A Regional Workshop was recently held in Manila, the Philippines from November 5th to the 10th with the goal of strengthening the capacity of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) in Asia and the Pacific in promoting and protecting economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR). Under the theme, "National Human Rights Institutions at Work", representatives from human rights commissions and non-governmental organizations in India, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia and Sri Lanka were invited to participate in the week-long Workshop. The program was organized by the Canadian Human Rights Foundation in partnership with the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and in co-sponsorship with the Canadian International Development Agency and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
To date, 143 member States have signed the United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which specifically addresses the right to food, health, housing and education among other universally recognized rights. The UN treaty body responsible for the Covenant - the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) - stated through it's General Comment #10 that NHRIs have a crucial role to play in the protection of ESCR.
The objectives of the Regional Workshop in Manila were: to examine the role of NHRIs in the promotion and protection of ESCR; to explore state obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfil ESCR; and, to develop practical strategies for NHRIs to employ in the promotion and protection of ESCR.
Led by an international team of resource persons as well as expert facilitators from the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, the Workshop methodology used a participatory approach where participants provided much of the content, sharing their analysis and experience.
Participants commented that the Workshop case stu-dies and simulation exercise offered a good opportunity for them to use and recognize the importance of ICESCR-related documents such as the UN Committee's General Comments and State Reporting Guidelines. These and other documents such as the Limburg Principles and the Maastricht Guidelines give important interpretative understanding for clarifying standards of rights and obligations under the ICESCR.
[ Third regional training workshop on NHRls ]
As a result of the Workshop activities, a multidisciplinary approach to ESCR monitoring and promotion began to emerge, with a number of strategies identified. One starting point might be building the capacity of the NHRI itself. Specifically, NHRIs need to: maintain independence and credibility through impartial investigation and decision making; interpret the institution's mandate broadly, exercise advisory capacity regularly, promote the visibility and transparency of the institution; respond to emerging issues and emergency situations in a timely manner; and, act as a catalyst in mobilizing the energy and resources of others. The Chair of the UN CESCR, who was present as a resource person at the Workshop, stressed the importance of networking and collaboration between NHRIs and NGOs as well as civil society and government organizations at the local, national, regional and international levels.
NHRIs were challenged to "clutch" their jurisdictions imaginatively in order to find ways to address ESCR. One suggestion was to have NHRIs make use of existing mechanisms such as submitting "parallel" reports to the CESCR or appearing before State parliamentary standing committees whenever matters implicating ESCR are at issue.
Addressing the "justiciability" of ESCR was also seen as important. This could be undertaken through the sensitization of the judiciary and legal profession, monitoring whether existing human rights laws are being effectively enforced, and even direct intervention in human rights cases before the courts.
Workshop discussions emphasized that monitoring efforts of NHRIs should particularly focus on provisions of the ICESCR that describe how the State is to fulfil its obligations. Under the Covenant, States must seek the progressive realization of ESCR. However, other Covenant obligations to "take steps" and to protect against discrimination are immediate. NHRIs should put the onus on the State to prove it is undertaking steps to progressively realize ESCR, that it is allocating maximum available resources to ESCR, and that it does so without discrimination. For example, analyzing State budgetary allocations from an ESCR perspective and comparing with actual spending and positive change from one fiscal year to the next can be a powerful measure of the extent to which a State has made effort to progressively realize its obligations under the ICESCR. Efforts to monitor ESCR should look at whether everyone in society is able to enjoy ESCR equally. There is a need in particular to monitor discrimination against women and marginalized groups.
Several other ESCR monitoring and promotional strategies for NHRIs were highlighted and include: determining and comparing the current status of ESCR with standards, benchmarks and indicators set out by domestic and international instruments; monitoring both violations and progressive realization of ESCR; reviewing laws, policies, judicial decisions and national action plans from an ESCR perspective; looking at the State's willingness versus its ability to address ESCR; and, promoting the integration of ESCR into the education curriculum.
One of the biggest challenges for NHRIs is to have state and non-state players adopt a rights-based framework rather than simply a needs or welfare perspective in addressing ESCR issues. Another challenge will be finding ways to hold non-state players accountable for ESCR violations through domestic laws and mechanisms.
Applying what was learned throughout the Workshop, participants, grouped by country, developed and presented draft plans for an ESCR initiative that their NHRI could potentially undertake in the near future. Initiatives focused on displaced persons and communities resulting from armed conflict or development aggression, as well as discrimination against marginalized groups including indigenous peoples, "untouchables", and persons with disabilities.
The Manila Workshop marks the third time that the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and the Canadian Human Rights Foundation have collaborated in the organization of a regional training session for National Human Rights Institutions. For further information on the National Human Rights Institutions Program of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, visit the Foundation's web site at www. chrf. ca.
Jeff Poirier is the program officer of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation.