More ambition required to reform UN treaty bodies

The recent reform of the UN’s rights-monitoring bodies falls far short of expectations, and fails to reach out to those whose rights are most in need of protection. The new High Commissioner needs a fresh approach. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on the New High Commissioner of Human Rights. Français

Vincent Ploton
10 July 2014

Despite the many efforts that have gone into the process of reforming the United Nations (UN) human rights treaty bodies, the outcome – set out in a recent UN resolution – falls far short of expectations. The nomination of Zeid al-Hussein as the new High Commissioner for Human Rights provides an opportunity for a fresh approach to tackling the problem.

Earlier on openGlobalRights, a number of authors noted that knowledge of human rights remains concentrated among the world’s elite, educated and powerful. The UN bodies that monitor how human rights treaties are being implemented must do more to engage with the world’s rights holders, particularly the poor and marginalised. As the Arab Spring clearly demonstrates, social media and new information technologies are key vectors of change. The treaty bodies also need to improve the implementation of the thousands of recommendations that they adopt yearly. Here again, outreach is key.

Why do none of the 10 UN human rights treaty bodies have their own Facebook or Twitter presence? Young people worldwide use these as preferred channels to communicate, share ideas, and learn about the news. Moreover, why does the UN take so long to organise webcasts of the sessions where the treaty body members question state representatives?  The UN human rights system must do more to improve its outreach and to publicise the recommendations that stem out from its complex system. The problem is not just limited to publics in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even in Geneva, close to UN headquarters, human rights NGOs often feel disconnected from the treaty bodies they monitor and support. Only a small number of individuals and institutions are able to digest treaty body recommendations and take responsibility for monitoring their implementation.

Further, the treaty body system remains process driven rather than rights and results driven. All efforts are focused on reviewing the reports states submit, but too little is being done once recommendations are adopted to ensure compliance and implementation. NGOs and other external contributors to the review process compete to produce high quality legal analysis, and they hire expert lobbyists in UN talk to make sure that their priorities will be taken on board during the review. Yet a similar degree of effort is seldom to be seen when it comes to implementing recommendations on the ground. We need more concrete evidence, based on the perspective of rights holders, to assess the effectiveness of efforts to implement treaty body recommendations. 

UNHCR Annual Consultation with NGOS (June 2014) Flickr/Some rights reserved.

UNHCR Annual Consultation with NGOS (June 2014) Flickr/Some rights reserved.

A recent UN reform has brought some positive changes but fails to tackle the problem globally. In April, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 68-268 to reform the human rights treaty bodies. This follows years of consultations between governments, civil society groups and human rights institutions. Despite the quality of inputs and recommendations that were made by a broad spectrum of actors throughout the process, the outcome is disappointing. Essentially, the resolution makes unambitious changes at the administrative and procedural level. Various proposals focused on improving treaty body impact, such as having systematic follow-up mechanisms at national level for the implementation of their recommendations, were ignored. As a result, the treaty bodies are likely to continue adopting thousands of recommendations in dozens of countries every year, with unsatisfactory impact on the ground. 

The potential of UN human rights treaty bodies is huge, and the OHCHR demonstrated a clear willingness to make the most of the process, including at the level of the High Commissioner. But the process took too long. There was a lack of clarity on how contributions to the process would be considered and taken on board. Ultimately, UN member states were given the upper hand, and unsurprisingly they rejected most of the innovative ideas that had emerged as part of the process. The GA resolution evidences a disconnection with rights holders – including vulnerable people who need help the most – and it reflects the least common denominator of all proposals. Certainly, some UN member states opposed meaningful reform - but they are not the only ones to blame. There were conflicting interests among those who contributed to the process, and this did not help.

More ambition, stronger leadership and different working methods will be required to get treaty bodies to communicate more effectively with the masses, including in their own languages and through much better use of social and mainstream media. Some reforms can be done without going through the hassle of state approval. A number of simple initiatives can help. For example, it was suggested that UN country teams should organise public discussions in countries coming up for human rights review in Geneva. Rather than complaining about the lack of resources, treaty bodies could make a different use of these and invest more efforts in the implementation of their recommendations. The composition of these treaty bodies should also include younger individuals with more diverse professional backgrounds (not just lawyers and academics). 

More ambition, stronger leadership and different working methods will be required to get treaty bodies to communicate more effectively with the masses...

All treaty bodies should have suitable systems for following-up and tracking implementation after recommendations are made, such as the Human Rights Committee. In a recent sign of progress, this treaty body adopted a grading system to help them assess states’ seriousness in implementing recommendations. They use a simple, objective and standardized format, but it is still unclear whether other treaty bodies will follow suit. Using simple and comprehensible methods to assess the extent to which treaty body recommendations are implemented is exactly the sort of strategy that can improve their impact for rights holders.

The new High Commissioner Zeid al-Hussein will have a number of good proposals for reforming and streamlining the work of treaty bodies on his desk. But he will also face major challenges in balancing the agenda and interests of all stakeholders. His ability to strengthen treaty bodies in a meaningful way will be a key determinant of his tenure. 


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