Informational tour "Economic, social and cultural human rights" | 2012

Human Rights Are Indivisible – Without Water No Dignity, No Freedom

by Odila Triebel

And without cultural rights, no inclusion, no peace. Economic, social and cultural human rights are on a par with political human rights. Germany has committed itself to upholding these rights and is well advised to allow for scrutiny of their implementation at home.

How long does an applicant for invalidity status in Berlin have to wait for approval? Should the privatisation of municipal water works be rolled back? Is it the city's responsibility to acquire the plot of land that will be used by the Roma? Local newspapers reported  almost daily, during the study tour, on issues connected to the implementation and upholding of ESC-Human Rights in Germany. And yet, not many of its citizens are aware of this, according to the Human Rights Institute, whose primary responsibility is also to educate the citizenry. And by chance during that same week the German Constitutional Court decided that an existential minimum granted to asylum seekers in Germany must be equal to the existential minimum granted to its citizens. This only went to show, once again, that also in Germany supposedly political judgements and positions are more often than not a case of implementing a human right.

The study tour approached the complex theme of ESC-Human Rights by highlighting Germany's international commitment to and domestic guarantee of human rights so as to be accepted as a credible partner. Government and public institutions were visited as well as different actors from a broad range of highly professional civic groups. 

Thanks also to, amongst others, a German initiative the UN-Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Germany's development cooperation policy has incorporated human rights as a guiding principle for its goals and strategies. Yet, why is it taking so long for Germany to ratify the Additional Protocol for ESC-Rights? Governments are also responsible for monitoring acts committed by a citizen outside of the country where they impinge on human rights. Individuals are to be given the right to take legal action against a state where ESC-Human Rights are breached. Is Germany's human rights policy truly coherent? Are its government ministries coordinating their actions? However, is it not also a characteristic of a functioning democracy when a society displays different interests and thus also government ministries need to negotiate their priorities? On an international level, is Germany succumbing to too many compromises dictated by realpolitik? Participants noted already after the first meetings the high degree of human rights fulfillment. Through the eyes of a Nicaraguan, his country seemed 50 years away from the issues dealt with here. That was one side. On the other hand quite a number of participants were surprised that Germany doesn't have a minimum wage. And how to explain the significant divide between men's and women's pay?

A democracy grows through continuous bargaining. Barbara John, Berlin's long standing, former Commissioner for Immigration and present Ombudswoman for the families and friends of the victims of Neonazi terror, stated how very important it is for social peace to admit mistakes and to do everything possible to regain people's trust. And she added that it is as important to admit to oneself that moving forward sometimes takes a very long time, as in dealing with the wearing of the head scarf. A vibrant society brings up constantly new issues for debate. Participants discussed at length the decision of the Cologne regional court, handed down during the week of the study tour, concerning ritual male circumcision. Can a dissenting position find a valid argument in contrasting the extreme differences between male and female circumcision? Should piercing for a minor be treated similarly? An intense discussion ensued as well around an issue outside of Germany: Can redistribution of land in South Africa be equitable although it would inevitably include expropriations; what position would German institutions hold?

Participants held many things in high regard: the excellent, effective and highly committed work performed by civil society initiatives; the policy decision to focus on human rights in development cooperation programs; by way of international comparison, the broad functionality of the European Court for Human Rights. And yet, a country can't simply sit back and be satisfied with the status quo. Guaranteeing the implementation of human rights requires constant vigilance and never ending improvement. This may be achieved by entering into a dialog with the different forces in society and the different ethnic and cultural groups. An international transfer of ideas has to also take place. For example, one guest came to Germany from Tanzania because she was looking to share ideas with experts on her country's current process of constitutional reform. As in Ruanda and Kenya, Tanzanias constitution is to become gender-sensitive. What response was she given in Germany? "We can't help you there. It's not an issue". This could have been a learning opportunity for the host country.