Time for access to justice for all human rights
Imagine you have been denied medical care during delivery of your baby because you cannot pay a bill, but there is nothing you can do. Your child cannot get education because of where you come from but your demand for equality is ignored.
For too many people, economic, social and cultural rights are denied on a daily basis. As a result, vast numbers lack adequate housing, food, water, sanitation, health, work, education or social security. Many instances of discrimination, exclusion and protracted neglect of disadvantaged groups have been treated as unfortunate but essentially unchangeable situations ("that's how things are") rather than as human rights violations.
Governments have too often paid only lip service to their obligations under international law to ensure economic, social and cultural rights for all. Most people denied these rights are unable to seek justice, but rather have to rely on the goodwill of the government.
In September 2009, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was opened for ratification by states. The Protocol, which was agreed upon by the UN General Assembly, will allow individuals and groups to seek justice from the United Nations should their economic, social and cultural rights be violated by their government and they cannot obtain a remedy locally.
For the people of Bangladesh to have access to this mechanism, it must formally become a party to the Protocol, thus making it legally binding. One year on, however, we are still waiting.
On September 20-22, the world's leaders will meet in New York to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to reduce poverty. Human rights -- so far seen as a mere add-on -- must become central to efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
By becoming a party to the protocol, the government would show that it is willing to empower people living in poverty so that they can hold governments accountable. It would send a signal to other countries in South Asia and globally that we can no longer be complacent about marginalisation and neglect of those living in poverty.
The Protocol does not create new rights. Rather, it provides a way for them to be enforced. Bangladesh became a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1998. The Covenant requires that Bangladesh does not interfere with anyone's economic, social and cultural rights. For example, the government must not forcibly evict people from their homes without complying with international standards, including due process and adequate alternative housing or compensation.
The Covenant requires the government to regulate private businesses, for example, by ensuring that employers provide fair conditions to workers. It requires the government to put in place laws and programmes to ensure that everyone has access to education, food, water, housing and health. The Covenant requires that the government take steps to achieve these rights to the greatest extent permitted by its available resources from domestic sources and international assistance.
Bangladesh's courts have in some cases upheld economic, social and cultural rights, for example, by requiring that forced evictions without alternative accommodation are illegal. These are important decisions. They need to be implemented -- at present, too often, they are not.
The Protocol will invigorate the International Covenant. It will provide an opportunity for people to claim their rights in front of an independent, international panel of experts who would determine whether their rights had been violated. This mechanism will not solve the human rights problems in Bangladesh on its own. But it will create an incentive for government officials to listen to people living in poverty and to ensure that no groups are left out from efforts to achieve social and economic development.
Ecuador and Mongolia were the first countries to ratify the Protocol. 33 countries from around the world -- including developing countries such as Bolivia, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Senegal, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste -- have already signed the Protocol, thereby indicating their intention to ratify it. Three of these countries have a lower average income per person than Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has already become party to international complaints mechanisms to allow for complaints about discrimination against women and about violations of the rights of people with disabilities. It is also party to the International Criminal Court, which provides for international investigations of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, an important step forward for international justice.
To be consistent, it is essential that Bangladesh also permit complaints in relation to economic, social and cultural rights.
If the government wants to ensure access to justice for all and reduce poverty -- and to show that it is serious about doing so -- it should prove it. At the MDG Summit in New York, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should announce that Bangladesh will become a party to the Protocol without delay.