An international champion for human rights, Prof Sandra Liebenberg, HF Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law at Stellenbosch University (SU)'s Faculty of Law, serves on the prestigious United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights where she uses her position to make these rights a reality for people across the world. From 18 September-6 October, Liebenberg will take part in a high-level dialogue with Russian and South Korean representatives at the 62nd session of the Committee in Geneva, Switzerland.
On the eve of her departure, SU's Corporate Communication Division spoke to Liebenberg about the Committee, her role in the talks and her passion for human rights.
You're a member of a very prestigious UN committee. Can you tell us more about the committee's work?
The 18 member Committee sees to it that the 165 States, including South Africa, who are parties to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights meet their obligations under the Covenant and implement these rights. This Covenant is one of the major international human rights treaties in the UN-system.
The two main ways in which we oversee States' obligations is through their periodic reports (every five years) on the steps they have taken to implement the economic, social and cultural rights protected in the Covenant, and through individual complaints. These reports are then reviewed along with so-called “shadow reports" from national human rights institutions such as Human Rights Commissions as well as NGOs.
Divided into task teams, the Committee enters into a “constructive dialogue" with representatives of relevant States, and we identify the strengths and weaknesses of their implementation of economic, social and cultural rights and ask them to reflect on the factors that make it difficult for them to comply with its duties. We also address a number of specific recommendations to States on priority areas for improvement over the next five years when reports are due.
What does it mean to you to be in such prestigious company and what are the rewarding aspects of serving on this Committee?
I feel immensely honoured and privileged to serve on this Committee. Many of my colleagues are leading lights in the field of economic, social and cultural rights, and we have some very stimulating discussions on various aspects of our work. There is a strong ethos of collegiality amongst Committee members, and I am amazed at how much work we get done despite differences in members' political, economic, cultural and legal contexts. Decisions are mostly made by consensus and one must be able to work effectively in a diverse and multicultural environment.
What issues will be addressed in the upcoming talks between your task team and the Russian and South Korean representatives?
Members of the task team on which I serve will focus specifically on how these two countries have fulfilled their duties under articles 10-12 of the Covenant, which involve the right to family protection; an adequate standard of living (including food, clothing and housing), as well as the right to health. I am responsible for researching these States' reports as well as information from NGOs and UN agencies and posing questions to representatives of these states on how they implement these articles.
Why are these issues relevant today, especially for third-world countries and the Global South, including South Africa?
By drawing on the experience of the Committee and its extensive record of reviewing state reports, countries like South Africa can benefit from global examples of good practices regarding the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights. South Africa can also see why certain social policies and legislation have failed in other countries. For me, the main value of the Committee's work for countries globally is to draw attention to the fact that economic, social and cultural rights are human rights, and that certain human rights principles must be respected when designing policies and legislation to implement these rights.
Apart from talks with Russian and South Korean representatives, what else will be on the agenda?
We will be looking at the reports of Colombia, Mexico and Moldova and also talk to NGOs and National Human Rights Commissions from the various countries under consideration at this session. We will also be working on new general comments, including one on the right to science as well as on land rights.
You are passionate about socio-economic and human rights. How does serving on the committee helps you to live this passion?
I am able both to bring my skills and experience in socio-economic rights from the South African context to a global environment. At the same time, I have learnt much about the global political and economic forces shaping the future of social rights, and am able to infuse these insights into my research and teaching here in South Africa.
Where did your passion for people's socio-economic/human rights start?
After obtaining my law degree, I worked in the field of public interest law as a candidate attorney and later as an attorney. I helped represent communities resisting force removals under apartheid legislation and also did labour cases for the independent trade union movement. I witnessed first-hand how people's homes, jobs and basic material needs were closely tied to their sense of human dignity and security. If these basic social needs are not respected by the State, it undermines the physical and psychological well-being of people and is deeply dehumanising. This convinced me that economic, social and cultural rights are fundamental human rights, and it became important to me to see that these rights were both recognised and implemented in our new Constitution.
What about this aspect of your work gives you the greatest pleasure?
It is very stimulating to draw on insights from these diverse fields in my work, and also to interact with a range of experts from these various disciplines. As a lawyer, I feel a sense of responsibility to work for laws and policies that are more compassionate and responsive to the needs of poor communities. My work on this Committee is one way of contributing to this goal in a global context.