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CSOs urge binding commitment on socio-economic rights
17 September 2010
Inter Press Service

Cape Town: A grouping of six civil society organisations (CSOs) has called on the South African government to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They say South Africa's stated commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 is not good enough, because the targets are not legally binding. If South Africa signed the ICESCR, however, it's government could be held accountable.

"The ICESCR is an important mechanism to intensify efforts to reduce poverty and social inequality," said South African Human Rights Commissioner Anthea van der Burg.

South Africa is one of only a handful of countries in the world that have not ratified the ICESCR, a United Nations human rights treaty aimed at enhancing social justice. Although former president Nelson Mandela signed the covenant more than 15 years ago, government has yet to ratify it and thereby make it legally binding.

Why the South African government has failed to ratify the covenant remains unclear. In response to a question raised in parliament in May, President Jacob Zuma said the reasons for the delay were due to possible conflict between the ICESCR and the country's constitution as well as the difficulty in identifying a lead department to oversee the implementation of the covenant.

But human rights experts disagree. They say that the majority of the rights and obligations in the ICESCR are already guaranteed by the constitution, only in a less precise manner. "This tells us that failure to ratify is more likely to be due to lack of political will and not policy concerns," argued Community Law Centre senior researcher Lilian Chenwi.

She believes government is reluctant to ratify the covenant because it offers stronger protection with regards to people's right to work, for example, and sets out detailed conditions about citizens' right to education that government would have to adhere to. The South African constitution stipulates rights to fair labour practices and education in a less specific manner. "The ratification of the ICESCR's socio-economic rights is widely regarded as a basic requirement to realise human rights," noted Chenwi.

She said that if ratified, the covenant would bolster progress towards achieving the MDGs as well as the South African constitution. "We haven't achieved a decline in poverty based on the MDGs and the constitution. We need support from an international mechanism like the ICESCR that adds extra force and accountability," reckoned Chenwi.

Like other states, South Africa will report back on its achievements at the Summit on the Millennium Development Goals taking place in New York from Sep. 20-22. Government is expected to argue that it has made major strides towards meeting the goals.

But the civil society organisations (CSOs) campaigning for the ratification of the ICESCR - Black Sash, Community Law Centre, People's Health Movement South Africa, National Welfare, Social Service & Development Forum and the Global Call to Action against Poverty alliance (GCAP) - disagree. They say government's evaluation is based on statistics gathered by governmental agency Stats SA, but doesn't assess the quality behind the numbers. "The standards applied are skewed and not an honest reflection of the state of affairs," complained GCAP coordinator Watson Hamunakwadi.

This means, for instance, that South Africa's MDG report notes that many South Africans have gained access to public health care within the past couple of years, but does not consider the quality of health services available, he explained.

To change this, the grouping would like government to actively involve CSOs in the national MDG review process. "Government's MDG report is not comprehensive. We need to broaden the perspective by having CSOs contribute the quantitative side of the MDGs," said Black Sash advocacy programme manager Phelisa Nkomo.

This year, for example, CSOs only received access to South Africa's MDG report in the second week of September, barely six weeks before it will be presented at the U.N. summit in New York, and even that was only after putting government under pressure to share the draft. But six weeks are not enough time to properly contribute to the report, Nkomo argued.

She suggests the MDG review process should be institutionalised, either within a government department or an agency like Stats SA, so that civil society can more actively participate in it throughout the year rather than only just before the next review process. "At the moment, the MDG process is not truly participatory, transparent or accountable," she said.

Nkomo further called on government to embed the MDGs in its policy programme to make them a key yardstick for South Africa's day-to-day service provision. "We think that it is highly problematic that the MDGs are not integrated in our overall policy planning and implementation," she noted. Instead, MDGs are a standalone set of goals, separated from South Africa's national policy framework.

The result is that high income disparity, structural unemployment and the impact of HIV and AIDS remain in place as obstacles to achieving the eight development goals, said Hamunakwadi: "We need to link policies to the MDGs if we are serious about achieving them."

* By Kristin Palitza

Keywords: constitution, governance, human rights, socio-economic rights, South Africa
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