Non-Governmental Organizations brief Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on Situation in Netherlands and Switzerland

Committee on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights

1 November 2010
Afternoon

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this afternoon heard statements from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the situation of economic, social and cultural rights in the Netherlands and Switzerland, whose reports will be considered this session.

NGO representatives from the Netherlands spoke about, among other things, the creation of a national human rights institution, measures to combat discrimination related to sexual orientation in the labour market, human rights training and education and the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights of three particular groups: asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants and women.

NGO representatives from Switzerland spoke about the status of economic, social and cultural rights in Switzerland, extreme poverty, salary equality, anti-trade union practices, the right to strike, the right to adequate housing, police violence against Roma people, the situation of migrant women suffering from marital violence, and the scourge of suicide and suicide prevention efforts in Switzerland.

The representatives of the following NGOs took the floor: the Dutch Equal Treatment Commission, the Dutch Section of the International Commission for Jurists, the Coalition Suisse, the Coalition Suisse-Romande, the Organisation Mondial Contre la Torture’s Working Group on Migrant Women and Marital Violence, and the Association Stop Suicide – Genève.

During the present session, in addition to the consideration of the reports of the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles and Switzerland, the Committee will also consider the report of Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and Sri Lanka, but no NGO representatives were present to speak about these countries.

The next meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 2 November, when it will start its consideration of the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Uruguay (E/C.12/URY/3-4). It is scheduled to consider the reports of Uruguay over three meetings, concluding on Wednesday, 3 November at 1 p.m.

Statements

JAIME MARCHAN ROMERO, Chairperson of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said that it was the Committee’s privilege to hear the presentations of the non-governmental organizations. These would be extremely useful for the Committee’s work of considering the country reports.

The Netherlands

A representative of the Dutch Equal Treatment Commission gave an update on the State’s promise for a national human rights institute. Such an institute had come much closer; the legislation had been prepared in close cooperation with the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner. The Equal Treatment Commission would then transform into the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. Parliament permitting, the opening of the Institute should be possible in 2011. However, for the moment, she could only address the Committee within the Commission’s current mandate of non-discrimination.

The speaker noted that the Dutch Government had not reported on measures taken to combat discrimination related to sexual orientation in the labour market. Exploring this area by itself, the Commission concluded that the State had been very active. Many measures had been taken, but none had been reported. She also noted that the Government showed itself to be aware of its role as an employer, but that in many cases the public administration fell into the same pitfalls as employers on the private sector.

The speaker however noted that the Government had no coherent programme to deliver effective human rights training to its civil and public servants. This could be a first step in the adoption of a national action plan on human rights. Also, for Dutch schools there was no legal obligation in the field of human rights education. She also touched upon the persistence of discrimination against pregnant women and mothers in working situations and the gender pay gap.

Representatives of the Dutch Section of the International Commission for Jurists, speaking on behalf of a coalition of 17 non-governmental organizations and civil society actors, presented their Joint Parallel Report and “ADDENDUM”, which was a reply to the combined fourth and fifth periodic report submitted by the Netherlands. They focused the presentation on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights of three particular groups: asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants and women. The report also covered other concerns.

With regard to asylum seekers, the speakers said that the report contained a number of remarks regarding their worrying situation and, in particular, government policies regarding their access to physical and mental health care, their living standards in terms of housing situations and allowances, and the situation of asylum seekers held in detention facilities.

On undocumented migrants, the speakers said that they were very pleased to note from the list of issues that the matter had been duly taken up by the Committee as a main concern as well. They could only point out the inadequacy of the Dutch policies in dealing with undocumented migrants and the inadequate responses to this in the written replies of the Dutch Government. Through the Benefit Entitlement Act, the Dutch Government excluded this particular group from access to most basic services, in violation of Article 2 of the Covenant.

Turning to the situation of women, the speakers noted that there were a number of difficulties that women still encountered in enjoying rights equally with men. These difficulties were particularly noticeable on the work floor. It had to be noted that there was evidence that women of particular ethnic minority backgrounds seemed to face even greater obstacles in enjoying economic, social and cultural rights as guaranteed under the Covenant.

Discussion

Committee Experts then asked questions and made comments on the issue of human rights education and wondered at what level human rights education was being offered. One Expert wondered why the speakers had put women in the same group as asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants; women had quite different problems from these two other categories. Also had the non-governmental organizations been involved in the drafting process of the State party’s report?

The speaker of the Dutch Equal Treatment Commission replied that, with regard to human rights education in schools, the Committee had been provided with a document outlining the human rights education programmes in the Netherlands. A speaker also noted that there was a big difference between how the Netherlands acted with human rights abroad and within the country. There was often the feeling that the Netherlands was bringing human rights to other people and that everything was all right in the country itself. Reporting should thus be seen as an opportunity to get better.

The speakers of the Dutch Section of the International Commission for Jurists said that the three groups they had selected had been selected because of the expertise of the NGO that formed part of the coalition. Their report however also touched on other issues. On why they had also focused on undocumented migrants, they said that in their understanding of the Covenant and General Comment 20, there should be equal protection to all people, regardless of their status, thus undocumented migrants also had the right to certain social services.

Committee Experts also wondered whether the non-governmental organizations had focused only in the Netherlands in Europe or also on the Dutch territories abroad. On discrimination against women, what were the most worrying issues? For example, was there a general widespread problem for all pregnant women or only for pregnant asylum seeking women?

The speaker of the Dutch Equal Treatment Commission said they could not speak about the situation in the Netherlands Antilles as the Commission did not exist in the territories. Also, on 10 October 2010 Aruba and Curacao had gotten a new status and were newly not a full part of the Kingdom anymore but had almost the status of a separate country. Other territories had also newly become municipalities of the Kingdom. The new law on the national human rights institution would be valid in those territories. However, the equal treatment laws would not be applied in these parts of the Kingdom right away. On whether Dutch children were being taught human rights at schools, she said that in general it was not the case and that it was up to the teacher to decide.

The speakers of the Dutch Section of the International Commission for Jurists said that their expertise was also limited to the European part of the Kingdom.

Switzerland

A representative of Coalition Suisse said that the Swiss Coalition was made of 24 organizations, including unions, youth organizations, women organizations and development agencies, among others. Although the rhetoric of universality, indivisibility, interdependence and complementary of human rights was often used in Switzerland’s rhetoric, in practice, this was not the case for economic, social and cultural rights.

Since 1992, the Federal Council was of the view that the obligations under the Covenant were programmatic in their nature. In the new Federal Constitution of 1999, the legislator had failed to act accordingly and thus the Constitution did not talk about social rights but “social goals”. The Federal Council also refused to accede to the Optional Protocol because the Covenant was not directly applicable in Switzerland. In addition, Switzerland had failed to create a national human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles. There were also shortcomings in human rights education.

A representative of Coalition Suisse-Romande said that they were made up of 30 associations which had drafted a parallel report and list of recommendations. Generally speaking the organizations agreed that the information and statistics provided by Switzerland in its report to the Committee were insufficient. The Coalition’s report touched upon poverty, the increase of xenophobia and provided many elements showing that Switzerland violated its obligations with regard to international assistance to third-world countries. The report also touched upon salary equality and provided many examples of anti-trade union practices. The right to strike was not always respected. The right to adequate housing was also not respected; it was also worrying that some people spent 40 per cent of their income on rent. The report also addressed the lack of access to education to children without documents, the problem of illiteracy, and discrimination and police violence against the Roma.

A representative of the Organisation Mondial Contre la Torture Working Group on Migrant Women and Marital Violence said that migrant women were particularly affected by marital violence in Switzerland. Residence permits were usually only granted and renewed to women when they were living with their families. Thus, migrant women had no guarantee of staying in Switzerland in cases where there was a separation due to domestic violence. It was very difficult to prove violence. Recent jurisprudence of the Federal Court made possible but not obligatory the renewal of the residence permit on the basis of serious marital violence.

A representative of Association Stop Suicide - Genève said that suicide was not a marginal problem in Switzerland but a scourge which represented the first cause of death in youngsters aged between 15 to 24 years of age. An estimated 15,000 to 25,000 persons attempted suicide every year. Only 10,000 cases were getting healthcare support. Geneva was the only canton which carried out suicide prevention actions and was accordingly also the only canton which had seen its suicide rate drop since the 1990s. Stop suicide had submitted a report on the subject to the Committee.

Discussion

An Expert noted that two speakers had said that there was an increase in extreme poverty in Switzerland. However, the Swiss report had no figures on this. The Expert hoped that the organizations claiming this had also the relevant baseline to this claim. Also, the Committee would like to get the figures on the illiteracy rates. One Expert also wondered whether there was a minimum salary and whether it was at the Cantonal or Federal level. How were permits being provided to immigrants, was it only given to the husband? Was it fair to make a categorical claim that Switzerland would not accede to the Optional Protocol?

Experts said that many important claims had been made, such as the violence against Roma people and the measures against strikes. But the Committee would prefer to get specific examples on which these claims were based.

Speakers said that they would provide all the answers during their working lunch with the Committee later in the week.

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