Statement by Ms. Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Open-ended Working Group on an optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Fifth session, Salle XII, Palais des Nations, Monday 31 March 2008

Thank you Chairperson,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to join you today as you are about to commence the last part of your session. I consider it most fortunate that these negotiations have coincided with my tenure as High Commissioner. This has allowed me to follow the process closely and also to address all of your sessions since I took up office.

I have been continually impressed by the quality and depth of your deliberations on options and approaches for this new instrument. I am particularly pleased to see the significant progress made during your last sessions. This gives reason for optimism that you are now close to the end and that you may be able to complete your work this week.

I appreciate that you still need to forge consensus on a number of key issues and that time is short. Not wanting to take up too much of your time, I would like to make a few observations relevant to the task ahead of you.

Let me start by saying that the adoption of the optional protocol will truly be a milestone in the history of the universal human rights system. It will mark a high point of the gradual trend towards a greater recognition of the indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights. A progression which is in fact simply a return to the unified vision of human rights set out in the Universal Declaration 60 years ago.

The optional protocol will send a strong and unequivocal message about the equal value and importance of all human rights. Importantly, it will help put to rest the notion that legal or quasi-judicial remedies are not relevant for the protection of economic, social and cultural rights.

As this working group has clearly shown, the simplified division between justiciable and non-justiciable rights does not stand up to closer scrutiny. It is contradicted by reality and is contrary to the unified vision of human rights underlying the international human rights system.

Another observation I would like to make is that the optional protocol will provide an important impetus for renewed and focused attention to economic, social and cultural rights. I very much hope we will not miss this opportunity and that States, national institutions and civil society will build on this momentum. In that regard it would be particularly important that the new instrument enter into force within a reasonable period.

As Eleanor Roosevelt famously noted, universal human rights begin in small places, close to home. Equally, the success of the protocol will be judged not so much by the number of communications received and examined as by the extent to which the mechanism will serve to strengthen protection of human rights where it matters most: at the national and local levels. Experience shows that the existence of regional and international remedies provides a strong incentive for strengthening national protection mechanisms. The optional protocol would serve the same purpose, thus improving access to remedies and relief for victims.

Chairperson, distinguished delegates,

During my tenure as United Nations High Commissioner, my colleagues and I have consistently promoted the development and the implementation of a unified and comprehensive understanding of human rights.

Taking stock of progress made since this working group commenced its work, there have been important advances. We are increasingly moving beyond ritual reaffirmations of the indivisibility, interrelatedness and interdependence of rights and are looking into practical ways and means of implementing these concepts.

Your work is very much an example of such practical approach, seeking to give substance to the ideals and objectives of the Universal Declaration.

At this crucial final stage, a concerted effort will be required to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion. I trust that you will continue your efforts in same constructive spirit which has characterized your previous sessions, always keeping in mind the primary purpose of your work: to provide the best possible protection of human rights.

I wish you every success in this endeavour.

Thank you.