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Human Rights Watch, March 8, 2023 (72nd Session)

Dear Committee Members

Thank you for providing this opportunity for civil society groups and NGOs to set out key concerns on the United Kingdom’s socioeconomic rights record, as part of your consultative exercise in developing a list of questions for the state party.

My name is Kartik Raj. I am a researcher at Human Rights Watch focused on poverty and inequality in Europe. I led Human Rights Watch’s research in the UK on food insecurity and the human rights impact of social security policy gaps and have provided specialist review of reports about the UK by others in the organization on the rights to housing, education and social security.

Our main concern – shared by others here today – is a structural one. Namely, the inadequate protection in the UK’s domestic legal framework for the rights contained in the Covenant.

In its state party report, the UK government claims that “is possible for an individual to challenge any government decision in the domestic courts if their rights have been breached.” This claim is in stark contrast to reality.

The UK’s Supreme Court was unambiguous when it ruled in July 2021 that there is “no basis […] for any departure from the rule that our domestic courts cannot determine whether this country has violated its obligations under unincorporated international law.” In the absence of domestic incorporation of rights contained in the Covenant, and given the state party’s continued refusal to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Covenant, a person who believes they have experienced a Covenant rights violation has no way to enforce that right in any domestic court. Nor can they petition the Committee because that avenue does not exist. While a 2010 piece of legislation, the Equality Act, sets out a socioeconomic duty that public authorities should comply with when making strategic decisions about how they exercise their functions, this part of the law has never been brought into force.

Until this gap is bridged, the rights contained in the Covenant will remain illusory for many, if not most, people in the UK who most need their protection in their day to day lives. Making the rights in the Covenant real requires much more than a promise by a state party that proves hollow in practice when people depend on them for protection.

We urge the Committee to ensure sufficient focus on this defect in its list of questions for the state party.

Our briefing also sets out concerns relating to the over-reliance on “temporary accommodation” for homeless families, lost learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, food insecurity and the right to food, the adequacy of social security support levels, and the punitive two child limit policy in the social security system. These concerns are addressed by other contributors to this session, so we simply refer the Committee to our briefing.

One issue Human Rights Watch has been active on in recent years is the Safe Schools Declaration and the right to education during armed conflict. We congratulate the state party on its position on the Safe Schools Declaration. However, it is unclear to what extent British armed forces are trained to adhere to what the 2004 Manual of Armed Conflict calls “the better view of the law.” We invite the Committee to seek clarification from the state party on this important point.

Thank you for your time and for having listened to this wide set of contributors.

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