Indivisibility, State positive obligations and litigation before the UN Human Rights Committee

Publish Date: 
Monday, August 3, 2015

The last two months were marked by discussions held before the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) on the indivisibility of human rights, as well as on the positive obligations of States in relation to civil rights, such as the right to life. Such discussions will ideally create new space for a more progressive analysis of the case Toussaint v. Canada, currently before the HRC, and similar cases. The case demands a broader interpretation of civil rights so that such rights are effectively protected for differently situated people, or more specifically here, for undocumented migrants in Canada.

Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

On 14 July 2015, the HRC held a general discussion aimed at developing a General Comment on Article 6 (Right to Life) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), expanding upon its earlier General Comments No. 6 and 14 (from 1982 and 1984).  The discussion on Article 6 has central relevance for the protection of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) and can further clarify the connection between the right to life and ESCR, as well as provide for a broader interpretation of the right to life that more effectively protects the rights of all, including those in situations of vulnerability. ESCR-Net Members and other organizations are seeking clear direction from the Human Rights Committee to reinforce the indivisibility and interdependence of civil, economic, political, social and cultural rights and to emphasize State positive obligations associated with respecting, protecting and fulfilling all rights.  In part, this would clarify that ESCR violations may also violate Article 6, providing  critical guidance to help ensure access to justice in many jurisdictions.

A number of members of the Strategic Litigation Working Group (SLWG) as well as partner organizations have presented contributions to the general discussion, stressing the indivisibility of rights, in particular between the right to life and ESCR, and the need to recognize States’ positive obligations under the right to life. 

Contributions have also highlighted the role of international human rights law in protecting vulnerable groups, including those detained, women and LGBTQI. To assure protection to vulnerable groups, international human rights bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Committee, have the responsibility of interpreting rights from the perspective of those groups, that is, understanding and responding to the specific challenges they face in exercising their rights.

The Strategic Litigation Working Group (SLWG) was represented at the general discussion on the right to life by Bruce Porter (SRAC). Porter focused mainly on the  Written Submission presented to the HRC by the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Social Rights Advocacy Centre, with the support of ESCR-Net, calling on the Committee to reaffirm the interdependence and indivisibility of civil and political rights with economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights in the context of the modern recognition that both categories of rights are justiciable and subject to effective remedies. To read the contribution submitted to the HRC by SRAC and GI-ESCR, with the support of ESCR-Net, please click here.  The following members and partner organizations also presented contributions, regarding the connection between the right to life and ESCR:

  1. Sanitation and Water for All (Catarina de Albuquerque, former UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation;  Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to food; Anand Grover, former UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to health; Miloon Kothari, former UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to housing; Raquel Rolnik, former UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to housing and Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights)
  2. Canada Without Poverty
  3. Centre for Human Rights and Development (Mongolia)
  4. Avocats Sans Frontières (Belgium)
  5. Amnesty International
  6. International Commission of Jurists
  7. Center for Reproductive Rights
  8. Human Rights Watch
  9. Minority Rights Group International
  10. The Project on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Geneva Academy
  11. Economic & Social Rights Centre (Kenya)
  12. Danish Family Planning Association
  13. Bureau des Avocats Internacionaux and Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti
  14. International Human Rights Clinic, Santa Clara University School of Law
  15. Program on Global Health and Human Rights, University of Southern California Institute for Global Health
  16. Sexual Rights Centre, Zimbabwe
  17. Centre For the Development of People (CEDEP), Malawi
  18. United Nations Presbyterian Church (USA)
  19. Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network
  20. Advocates for Youth
  21. Hun Consultancy (Turkey)
  22. Mindy Jane Roseman, J.D., Ph.D., Lecturer on Law, Academic Director, Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School
  23. Dr Evelyne Schmid of Basel Law School, at the University of Basel, Switzerland
  24. Dr. ilise L Feitshans, The Work Health and Survival Project
  25. Carol L. Castleberry

Aside from the general discussion on the right to life, the Strategic Litigation Working Group joined Canadian organizations in late July in highlighting the UN Human Rights Committee's concluding observations in relation to Canada.  The Human Rights Committee expressed serious concerns about new human rights issues, such as the impact of the Anti-Terrorism Act, the chill on freedom of expression and association, the failure to regulate the activities of Canadian corporations operating abroad, indefinite detention of non-citizens, and the failure to provide health care to all refugees and irregular migrants. The state of human rights in Canada has seriously deteriorated since the United Nations Human Rights Committee last reviewed Canada's record a decade ago. Read the full press release here

Members of the Strategic Litigation Working Group are now planning to intervine in the case Toussaint v. Canada following the rationale of rights’ indivisibility and State positive obligations.

Violations do not select among rights in real life. Therefore, effective protection cannot consider rights separately either.