International human rights reporting received a significant boost after the UN General Assembly on Wednesday approved steps to strengthen the system for reviewing how member states comply with their human rights treaty obligations.
The General Assembly resolution (A/68/L.37) aims to streamline and harmonise the work of 10 Geneva-based committees, known as Treaty Bodies.
These committees, composed of independent experts, review how countries actually implement the international conventions they have ratified, for example the Convention against Torture (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). (Full list: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/Pages/HumanRightsBodies.aspx)
“The Treaty Bodies are at the heart of the international human rights protection system. Their work often sounds early warnings about human rights problems in particular states. They also offer real guidance for improvement in all countries and a substantive basis for the work of other human rights experts,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
“But new conventions and the growing number of ratifications, while very welcome, have stretched the system to breaking point. That’s why I called in 2009 for reflection on ways to strengthen the system. The steps now approved can provide a real way forward to make the treaty body system even more effective,” she said.
When a state ratifies a convention, it agrees to submit a report for review to the relevant committee every four to five years. Committee members, who are also briefed by civil society groups, request information from the state delegation during meetings in Geneva. The committee then issues its findings, highlighting areas of concern and making concrete recommendations for action.
However, the doubling in size of the treaty body system over the past decade, without matching resources, has led to a growing backlog of reports and lengthy gaps between reviews, with some states’ records yet to be assessed at all.
To address this, the resolution provides for an additional 20 weeks meeting time per year. Other planned measures to promote the sustainable and effective functioning of the Treaty Bodies include increased technical assistance from the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) to support states in meeting their treaty obligations; and more videoconferencing to facilitate wider participation by delegates from states parties, as was the case when the CRC reviewed the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu.
Funding for the changes and extra resources will come from savings made by streamlining the original Treaty Body system which was set up by the UN in 1970. This includes limits on the length of documents produced by the Treaty Bodies and also on the documentation submitted by States.
Interpretation and translation will be reduced from the current six official languages to a maximum of three, with a fourth provided on an exceptional basis when required. There will also be simplified procedures offered to States to submit reports.
“The human rights treaty body system has been facing unprecedented challenges in fulfilling its central goal, namely to protect the human rights of all without discrimination,” said Claudio Grossman, CAT and Chair of the Treaty Bodies’ Chairpersons. “These changes matter, but success will be measured by the system’s ability to offer more protection to individuals on the ground than is currently the case.”
The General Assembly resolution also reaffirms the independence of the committee members, who are unpaid experts nominated by states and elected onto the committees. It stresses the importance of committees having a balance in terms of the countries the experts are drawn from, professional background, and gender representation.
The resolution also condemns intimidation and reprisals against individuals or groups for their contribution to the work of the Treaty Bodies. Given the important role played by civil society in the process, committee members have repeatedly spoken out against reprisals targeting human rights defenders who provide information to them. (OHCHR)