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, Paris, January 2006

Economic, social and cultural rights for all citizens

How can intelligent people who share the same fundamental convictions in relation to a project allow technical details on which they disagree to prevent it from ever getting off the ground?

That is the simple question behind the French government’s decision to organise, with the help of some experts (1) a three-day seminar in September 2005 on the draft Protocol to the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in 1966. The initiative was taken as part of the preparation for the third session of the working group set up by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and followed on from seminars organised by Croatia and Portugal in previous years.

What were the disagreements to be analysed? Those that, for ten years and more, have split supporters and opponents of an extension of the powers of the committee responsible for monitoring compliance with the Covenant to include the possibility of dealing with individual or collective cases of violations.

And what reason was there to suppose that these differences masked a solid foundation of common convictions? The fact that economic, social and cultural rights are now justiciable in a very large number of countries worldwide, starting with Europe, and that quasijudicial mechanisms which enable best practices to be shared and emulated are now widely acknowledged to be useful in the human rights sphere. The ESCR exception seemed to be largely attributable to misunderstanding.

All scientists know that problems are difficult in many cases because they have been posed in the wrong terms. We wanted to organise a gathering where those present would endeavour collectively to look at the “hard issues” encountered in negotiations on the draft ESCR Protocol from different angles in order to identify any bias, lack of precision, connotations or preconceptions affecting the terms of the discussion. We invited a hundred or so specialists from various types of institutions – governments, multinational organisations, universities and NGOs – from all over the world, with very different opinions on the draft protocol, to meet in the lovely city of Nantes to explore these difficult issues together.

As the main organiser of the event, remarkable for a rare climate of understanding that some have termed the “spirit of Nantes”, it would clearly be questionable and immodest of me to claim that the method had succeeded to such an extent that all the difficulties had been overcome. I will doubtless be more credible if I merely assert that the method has made it possible to shed non-ideological and enriching light on the entire debate, thus favouring subsequent negotiations.

We even have gone further than that. A clue: in November 2005, when the International Organisation of the Francophonie met to review the results of its policy of promotingdemocracy and human rights and to identify ways of giving it fresh impetus, it unanimously decided, in the Bamako Final Declaration, that the French-speaking countries would support the plan for an additional protocol to the ESCR Covenant.

As not all the participants in the ad hoc working group were able to come to Nantes, we found ourselves facing the question of how to let them know what was said, so that the content of the seminar could inform the negotiating session in February. Publishing the full proceedings in such a short space of time had to be ruled out, not least because some academics had restrictions with regard to their usual publishers, diplomats had to obtain authorisations, etc.

The Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, which had already helped to finance the seminar, suggested that we should publish a document that would merely present the main conclusions that emerged from the gathering in Nantes. This could derive from the convergence of two approaches: a handful of experts could be asked to give their retrospective view of the event, while the most enriching contributions on the hard issues of the negotiations could be summarised, with brief quotes from their authors. A legal expert who had taken part in the seminar would be recruited specifically for the publishing project (Cheffi Brenner, whose Promethean endeavours should be saluted). Responsibility for the book as a whole would be assumed by an editorial committee set up by the Foundation. It was composed of Horacio Ortiz, Didier Agbodjan, Véronique Rioufol, Gustavo Marin. I deeply thank them.

This little book, in French and English, is the outcome. Please excuse any imperfections due to time pressures.

Notes :

  • (1) : Emmanuel Decaux, Jacques Fierens, Marina Eudes, Claire Mahon, Olivier de Schutter, Philippe Texier, Elin Wronzki.

Author :

  • Michel DOUCIN : Ambassador for Human Rights

  • Cheffi BRENNER