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Opening address by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Inter-Committee Meeting of the United Nations human rights treaty bodies, Working Group on Follow-up

12 January 2011

Distinguished experts,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to Geneva on the occasion of the Inter-Committee Meeting Working Group on Follow-up. Let me seize this opportunity to convey to you my best wishes for the New Year, in particular for your continued success in your demanding work.  

This will hopefully be a decisive year for treaty bodies, as it will be for my Office.  In response to my call in the autumn of 2009 to all stakeholders to initiate a process of reflection on ways and means to strengthen the treaty body system, a series of events have taken place. Others are scheduled in the coming months. These events, organized by external partners and facilitated by my Office, are meant to gather the suggestions of different groups of stakeholders on how to bolster the treaty body system and make it more efficient and effective for rights holders worldwide.

The Dublin Statement, adopted in November 2009, which was endorsed by many of you, paved the way for the current treaty body strengthening process. As you know, it was followed in June 2010 by the Marrakesh Statement containing recommendations for an enhanced cooperation between national human rights institutions and treaty bodies. Last September, another step forward was taken with the adoption of the Poznan Statement in Poland where five treaty body chairs were present. The Statement will be soon officially launched simultaneously in Geneva and New York.  It represents a significant progress in the strengthening process of the treaty body system.

This exchange of views will continue in 2011. On 12 and 13 May, in cooperation with treaty body chairs and the International Institute for the Rights of the Child in Sion, Switzerland, my Office will organize a technical consultation for States parties with a view to hearing their suggestions on ways and means to strengthen the preparation of States parties reports, enhancing the dialogue between States parties and treaty bodies, as well as the implementation of treaty bodies recommendations at the national level. The Chairs and OHCHR are currently finalizing the framework and programme of this meeting.

Consultations for United Nations entities and civil society actors are also planned during the spring. Finally, a meeting is expected to close the consultative phase in Dublin next autumn.

In parallel to these events, my Office is organizing a series of one-day consultations which bring together two treaty bodies at the time during their respective sessions. The objective of these retreats is both to allow treaty bodies members to discuss in advance the topics selected for the next Inter-Committee Meeting in June; and, to provide members with a venue for creative thinking with a view to strengthening their working methods.

In consultation with the Chairs of all treaty bodies, we have reached the conclusion that the various consultations on the treaty body strengthening process will culminate with a compilation of proposals stemming from this exercise which I will present to you in 2011. The compilation will, of course, be shared with all stakeholders involved.

I sincerely hope that this joint effort to strengthen an ever expanding treaty body system faced with increasing challenges and increasing resource scarcity will result in tangible and innovative recommendations for a more robust and sustainable system. Indeed, we need a vision that captures lessons from the past, addresses present challenges and prepares for the future of the treaty body system which represents one of the major achievements in the history of the human rights movement.

The meeting of your Working Group forms part of this process. The new format of the Inter-Committee Meeting whereby one of its annual meetings will now take the form of a thematic working group is promising.  Indeed, this approach not only exemplifies a trend to deepen reflection on cross-cutting issues that concern all treaty bodies. It also reinforces the notion of the indivisibility of all human rights.

During the next three days, you will discuss the follow-up procedures which a number of treaty bodies have adopted in respect of concluding observations, decisions on individual complaints, visits and inquiries. While the implementation of your recommendations remains the primary responsibility of States parties, the review of the progress they make in this regard is inherent to the principle of periodic reporting by States parties which constitutes your main responsibility.

However, there are also numerous other actors who play a role in this process. These actors are the Special Procedures mandate holders, the Human Rights Council with its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), OHCHR field offices and my own country engagement and advocacy at the international level. At the national level, national human rights institutions and civil society actors also contribute to follow-up by taking treaty body recommendations and jurisprudence as platforms for their work.

In light of the above, two considerations- in my view- seem to be of particular relevance. First, your role in follow-up should be complementary to, and complemented by, other stakeholders’ work. Indeed, treaty bodies benefit greatly from cooperation and synergy with a variety of actors.  Second, you may wish to explore ways to maximize your comparative advantage and clout which flow from your role as custodians of the norms, as well as from the quasi-judicial nature of your work in assessing country situations, formulating findings and suggesting remedies, approaches and policies.

This two-pronged approach would yield more coherence to follow-up initiatives and strengthen the complementarity and mutually reinforcing nature of all human rights mechanisms.  Ultimately, the effectiveness of the whole human rights protection system will be enhanced.

The Human Rights Treaties Division has prepared two background notes on the convergence and divergence of follow-up procedures on concluding observations, inquiries and visits on the one hand, and decisions on individual complaints on the other which are available in your files and will serve as a basis for your discussions.

Following a recommendation of the tenth Inter-Committee Meeting, the four treaty bodies which have adopted a follow-up procedure in respect of concluding observations will embark on an assessment of the effectiveness of these procedures this year. In this perspective, I believe that we should ask whether the current follow-up procedures have made a difference at the national level and whether they have enhanced the protection of rights holders.

Moreover, in light of the ever increasing workload which treaty bodies must absorb and the scarce resources available, you may wish to reflect on whether such follow-up procedures should be extended to all treaty bodies, or whether their added value actually outweighs the challenges they bring.   As you know, the follow-up procedures require additional meetings and costs, at a time where the treaty body system is expanding and the need for treaty bodies to apportion resources strategically is becoming increasingly urgent.

If after a cost- benefit analysis, you come to the conclusion that follow-up procedures are vital to your work, it is my hope that you will seek to harmonize and strengthen the existing procedures.  This can be done by drawing from some of the best practices which you will identify during your discussions. Indeed if harmonization does not take place in this area, we would risk a further proliferation of working methods and a decrease in the predictability, visibility and accessibility to the treaty body system.

In respect of follow-up to concluding observations, I am aware that one of the challenges for some committees is the lack of procedural guidelines to assess follow-up reports submitted by States parties. This weakness – in addition to workload and limited meeting time- may undermine the sustainability of the procedures, as it poses a risk of a loss of institutional memory when a rapporteur/coordinator on follow-up leaves the Committee, or when a staff rotation in the Secretariat takes place. Consequently, I encourage you to consider adopting common guidelines for your follow-up procedure. Such guidelines should include criteria regarding the assessment of reports in the four committees which have adopted this procedure to date.

I share the view expressed by many of you that prioritization in the field of human rights is particularly difficult, as it may conflict with the indivisibility of all human rights. However, I believe that you may wish to consider structuring your concluding observations around immediate, medium-term and long-term deliverables when transmitting them to States parties.

During my numerous country visits, I have often heard from State officials requests for guidance on how to prioritize and implement your recommendations. When combined with Special Procedures and UPR, the treaty body recommendations often reach impressive numbers. Restructuring your concluding observations along more workable parameters would undoubtedly facilitate implementation by States parties, as well as follow-up by United Nations country teams, including my Office, and by national human rights institutions and civil society actors. Such restructuring is essentially a value judgement that requires your collective view and expert knowledge. I am aware that the 12th Inter-Committee Meeting will discuss inter alia the structure and length of concluding observations, and will provide you with an opportunity to further reflect on this idea.

Given the constraints that I have described, we need to reflect on possible alternatives to the formal follow-up procedures.

I believe that United Nations country teams, OHCHR field presences, and civil society need to play a more active role in following-up on recommendations stemming from all human rights mechanisms. For instance, OHCHR regional offices could organize more systematically regional workshops on reporting and follow-up to treaty body recommendations where you could play a leading role in providing guidance to States parties on concrete steps to be taken to implement your recommendations. The predictability and incremental nature of such regional workshops could also form part of your follow-up role beyond formal meetings and outside Geneva or New York.  These regional workshops would also bring you closer to the implementation level and to national actors whom we need to empower.

I sincerely hope that these few thoughts will contribute to your discussions and I look forward to reading the points of agreement which you will adopt at the end of your meeting.

Before I leave you, let me reiterate once again my support for your important work, as well as the support of my colleagues from the Secretariat.

I wish you a very productive meeting.  

Thank you.