The Department of Foreign Affairs has announced that Ireland is to sign the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This is a welcome decision by the Government, though no date has been set for ratification. In many ways ratification is the most important step as it enables individuals to rely on the Optional Protocol, however the decision to sign the Protocol should be welcomed. The ICESCR was opened for signature, alongside its companion treaty, the International Covenant for Civil and Poltical Rights (ICCPR) in 1966 and came into operation in 1976. The decision to separate these rights is rooted in both Cold War politics and the belief of some states at the time and currently that Economic, Social and Cultural Rights should not have the same enforcement mechinisms and are of a different character to their Civil and Political Rights counterparts. This stance is also reflected in the status of the section on the Directive Principles on Social Policy in the Irish Constitution.

Ireland signed the ICCPR in 1973 and ratified it in 1989. In the same year, Ireland also ratified the ICCPR’s Optional Protocol, which allows individuals to take claims to the ICCPR’s attached Committee. The Optional Protocol for the ICESCR was not open for signature until 2008. ICESCR’s Optional Protocol also allows individuals to take complaints based on the treaty to its attached Committee (CESCR). Thus far, only 40 states have signed the Protocol with only seven of these states, Argentina, Boliva, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Mongolia and Spain having thus far ratified the Protocol. Under Article 18 of the Protocol ten states must ratify it to come into operation, thus if Ireland were to ratify the Protocol quickly we would go some distance to enabling it to come into operation and thus provide further human rights protection in an area which is currently scantily protected. None of the permanent members of the Security Council have signed the Protocol, indeed the United States has signed though not ratified the original treaty, though all other permanent members have ratified the ICESCR. This treaty and the protection it offers is always of significance, but the current financial instability of states in the Global West brings to bare the importance of these rights to all individuals not just those living in developing and least-developed states, particularly when austerity measures hit the most vulnerable members of societies.

As part of the ICESCR all members must submit regular reports to the CESCR. Ireland recently submitted its third Report to the Committee, our first report was in 1997. The CESCR has yet to report on the third submission and going by its timetable it will probably be late in 2013 before it does. Organisations are invited to participate when it does consider a state’s report and several bodies responded to the Government’s call for submissions in drafting its own report. In examining the concerns raised by the CESCR in 2002 following the second report some of the concerns staunchly remain while others, with the severe economic downturn and cuts, have changed substantially. It will be interesting to see whether the CESCR regards Ireland as having made any progress regarding racism, education, equality, with particular regard to Irish Travellers and women, all of which were raised in its examination of Ireland’s second report. One of the issues raised was whether the agreement under Partnership 2000 to ensure an “equitable distribution of the benefits of growth” was being fully implemented. It will be interesting to see whether the CESCR regards Ireland as having stuck to this agreement to any substantive extent.

In announcing the Report Minister Shatter stated,

The complaints mechanism established by the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR is in keeping with the spirit of the many independent complaints, monitoring and inspection bodies that are currently in place in Ireland.  In signing this Optional Protocol, we continue to affirm our determination to achieve full respect for human rights in practice.

Hopefully, the announcement that the Government will sign the Optional Protocol also indicates that it will embrace the Committee’s response to our third report as well and commit with more fortitude to implementing the recommendations flowing from any breaches of the Covenant that are found and also consider not only ratifying the ICESCR but also introducing it into Irish law.

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Written by Aoife O’Donoghue

Aoife O’Donoghue is a lecturer at Durham Law School having formerly held a post at NUI, Galway. Aoife’s PhD was at the University of Groningen. She specialises in international law specifically the law of international institutions and global governance. You can contact her at aoife.o’donoghue[at]durham.ac.uk or (+44) 0191 334281