Winter is coming to an end, but it is still useful to know: is a nicely heated house, equipped with electricity that allows us to keep the lights on, cook our pot and keep the fridge running, a basic right? Recently, many people had to cut back on this because of excessive energy prices.  We asked VUB professor Stefaan Smis, who specialises in human rights. He talks about the long road from good intentions to daily practice.

Is good shelter a human right?

The right is already recognised in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This dates from 1948 and is considered the first international standard for human rights. It states, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, as well as the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, death of the spouse, old age or other lack of livelihood, arising from circumstances beyond his control." However, the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948 as a recommendation of the United Nations General Assembly prescribing the ideal to be attained by all.

In 1966, the United Nations concluded the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but focuses exclusively on economic, social and cultural rights. For political and civil rights, it adopts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 11 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights again refers to the right to an adequate standard of living but now that reference to an adequate standard of living is the subject of a binding text.

A declaration however solemn, or a treaty: it still remains very abstract.

The wording 'housing' is of course very general and not very concrete. Unlike the formulations used in civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights are usually less clearly defined and often remain vague and generally formulated obligations. Moreover, state obligations with regard to economic, social and cultural rights were originally limited to the progressive realisation of the rights taking into account the wealth and capacity of the state party. This explains why the question, what such accommodation must meet, remains largely unanswered in the two texts. Moreover, the 1966 Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights only entered into force in 1974 and Belgium only ratified it in 1983; that is 17 years later.

But it did eventually become concrete?

Yes, although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted as a recommendation, the content of the instrument did evolve over the years into customary international law, making it binding on all states. The rights contained in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also acquired a clearer content through practice. Not only did the supervisory bodies specify the content of the treaty provisions, the treaty states are also obliged to adopt national legislation in this regard which again resulted in clarifying the obligations. In Belgium, this was done, among other things, through various laws but also by amending the Constitution in the sense that article 23 of the Constitution now recognises the right to lead a life in dignity. This includes decent housing, the right to the protection of a healthy environment, health and social assistance. That already says a lot more.

Interestingly, VUB professor Maxime Stroobant is pretty much the godfather of Article 23. As a senator in the 1980s, he was one of the initiators to enshrine fundamental social rights in the Belgian constitution and played a major role in it.

At the international level, the real clarification of state obligations comes through the practice of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was set up as an oversight body of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It consists of 18 independent experts tasked with monitoring the implementation of that convention. They pronounce on complaints and therefore give their views on how the convention should be interpreted. In the so-called General Comment 4, we find guidelines on how to read Article 11.

Does that include a warm house?

It could indeed fall under that. The state must provide adequate housing, offer legal protection against eviction, and ensure that housing provides protection from all kinds of weather conditions and threats of disease. Housing must also have adequate sanitation facilities and residents must have access to energy to cook, heat and light. Belgium is a rich country and so the requirements are also higher.

Is that also why they can't easily cut you off from gas and electricity?

That is the result of Belgium's interpretation of that right. Everyone has a basic right to minimum utilities. That is why it is very difficult to cut someone off completely from gas or electricity in Belgium.

Does it also provide protection against discrimination?

The prohibition of discrimination is contained in all human rights. For example, housing must also be suitable for people with disabilities, men and women have the same rights to housing and housing protection. All possible grounds for discrimination are taken into account in the fulfilment of that right; proximity to schools is also important, because the lack of the latter also puts people at a disadvantage.

And what about at work, what comforts are you entitled to?

Rather, work falls under Article 7 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It must comply with the highest and stable possible level of employment, fair working conditions and fair remuneration. Employers must provide a hygienic and safe working environment. If it is far too cold to work in the workplace, they are failing. But this is, of course, very general and has been fleshed out more concretely including through instruments adopted under the International Labour Organisation.

What adjustments have you taken at home to 'brave' the cold?

We set the chauffage to 19 degrees, and it's only on in the morning and evening. In the bedroom, the chauffage is even off completely. We also bought electric jugs, which you can charge and then give off heat for several hours. We also walk around with an extra pullover and thermal underwear.

For the fireplace, I piled up wood from my garden. So much that I have firewood for about two years.

And what measures have you taken at work?

At VUB, the heating is now much lower than before. I always wear a thick jumper here. Some colleagues even bring blankets. And some are getting very inventive; I heard that the engineers are said to have bought themselves seat heaters.