JOINT PRESS STATEMENT
Civil society organisations test government’s commitment to human rights at the United Nations
South Africa risks continued failures to fulfil its human rights obligations to people if the government’s austerity policy is maintained, civil society organisations have warned at the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the UN Committee) in Geneva. The organisations outlined the systemic challenges that impede access to adequate health care, housing, education, work, social security, food and land to the Committee and urged government to tackle these without delay.
South Africa is participating in its first hearing at the UN Committee, which oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the International Covenant) by states. Former President Nelson Mandela signed the International Covenant in 1994 but it only became legally binding in SA when it was ratified by government in 2015. The Treaty closely mirrors the Constitution by requiring the state to fulfil socio-economic rights for everyone in the country.
The government has also sent a delegation to make submissions on its implementation of the Covenant and participate in dialogue with the Committee. Government submitted a report prior to this week’s hearings, which is available with reports by the civil society organisations and the SA Human Rights Commission here
SECTION27’s Daniel McLaren, representing a submission made jointly with the Institute for Economic Justice and the Centre for Economic and Social Rights, described how, in response to misplaced concerns about public debt, cuts in the fields of health and education were compromising access to these critical services. McLaren said that “greater taxation of incomes and wealth and more effective government expenditure is essential if the promises of the International Covenant and the Constitution are to be achieved.”
Mandi Mudarikwa of the Legal Resources Centre, on behalf of a number of partner organisations, urged the Committee to ensure that the South African government integrates an intersectional and gender centred dimension to discrimination which addresses the power imbalances that exists between marginalised and invisible people and the general population. This would ensure that their specific needs are included and catered for as a way to achieve substantive equality in accessing economic, social and cultural rights. “We must promote inclusion, diversity and tolerance in our pursuit for a more equal South Africa,” she said.
The Alternate Report Coalition – Child Rights South Africa (ARC – CRSA) presented on socio-economic challenges facing children that require priority attention from government. With over 36% (7 million) of children living under the food poverty line of R547/month and 27% of children under 5 years of age being stunted; ARC-CRSA called on government to increase the low amount of the Child Support Grant from R400 to the level of the food poverty line. This is all the more necessary given the substantial increases in the cost of food and transport resulting from recent increases to VAT and the fuel levies. The Alternate Report Coalition – Child Rights South Africa (ARC – CRSA) is a civil society alliance on children’s rights including the Centre for Child Law, University of Pretoria; Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town; Lawyers for Human Rights, and the Legal Resources Centre.
Roné McFarlane of Equal Education and Mbekezeli Benjamin of the Equal Education Law Centre raised particular concerns regarding South Africa’s declaration that it will progressively realise the right to education, within available resources. Such an approach goes against its constitutional obligation to immediately realise this right. They also highlighted issues still impeding the full realisation of the right to education, such as the inadequate provision of learner transport and safe school infrastructure, and the illegal exclusion of undocumented learners. Their joint submission also raised concerns over discrimination against single parents in school fee exemption applications and called for the stricter regulation of private actors in education.
Gladys Mirugi-Mukundi from the SA Ratification Campaign said that the attainment of a decent standard of living by all should be adopted as a central goal of government policy, based on the Constitution and the government’s commitments in the International Covenant. The Campaign made a number of recommendations specific to the rights to food, housing, water and sanitation, health care and education. The SA Ratification Campaign has comprised of the Dullah Omar Institute; Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute; People’s Health Movement South Africa; Black Sash; the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies; the Socio-Economic Rights Institute.
In the SA Ratification Campaign submission, Isobel Frye, Director of Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute, raised concerns about the failure of the state to provide social assistance to people aged 18 to 59, despite this right being guaranteed both in the Constitution and the International Covenant. “This continuing failure,” she said, “is in breach of the state’s obligations. In addition, it undermines the fundamental right to dignity of millions of poor South Africans who are condemned to face severe destitution on a daily basis.”
Refiloe Joala from The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies described the complex nature of food and nutrition insecurity in South Africa and raised concerns about the State’s failure to enact a legislative framework for the right to food. “While government continues to support the corporatised food system through subsidies, access to technology and expertise, and policies that favour private investment; lack of post-settlement support for new farmers has led to massive failures in land reform farms”, she said.
The Association for Progressive Communications, Media Monitoring Africa, and the Right2Know Campaign made a submission that focused on access to the internet in South Africa – particularly for disadvantaged and marginalised persons and groups, including those living in rural and remote areas – and the extent to which the Government of South Africa is ensuring that people are able to benefit from the potential of the internet as an enabler of economic, social and cultural rights.
Timothy Fish Hodgson of the International Commission of Jurists said, “Unlike the South African Constitution, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contains a right to work. By ratifying the Covenant in 2015, the government has made a legally binding commitment to progressively eliminate unemployment and ensure that all work – whether in the formal or informal sector – is decent work.” As a result, for example, “both the level of the national minimum wage and measures taken by the government to combat South Africa’s 37.2% unemployment rate, should be evaluated in terms of the rights to work and the right to an adequate standard of living”, he concluded.
Amnesty International said that “the Committee’s review is a moment to address increasing inequalities, including barriers to reproductive health services, and the government’s failure to provide access to safe abortion care. In 2017, Amnesty International found only 7% of the country’s public health facilities offered abortion services, and that the government has failed to tackle pervasive stigma towards women and girls seeking abortion services, or ensure accountability for health professionals who refuse to uphold their ethical responsibilities to provide abortion care.”
In a submission on alcohol policy, Aadielah Maker Diedericks from the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance raised concerns about the right of access to information and the right to public participation in relation to the Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Act of 2013, which has not been released to the public for comment for 5 years despite the government including it in its report to the committee.
The UN Committee is in dialogue with the government until 03 October 2018. In a few weeks’ time, the Committee will issue its “concluding observations” on the steps the government must take to comply with the provisions of the Covenant. These require that government use all of its available resources to protect and fulfil the rights of people in the country, especially those affected by discrimination. As civil society organizations, we expect South Africa to honour these commitments and to reverse austerity policies that stand to adversely affect the lives of millions of people.
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