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Strengthening UN treaty bodies: some modest steps forward

Michael O’Flaherty
10 September 2014

In July 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Committee was reviewing Ireland’s periodic report on the state of civil and political rights in the country. In advance of the review, the government, parliament and civil society convened public consultations, and various ministries announced initiatives to correct practices that were not compliant with Ireland’s obligations under the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The proceedings before the Committee triggered national headlines.  Currently, the conclusions of the Committee’s review are framing and informing important public debates on highly contentious social issues.  In short, it is evident that the Irish experience points to the potential of the UN’s treaty body system to influence national efforts to promote and protect human rights.

Notwithstanding the encouraging Irish experience, over the 40 or so years that the UN treaty bodies have been carrying out such reviews, their impact has often been more aspirational than real. Their work has been bedevilled by inefficiencies, and a lack of resources and profile. A recently concluded effort to address these problems, culminating in a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly offer some hope, even if it falls short of expectations.  

Before turning to the General Assembly resolution, it is important to recall that repeated efforts at treaty body reform have met with very limited success.  An effort by High Commissioner Louise Arbour in 2006 at a root and branches reform met with powerful resistance and failed completely. By 2009 it was clear that the system, by then comprising separate bodies for ten different treaties and nearly two hundred treaty body members, was in crisis.

Over the 40 or so years that the UN treaty bodies have been carrying out such reviews, their impact has often been more aspirational than real 

High Commissioner Navi Pillay made treaty body reform a priority for her period in office and in 2009 initiated a two year period of global consultations (known as the ‘Dublin Process’) that generated some 100 recommendations directed to all treaty body stakeholders: states, treaty bodies, the High Commissioner’s office, civil society and others. These were mostly modest proposals of a housekeeping nature, intended to strengthen the existing framework rather than to re-imagine it (recalling the fate of the earlier efforts by Louise Arbour). Most of the recommendations could be implemented directly by the relevant stakeholders – such as by the treaty bodies to harmonise the working methods of the ten committees, by the secretariat to improve back office support and, crucially, by states to provide enhanced resources.

Pillay submitted a list of recommendations to the General Assembly in 2011. In the consultations that followed, a number of states, known as the ‘cross regional group’ sought to rein-in the treaty bodies and bring their independent members under the greater control of States.  The group, for instance, proposed that treaty body members be subject to a code of conduct the oversight of which would include a role for states.  The risk of the General Assembly consultations weakening rather than strengthening the system was real and was exacerbated by the initial lack of spirited engagement by those states outside the cross regional group that might be considered to be the ‘friends’ of the system. Over time though, supportive states, experts, and civil society became increasingly vocal, and the more dangerous proposals of the cross-regional group were withdrawn.   

The resolution adopted in April 2014 identifies a number of ways to streamline the operations of the committees and, critically, directs that the monies saved, of some $20 million annually, be channelled back into the system.  It also mandates additional resources, and better funding will allow for expanded meeting time, a modestly enhanced secretariat and a programme of national capacity building for states to support them in complying with their reporting and other obligations.  The resolution endorses most of the Dublin Process recommendations regarding harmonisation of working methods and other changes to treaty body procedures, and this will give impetus to the treaty bodies to make long overdue changes.  

The resolution also calls on states parties to the treaties to make better use of their periodic meetings. It incudes also some timid but still useful recommendations on such matters as the improvement of the election processes for treaty body members.

As noted, the more worrying proposals of the cross regional group, that would have jeopardized the independence of the treaty bodies, were withdrawn. Still, the group’s influence is seen in the extent to which the resolution does not address proposals that had been in the High Commissioner’s report. Thus, for instance, there is no reference to the establishment at the national level of “standing national reporting and coordination mechanisms” or to the delivery to states of assistance for the implementation of treaty body recommendations. The resolution also left out the High Commissioner’s proposal for a more rigid calendar of review to ensure every state would be subject to review under the treaties to which it was a party on the basis of a fixed timetable and regardless of whether it actually submitted its reports on time or at all.

The whole process has been described by one diplomat as producing no more than “a giant sticking plaster”, only intended to support the system through its current malaise.  And it is true, over time, old problems, such as inadequate resources will reassert themselves and new ones will emerge.  A root and branches reform that re-imagines the whole system may be inevitable.

But for now, while it is by no means the ideal outcome, the resolution represents a net gain for the treaty bodies, provided it will be fully implemented by states, the secretariat and the treaty bodies themselves.

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