The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded this afternoon its three-day online review of the second periodic report of Latvia on measures taken to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Andris Pelšs, State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and Head of the delegation, said the effective implementation of economic, social and cultural rights had been at the centre of domestic processes in 2020, with the Constitutional Court delivering several judgments on social security issues, the right to family life, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living. It did so while keeping in mind the provisions of the Covenant, and the General Comments published by the Committee. He highlighted the Government’s efforts on the naturalization of non-citizens and attributed the success of its policy to the ever-increasing accessibility of free Latvian language courses for the candidates to citizenship, and to the entry into force of the 2013 amendments to the Citizenship Law.
Mr. Pelšs said Latvia had steadily increased the budget allocated to the healthcare sector. It was undertaking a reform in salaries of medical practitioners and stepping up its prevention education of the society as a whole based on the experience gained in the fight against COVID-19.
Asraf Caunhye, Committee Rapporteur for the report of Latvia, enquired about the steps taken to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Covenant since 2007, when the delegation had assured that it would be ratified. He also asked about the enforcement of the provisions of the Covenant in Latvia’s domestic legal order, and about the measures Latvia had taken to further strengthen the independence of the Ombudsman’s office, in particular by providing for the functional immunity of the Ombudsman.
Other Committee Experts asked about the Labour Code reform and its impact on the employment of the persons with disabilities and persons over 50. Did the minimum wage enable the workers concerned and their families to enjoy a decent living, and what evaluation and monitoring mechanisms had been put in place. What help was provided for family protection, and had the Government addressed the increase in domestic violence incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Information was requested on policies against poverty and forced evictions. On matters related to education, an Expert expressed concern on the lack of free early childhood kindergartens in some municipalities, and pointed out that the mandatory learning in Latvian in secondary education did not respect the right of minority groups to learn in their mother tongue, nor did it respect international norms.
The delegation of Latvia underlined that special actions had been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and incentives and supportive measures had been offered to the most vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities.
The delegation of Latvia was made up of representatives of the Ministries of the Interior, Justice, Health, Welfare, Culture, Education and Science, Foreign Affairs and of the Permanent Mission of Latvia to the United Nations Office at Geneva. A practicing psychiatrist and a representative from the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control were also part of the delegation.
The Committee will next meet at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, 5 March to conclude its session.
The Committee has before it the second periodic report of Latvia (E/C.12/LVA/2).
Presentation of the Report
ANDRIS PELŠS, State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and Head of the delegation, presenting the second periodic report of Latvia on the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Latvia, said it covering the period between 2007 and 2018. The delegation included many specialists who had a hands-on experience with the drafting and implementation of the Government policy initiatives, practice in disease prevention and treatment, as well as experts from six different Ministries, a practicing psychiatrist and a representative from the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Mr. Pelšs pointed out that in 2020, the effective implementation of economic, social and cultural rights had been at the centre of domestic processes, with the Constitutional Court delivering several judgments on social security issues, the right to family life, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living. It did so while keeping in mind the provisions of the Covenant, and the General Comments published by the Committee. In a much-debated case, the Constitutional Court had found that the provision of the Labour Law granting vacation days to the biological father after his child’s birth had not sufficiently protected the right to family life of same-sex couples. It had ordered Parliament to create a comprehensive domestic legal framework allowing same-sex couples to enjoy their right to family life as enshrined in article 10 of the present Covenant.
Regarding article 9 of the Covenant, the Constitutional Court had delivered several judgments last year interpreting the principle of the socially responsibility of the State and the right to social security; and two more on the use of the Latvian language in education. Moreover, the Constitutional Court had initiated proceedings with respect to the process of ratification of the Istanbul Convention, and the list of persons that were subject to social insurance in case of unemployment.
Mr. Pelšs highlighted the Government’s efforts on the naturalization of non-citizens and attributed the success of its policy to the ever-increasing accessibility of free Latvian language courses for the candidates to citizenship, and to the entry into force of the 2013 amendments to the Citizenship Law. The only substantive difference between Latvian citizens and non-citizens was the right to vote and to work in the civil service or hold national security positions. Furthermore, Parliament had passed a law “On the Discontinuation of the Non-Citizen’s Status for Children”, which automatically granted citizenship to the children of non-Latvian parents, which was the case of 142 children born to non-citizen parents in 2020.
Turning to the education reform, Mr. Pelšs said that its implementation went hand-in-hand with the overall structural adjustments in the education content. A wider reform aimed at transitioning to the Latvian language as the primary language of public education in Latvia, thus eliminating the consequences of the “vast Russification that took place during the Soviet occupation’’. Latvia had steadily increased the budget allocated to healthcare sector, from 947.1 million euros in 2017, to 1.171 billion euros in 2018, and 1.44 billion euros in 2021. Additionally, it had launched the reform in salaries of medical practitioners to increase their earnings by up to three average monthly wages within seven years.
Several Guidelines on the accessibility of public buildings and public spaces had been issued as well as a resolution defining seven conditions for addressing issues of accessibility to cultural sites.
Mr. Pelšs said the Ombudsperson’s Office had 51 staff members and operated in accordance with the Paris Principles. It tackled human rights issues but also economic, social and cultural ones, and its budget had increased from 1.5 million euros, in 2018 and 2019, to 1,781 282 euros, in 2021. He concluded by noting that Latvia saw the dialogues with the treaty bodies of the United Nations in general, and with the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in particular, as one of the key factors contributing to the full implementation of the economic, social and cultural rights in Latvia.
Questions by Country Rapporteur
ASRAF CAUNHYE, Committee Rapporteur for the report of Latvia, asked if non-governmental and civil society organizations were consulted in the preparation of the second periodic report and the replies to the list of issues, and if so, could the delegation provide the list of those consulted. He also enquired about the steps taken to ratify the Optional Protocol since 2007, when the delegation had assured that it would be ratified. He also asked about the enforcement of the provisions of the Covenant in the domestic legal order, and about the measures that Latvia had taken to further strengthen the independence of the Ombudsman’s office, in particular by providing for the functional immunity of the Ombudsman.
The delegation was also asked to provide information as to concrete measures taken to achieve its emission reduction targets as per its obligations under the Paris Agreement. The Country Rapporteur sought additional data on the legal assistance offered to migrants, asylum seekers, stateless persons, Roma and ethnic minorities for the purpose of enabling them to have access to their economic, social and cultural rights. The delegation was also invited to indicate the steps taken to amend the provisions of the Civil Procedure law, which came into force on 31 July 2016, imposing prohibitive interpretation costs which restricted access to justice by ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups who were in financial distress. He also wanted to know how many civil servants had been sentenced for corruption.
Mr. Caunhye expressed concern about the measures taken to mitigate the impact of austerity measures and the COVID-19 pandemic on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by the more vulnerable and marginalized individuals and groups. What efforts were being made for the adoption of a legal framework to regulate gender re-assignment, to recognize same-sex partnerships, and to combat discrimination and stigmatization based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He also sought information on the conviction by Latvian courts of cases of harassment and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex persons.
Questions by Committee Experts
On articles 6 to 9 of the Covenant, other Committee members focused on the right to work, the right to just and favourable conditions of work, the right to form trade unions, and the right to social security.
LUDOVIC HENNEBEL, Committee Expert, showed interest on the labour code reform and its impact on the employment of persons with disabilities and persons over 50, as well as on the fight against recruitment discrimination. He went on to seek information on concrete measures taken to address regional disparities in employment opportunities, given that most economic activities were concentrated in Riga, the Latvian capital, and the peripheral regions. He also needed more data on the results of concrete measures taken to combat the risks of discrimination, based in particular on language, disability, nationality, gender or sexual orientation, as well as inter-sectional or multiple discrimination.
Mr. Hennebel wanted to know if the minimum wage enabled the workers concerned and their families to enjoy a decent living, and what evaluation and monitoring mechanisms had been put in place. He also requested information on the gender wage gap, security measures in the workplace, and the fight against discrimination based on trade union membership. He enquired about what measures had been taken to facilitate access to social services and remove obstacles, particularly bureaucratic ones, to increase unemployment benefits, and to ensure equitable access to social assistance services and social housing, and what were the monitoring and evaluation mechanisms put in place to identify and determine criteria of need and poverty.
Another Committee Expert, HEISOO SHIN, wanted to find out about the help provided for family protection, expressing concern about job discrimination based on family status, as observed by the Ombudsman, and about reports of sexual abuse and violations of the rights of children living in specialized institutions and orphanages. She also wanted to know how many men were benefitting from paternal or parental leave and for how long. She pointed out the increase in domestic violence incidents during the pandemic.
Ms. Shin requested additional information on actions against poverty and forced evictions. She wondered if Latvia had a universal health coverage system, given the fact that many patients did not have access to public healthcare.
On matters related to education, LYDIA RAVENBERG, Committee Expert, expressed concern on the lack of free early childhood kindergartens in some municipalities. She also pointed out that the mandatory learning in Latvian in secondary education did not respect the right of minority groups to learn in their mother tongue nor did it respect international norms. She said children with disabilities did not benefit from an inclusive environment, and the main consequence was their social isolation.
Answers by the Delegation
The delegation informed the Committee that non-governmental organizations had been invited to prepare shadow reports in order to fully participate in the debate on the situation related to economic, social and cultural rights. As for the Constitutional Court, it took into consideration the implementation of the Covenant’s provisions. The delegation noted that human rights and non-discrimination were enshrined in the Latvian Constitution.
By law, the Ombudsman’s Office was protected from any interference in its work and could refer matters to the Constitutional Court if it deemed it right to review a law. Its budget was increasing steadily. Anybody had equal access to the law and the courts, as well as to free legal aid if needed. Vulnerable groups had access to interpretation.
Mr. Pelšs said that vaccines and COVID-19 tests were free of charge for all, independently of their status. Regarding the special measures taken during the pandemic, Parliament had adopted a special law for people who were impacted by the imposed restrictions. Since the unemployment rate had climbed since the beginning of the outbreak, the Government ensured that unemployed people could get short term jobs or benefit from social stipends. Other benefits were offered to vulnerable groups and the disabled.
As for refugees and asylum seekers, the delegation explained that some programmes had been devised to offer them jobs, language classes and counselling services. Regarding the gender salary gap, the delegation said that the indicators were better than other countries in a similar situation.
Since 2017, the number of people exposed to poverty and social exclusion had declined. On the definition of the minimum wage, the delegation said that the Government had decided on a threshold based on criteria used to calculate the poverty line, and social benefits had been proposed to destitute people. There was also a plan to increase retirement pensions. As for social housing, it was a priority in Latvia, given that the Government was fully aware of the dire need in this respect.
On corruption in the public administration, the delegation stated that 24 people had been sentenced during the period reviewed, including legislators and heads of companies.
Regarding the Latvian language, the delegation said that it was indeed the official language and must be used in all public places. Any job depended on how well the candidate spoke Latvian.
The delegation described the main rules related to labour rights, on an equal footing and without any form of discrimination, as well as the right to solicit inspection or go to court. Incentive measures had been introduced, including in terms of security. The 15 per cent wage gap between men and women was being tackled through an awareness raising campaign and professional orientation initiatives.
On domestic violence, the delegation stated that besides awareness campaigns, an action plan with legislative and practical measures was being reviewed by Parliament, which was also considering amending the law on domestic violence perpetrators. Last week, the Government had adopted a plan for a better supervision of children victims of violence.
Responses to Follow-up Questions
Concerning inclusion in education, the delegation stated that it was up to the school to design support measures so that children with disabilities were able to study. The same applied for at risk groups. The Ministry of Education was pursuing its reform on special education and had set a rule, in 2019, with preconditions for each kind of handicap. One million euros had been invested in teachers’ training for this purpose. Finally, asylum seekers were covered by mandatory law to go to school, including non-accompanied minors, and took free Latvian classes for their integration.
ANDRIS PELŠS, State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and Head of the delegation, highlighted the fact that Latvia had made significant progress, notably with the adoption of a new law on children’s citizenship, as well as in the fields of domestic violence prevention and gender equality. He assured the Committee that Latvia was committed to abide by human rights, including those in the Covenant.