holding two three-week sessions, generally in May and November or December. It holds all its meetings at the United Nations office in Geneva.
The Committee is comprised of 18 members who are experts with recognized competence in the field of human rights. Members of the Committee are independent and serve in their personal capacity, not as representatives of Governments. At present, the Committee is made up of 13 men and five women. The Committee itself selects its chairperson, three vice-chairpersons and a rapporteur.
Members of the Committee are elected by ECOSOC for four-year terms, and are eligible for re-election if re-nominated. The Committee is thus a subsidiary organ of ECOSOC and derives its formal authority from that body.
The primary function of the Committee is to monitor the implementation of the Covenant by States parties. It is designed to develop a constructive dialogue with States parties, and seeks to determine through a variety of means whether or not the norms contained in the Covenant are being adequately applied in States parties. It looks at how the implementation and enforcement of the Covenant could be improved so that all people who are entitled to the rights enshrined in the Covenant can actually enjoy them in full.
Drawing on the legal and practical expertise of its members, the Committee also seeks to assist governments in fulfilling their obligations under the Covenant by issuing specific legislative, policy and other suggestions and recommendations such that economic, social and cultural rights are more effectively secured.
Under articles 16 and 17 of the Covenant, States parties undertake to submit periodic reports to the Committee - within two years of the entry into force of the Covenant for a particular State party, and thereafter once every five years - outlining the legislative, judicial, policy and other measures which they have taken to ensure the enjoyment of the rights contained in the Covenant. States parties are also requested to provide detailed data on the degree to which the rights are implemented and areas where particular difficulties have been faced in this respect.
Upon completion by the Committee of its analysis of reports and the appearance by States parties, the Committee concludes its consideration of States parties' reports by issuing "concluding observations," which constitute the decision of the Committee regarding the status of the Covenant in a given State party.
On a number of occasions, the Committee has concluded that violations of the Covenant have taken place, and subsequently urged States parties to desist from any further infringements of the rights in question.
While the Committee's concluding observations, in particular suggestions and recommendations, may not carry legally binding status, they are indicative of the opinion of the only expert body entrusted with and capable of making such pronouncements. Consequently, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR), for States parties to ignore or not act on such views would be to show bad faith in implementing their Covenant-based obligations. In a number of instances, changes in policy, practice and law have been registered at least partly in response to the Committee's concluding observations.
The Committee decided in 1988 to begin preparing General Comments on the rights and provisions contained in the Covenant with a view to assisting States parties in fulfilling their reporting obligations, and to providing greater interpretative clarity as to the intent, meaning and content of the Covenant. The Committee further views the adoption of General Comments as a means of promoting the implementation of the Covenant by drawing the attention of States parties to insufficiencies disclosed by a large number of States parties' reports. In addition, it sees the General Comments as inducing renewed attention to particular provisions of the Covenant on the part of States parties, United Nations agencies and others, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights established under the Covenant.
In the opinion of the UNOHCHR, general comments are a crucial means of generating jurisprudence, providing a method by which members of the Committee may come to an agreement by consensus regarding the interpretation of norms embodied in the Covenant.
A full description of the ICESCR as well as the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights is provided in Fact Sheet No. 16 published by the UNOHCHR.
More recently, on December 10, 2008, the UN General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Protocol is an international treaty that establishes complaint and inquiry mechanisms for the ICESCR. Although, as of May 2010, the Protocol has 32 signatories, it has no parties. That it significant because the Protocol can only enter into force when it has been ratified by 10 parties.