The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural (ICESCR) through its consideration of reports, individual complaints, inter-State complaints, and inquiry requests, and its preparation of general comments, substantive statements, open letters, and general discussion days. As of November 2021, 171 States are party to the ICESCR.
- WORKING METHODS
- CIVIL SOCIETY PARTICIPATION
- RESEARCH AND ADDITIONAL SOURCES
The CESCR consists of 18 independent experts who are persons of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights. Members of the CESCR serve four-year terms and can be re-elected if re-nominated by State parties to the ICESCR. See ESOCOC Resolution 1985/17, Review of the Composition, Organization and Administrative Arrangements of the Sessional Working Group of Governmental Experts on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 28 May 1985. Further information about the election process can be found on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ website on Elections of Treaty Body Members.
The CESCR holds two sessions per year: a three-week plenary session and a one-week pre-sessional working group in Geneva, Switzerland. The schedule of past and upcoming CESCR sessions is available online, and the OHCHR maintains a Master Calendar of all UN Member States’ upcoming treaty body reviews.
Initially, a State must make a report on its implementation two years after acceding to the ICESCR. Following the initial report, periodic reports are then requested every five years thereafter. In July 2019, the Chairs of the human rights treaty bodies agreed that the Committee will adopt a standard eight-year reporting cycle. [IJRC]
The reporting system requires each State party to submit (1) a common core document, which lists general information about the reporting State, a framework for protecting human rights, and information on non-discrimination and equality, and (2) a treaty-specific document, which accounts for specific information relating to the implementation of articles 1 to 15 of the ICESCR and any national law or policies taken to implement the ICESCR. See Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Guidelines on Treaty-Specific Documents to be Submitted by States Parties under Articles 16 and 17 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/2008/2, 24 March 2009.
Recently, the Committee made a simplified reporting procedure, also referred to as “list of issues prior to reporting,” available on a pilot basis to States parties who are scheduled to submit their third or later periodic report in 2017. See Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Report on the fifty-second and fifty-third sessions, E/2015/22, 2015. The Committee may now prepare the list of issues before the State submits its periodic report, and the State will respond only to the questions raised in the Committee’s list of issues, constituting its periodic report to the Committee. See Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Information note for civil society and national human rights institutions.
For more specific guidance regarding the form and content of reports, the UN Secretary General has published a Compilation of Guidelines on the Form and Content of Reports to be Submitted by State Parties to the International Human Rights Treaties. The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights also maintains a list of all the State party reports.
After States submit their reports, the CESCR initially reviews the report through a five-person pre-sessional working group that meets six months prior to the report being considered by the full Committee. The pre-sessional working group will then issue a list of written questions to the State party, and the State party will be required to answer prior to making their scheduled appearance before the Committee.
Representatives of each reporting State are invited to engage in a constructive dialogue with the CESCR. Concluding observations are then drafted and later adopted by consensus following a private discussion by the Committee. A list of concluding observations can be found on the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights’ website page.
The CESCR may, in its concluding observations, also make a specific request to a State party to provide more information or statistical data prior to the date on which the State party’s next periodic is due. See Other Activities of the Human Rights Treaty Bodies and Participation of Stakeholders in the Human Rights Treaty Body Process, UN Doc. HRI/MC/2013/3, 22 April 2013, para. 8. However, this is a rarely used procedure. If the CESCR is unable to obtain the information it requires, the CESCR may request that the State party accept a technical assistance mission consisting of one or two Committee members. If the State party does not accept the proposed technical assistance mission, the CESCR may then make recommendations to the Economic and Social Council.
The CESCR may consider individual complaints that allege a violation of one or more rights protected under the ICESCR if the State responsible is a party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICESCR. See Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (adopted 10 December 2008; entered into force 5 May 2013).
The CESCR is authorized to accept individual complaints as of May 5, 2013, provided the complaint meets the requirements identified in articles 1 through 4 of the Optional Protocol are met. As of November 2021, 26 States have ratified the Optional Protocol.
More information on the procedure on individual complaints can be found in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ 23 Frequently Asked Questions about Treaty Body Complaints Procedure and Procedure for Complaints by Individuals under the Human Rights Treaties webpage.
Article 10 of the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR provides a mechanism for States to complain about violations of the ICCPR made by another State. See Optional Protocol to the ICESCR, art. 10. This procedure for inter-State complaints, however, has never been used.
The CESCR does not have a mechanism in place for urgent interventions.
Complaints of Systematic Violations (Inquiry Procedures)
The CESCR can also consider inquiries on grave or systematic violations of any of the rights set forth in the ICESCR. See Optional Protocol to the ICESCR, art. 11. State parties may opt out of the inquiry procedure at any time by declaring that the State does not recognize the competence of the Committee to undertake inquiries. See Optional Protocol to the ICESCR, art. 11(8).
The inquiry procedure is confidential and the State party’s cooperation is sought at all stages. Generally, the inquiry procedure proceeds in five steps.
- The Committee receives information that the rights contained in the ICESCR are being systematically violated by the State party.
- The Committee invites the State party to submit relevant observations.
- Based on the relevant submissions and observations, the Committee may then designate one or more of its members to conduct an inquiry and then submit an urgent report to the Committee. With the State party’s consent, the initial inquiry may involve a visit to the State’s territory.
- The Committee examines the report and then transmits any findings, along with comments and recommendations to the State party.
- The State party is then requested to submit its own observations and any measures it took regarding the Committee’s findings, comments, and recommendations within a specified time period.
The CESCR also prepares general comments interpreting the ICESCR’s articles and provisions in order to assist State parties in fulfilling their obligations. Each general comment focuses on one specific article of the ICESCR and can be found published in a list on the CESCR’s website.
Open Letters and Statements
The CESCR adopts statements to clarify its position with respect to certain obligations under the ICESCR following major developments and other issues regarding its implementation. The CESCR also sends letters to State parties addressing ICESCR commitments. All relevant substantive statements and letters can be found maintained in a list by the Committee.
Thematic Discussions and Conferences
The CESCR regularly devotes one day of its general sessions to discuss either a particular right or a particular aspect of the ICESCR. The goal of the Committee’s general discussion days is: (1) to assist the Committee in developing a great depth of relevant issues, (2) to encourage input from relevant and interested parties, and (3) to pave the way for future general comments by the Committee. For more information, the Committee summarizes its general discussion days in a table format by year and title on its website.
CIVIL SOCIETY PARTICIPATION
NGOs or other civil society stakeholders are encouraged to provide parallel submissions to State reports to the CESCR. All submissions should either be submitted in English, French, or Spanish. It is also recommended to send a report or summary of the report in English, as the UN Secretariat does not translate any reports. Any submission should be transmitted electronically to the CESCR’s Secretariat, at firstname.lastname@example.org, a month and a half prior to the beginning of the session for which a State will be examined at a general session, and two months prior to the beginning of a pre-sessional working group for States who upon a list of issues will be adopted. 20 hard copies will be requested for the general session, and 12 hard copies for the pre-sessional working group.
Additionally, the CESCR has adopted General Comment No. 10, which comments upon the role of national human rights institutions in the protection of economic, social, and cultural rights. See CESCR, General Comment No. 10: The role of national human rights institutions in the protection of economic, social, and cultural rights, UN Doc. E/C.12/1998/25, 14 December 1998. More information can be found on the CESCR’s webpage for Information for Civil Society Organisations.
The CESCR also makes available a short period of time at the beginning of each pre-sessional working group and general sessions to receive oral information provided by NGOs. Such information should be: (1) focused specifically on provisions of the ICESCR, (2) directly relevant to issues under consideration by the Committee, (3) reliable, and (4) not abusive. See CESCR, Fact Sheet No. 16 (rev.1).
If a NGO or other civil society stakeholder wishes to attend a session of the CESCR, the organization is required to be duly registered. Representatives of organizations must thus submit the full name of the organization, names of the representatives, and proposed dates of attendance to the CESCR’s Secretariat by creating an account and registering through the United Nations Indico system.
RESEARCH AND ADDITIONAL SOURCES
The Committee’s outputs can be found on its website and are linked to in the relevant sections above. The UN Treaty Body Database also collects these documents, which may be searched by several criteria, but not by keyword or subject matter. For additional research tools, view the Research Aids section of this Online Resource Hub.
Another useful resource is the International Service for Human Rights’ Simple Guide to UN Treaty Bodies (2010), which examines each treaty bodies’ reports, individual communications, State-to-State complaints, inquiry procedures, urgent interventions, general comments, and how NGOs can engage with treaty bodies.