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Opening statement by the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Eleventh Inter-Committee Meeting

Geneva, 28 June 2010

Distinguished Committee members,
Ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the High Commissioner, it is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the Eleventh Inter-Committee Meeting. Before turning to your programme of work, allow me to bring to your attention some positive treaty body related developments that have taken place since your last session.

On 11 June, we were all very happy to learn about the first ratification by Ecuador of the new Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  As of today, there are 32 signatories to the Optional Protocol. We  hope that other ratifications will soon follow so that this important instrument may promptly enter into force.

Regarding the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, we are still two ratifications away from its entry into force. 83 States have signed the Convention. I am confident that some of these signatures will shortly become ratifications, leading to the establishment of the related treaty body.

You would also be happy to know that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities received in early May its first initial report from a State Party, namely Spain, and will soon initiate its review procedure.

The first half of this year has also seen the increase of the membership of the Committee on Migrant Workers from 10 to 14 members. As of January 2011, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture will grow from 10 to 25 members, and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will also increase from the current 12 to 18 members. Elections to both are being held this fall.

These developments are just the latest in the on-going expansion of the treaty body system, which is most welcome. But they come with challenges that are inherent to unfettered growth.   

Inter-Committee and Chairpersons meetings have endeavored to address these challenges to date. I took note with much interest of the points of agreements that were adopted in December 2009 at the last Inter-Committee Meeting, which are before the Meeting of Chairpersons this week for adoption.  These proposals address your own working methods and structure in light of the lessons learned from the previous ICM meetings, the growing membership of the ICM and the need to have a more focused and substantive agenda for the ICM meetings, in order to enhance its role and impact.

So far, the ICM has held  two annual meetings with three representatives of each of the nine treaty bodies attending both meetings. According to the new proposal, the ICM will be convened once a year with two representatives from each treaty body (Chair plus one member) at the end of June. In addition, one thematic working group is to meet once at the beginning of each year. The first thematic working group to convene in mid-January 2011 will focus on Follow-Up and be divided in two sub-groups on 1) reporting to treaty bodies and 2) individual communications.
Allow me now to turn to your programme of work during this meeting.  The main  focus of the deliberations will be on your working methods, including lists of issues prior to reporting, taking into account the application of the common core document and the treaty-specific reporting guidelines. In this regard, I understand that you will be reviewing  the new optional reporting procedure established by the Committee against Torture (CAT) and currently under consideration by the Human Rights Committee.

I understand that it is not necessarily the intention to adopt  this new reporting procedure across all existing human rights treaty bodies as it might not provide the expected added value in all cases.   Still,  at a time when the rapid growth of the treaty body system and related structural challenges are begin to overwhelm all of us - treaty body members, the Secretariat, States Parties, civil society and others, introducing lists of issues prior to reporting would certainly be a useful proposal to flesh out within the broader debate on new ways for treaty bodies to work.

Lists of issues prior to reporting are not just about reducing workload. More importantly, they can enhance the quality of  States parties’ reports and deepening the understanding of key challenges, thus facilitating  more focused reports and consequently of more targeted concluding observations.  The lists of issues can also focus on the State party’s responses on the implementation of previous recommendations and allow for a better understanding of the quality of follow-up given by the concerned State. For OHCHR, lists of issues prior to reporting, because of their analytical dimension, could lead to an even higher workload for the staff supporting your work.  So we take it with a certain degree of caution. However, our sight is firmly set on the main objective of strengthening the treaty body system for the sake of better human rights protection on the ground.

Distinguished experts,

The  integrity of the treaty body system impinges on, more than anything else, the quality of its outputs and their  implementation.  Indeed, given your mandates, your independence and expertise, we rely on your concluding observations and recommendations as normative grounds for actions that the High Commissioner and the Office undertake in the discharge of our mandate, as also reflected in OHCHR’s Strategic Management Plan for this biennium. For example, treaty body outputs were instrumental in informing the High Commissioner’s message and advocacy in the context of her recent milestone visit to the Gulf countries.

We are very  aware of the difficulties the treaty bodies are facing in having their documents translated on time.  This is one of the serious and persisting problems experienced, not just by the treaty bodies but also by other United Nations human rights mechanisms, and the situation has been deteriorating in recent years. I wish to assure you that moving towards a resolution to this issue is a  priority for the Office.  But we need your leadership.   I very much hope that  during this Inter-Committee Meeting, you will revisit the issue of applying  length limits to States parties’ reports. There are a number of existing recommendations and decisions that have been adopted in the past by the Annual Meeting of Chairpersons of Treaty Bodies and individual committees concerning page limits for States parties reports. The Reporting Guidelines for the Common Core Document and four treaty bodies have set such page limits, but so far they have not been strictly adhered to.

Let us be frank.  The only way to move forward on page limits is for the  treaty bodies to enforce them.  Word limits very strictly apply for all document submissions in the United Nations system, including for the reports of the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner, Special Procedures mandate holders and under the Universal Periodic Review. Page limits can lead to more focused information provided and thus more focused discussions and targeted recommendations.

We can make this happen with the firm support and commitment of treaty bodies.  To assure of this, the secretariat can set up a system to return excessively lengthy State reports,  always in close consultation with the treaty bodies. When returning a report, the Secretariat could request the concerned State party to shorten it within the agreed limitation and before an established deadline. If this deadline is not met, the report would be considered by the Committee, without strict guarantee of translation.  As a next step, you may wish to consider establishing page limits for other documentation essential to your work, as already done by some treaty bodies, such as for Lists of Issues and related State responses.

Such small but concrete steps would demonstrate firm commitment on your part and ours to rationalize what has become an unwieldy reporting process. This in turn would strengthen the Office’s position in the regular budget process to ask for sufficient resource allocation to the treaty body system.

Distinguished Committee members,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Treaty body experts proactively responded to the call by the High Commissioner last year to reflect and submit proposals on ways to streamline and strengthen the treaty body system. Since then,  a number of initiatives have taken place or are planned. Last November, the Dublin Statement on treaty body strengthening was issued and two weeks ago all regional networks of National Human Rights Institutions were invited by the Advisory Council on Human Rights of Morocco to a meeting on strengthening the human rights treaty bodies system. Participants adopted the Marrakech statement that formulates some ideas in this regard. (A copy of this statement is available in your files.)  You will have on Wednesday a meeting with the Chair of the ICC who will brief you about proposals coming from national human rights institutions. Other consultations are under preparation in response to the High Commissioner’s call to strengthen the treaty body system.

Advances in the system will be achieved only when we fully take to heart that while each treaty body is an independent legal instrument and mechanism, none of them work in isolation. It is critical to develop and uphold a clear workable vision of a coherent treaty body system that effectively defends indivisible and interdependent human rights.  It is incumbent upon each treaty body, individually and collectively, to contribute to this process.

For OHCHR, this has been a major focus of our attention for several years. In order to better prepare ourselves for your current and future requirements, we have engaged a consultant to map out treaty body related work flows and work processes within the Office.  The aim of this consultancy is to come up with recommendations to better integrate treaty body reporting and implementation in the overall mandate of OHCHR. The consultancy constitutes an independent external empirical study on the requirements of treaty body work, which will help us define the level of the necessary human and financial resources. I am pleased to inform you that the work of the consultant is well advanced.

The High Commissioner and all of us at OHCHR look forward to continued progress in your work. As we continue to compile your ideas and suggestions, we hope to see  broad agreement  on a meaningful set of treaty body strengthening measures emerging in the near future, perhaps in the next year or so.

Let me conclude by wishing you a very successful and productive meeting, and assure you of our full support in your important work.

Thank you.