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Opening address by Ms. Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 12th Inter-Committee Meeting of the United Nations human rights treaty bodies

27 June 2011

Distinguished Experts,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to Geneva on the occasion of the twelfth Inter-Committee Meeting.

This is a decisive year for treaty bodies, as it is 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.

In April and in June of this year two consultations with civil society were organized in Seoul and Pretoria. Last month, in cooperation with the treaty body chairs and the International Institute for the Rights of the Child in Sion, Switzerland, my Office held a technical consultation for States parties which I had the pleasure of attending. This meeting was a unique occasion to brainstorm with Member States on four interlinked areas of the treaty bodies’ work, namely:

  • The preparation of State party reports;
  • The pursuit of constructive dialogue;
  • The implementation of treaty body recommendations at the national level, and
  • The centrality of the independence and expertise of treaty body experts.

In the course of these discussions, a wide range of reflections were heard both on how treaty bodies could improve their working methods, as well as on the processes or mechanisms State parties could and should have in place in order to strengthen their own engagement with the treaty body system.

The views expressed in Sion reflect a variety of opinions and can offer a sense of what can be expected in the near future when, for example, further requests for additional meeting time are brought to the attention of States. The Chairpersons of treaty bodies present were also in a position to address some misperceptions and thus steer the debate towards facts and realistic expectations..

One of the hard facts that we face is that the treaty bodies, my Office and States parties are three stakeholders of the treaty body system with no full decision power over the latter. However, you as treaty body members are at the apex of this triangle and hold a privileged position because of your independence and the quasi-judicial nature of your work. You are the ones who can truly bring about change and you will succeed if you are determined and united around a shared vision.

To help you formulate such vision my Office has facilitated a multi-stakeholders process that involved every treaty body expert through the inter-committee meeting, the informal events from Dublin to Pretoria, and your Saturday retreats. This process is taking place in a context of mutual trust and open communication which reflects the natural alliance between yourselves and my Office given our unity of purpose.

Ensuring the desired outcomes and changes will not be easy. We have heard in Sion comments from some States parties that the treaty bodies should focus on what they perceive as their core mandates, notably examining periodic reports and individual communications, and not deal with General Comments, general days of discussions held and follow-up procedures. Those States argued that in times of broad financial hardship, the need for efficiency and, by extension, a focus on addressing backlogs of reports and individual communications, was more pressing than ever. I am convinced, despite these difficulties, that your leadership, creativity and continuous effort to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the treaty body system will bear its fruits.

Dear Colleagues,

I have asked the Human Rights Treaties Division team to start clustering the proposals emerged in our discussions in a coherent way which will form the basis of my report. Given the impossibility of radical changes, these emerging proposals will constitute no more than a series of small steps. However, I feel, that if such small steps can make a difference if they are comprehensive, pursued with determination, interlinked in a logical framework and viewed as a package. I am looking forward to your views on this topic and encourage you to continue your reflection and let us know your ideas and proposals.

During the next three days, you will discuss the structure of the dialogue between treaty bodies and States parties, the structure and length of concluding observations, and the mode of interaction of treaty bodies with stakeholders, in particular national human rights institutions and civil society actors.

As we all know, successful implementation of your recommendations is closely linked to the quality of the constructive dialogue you hold with States parties. Indeed the higher the quality of the dialogue, the clearer, more concrete and implementable your recommendations become. A solid partnership between yourselves and national human rights institutions and civil society is also crucial throughout the reporting process. These three elements, which will be the focus of your deliberations, are indeed key components of human rights protection on the ground.

You have all received the report of Sion and are familiar with the suggestions we have heard during this meeting in respect of some of the issues which you will discuss.

Discussions around the phase of the constructive dialogue between State party delegations and treaty bodies were particularly forthright with many suggestions, and, it must be said, a degree of criticism as to the current way these proceedings are conducted. We heard recommendations for greater self-discipline by treaty bodies in the conduct of meetings, for stronger control of the process by chairpersons and for stricter time management.

Suggestions were made as to better balancing the time shared between a treaty body and a State party delegation. We have also heard proposals by States parties calling for a shorter dialogue and for questions being sent to them in advance with a view to allowing for a better preparation of the delegation. While some believed that the dialogue could be reduced to half a day on a permanent basis, others were of the view that this could apply to the consideration of every fourth periodic report for instance.

Reference was made to the need to harmonize key procedures between treaty bodies, such as the rules of procedure, the consultation process for general comments and the format and length of concluding observations.

As to the independence of experts which the Meeting of Chairpersons will discuss, we have heard that the election system is central to the quality and smooth functioning of the treaty body system. The proposal to have guidelines on eligibility and independence of treaty body members was seen as a key tool to achieve this objective.

As you will discuss the structure of concluding observations, and in light of reservations of some States parties regarding follow-up activities by treaty bodies, I would like to invite you to reflect on a proposal that I made to the inter-committee working group on follow-up in January. I proposed to structure your concluding observations around immediate, medium-term and long-term deliverables when transmitting them to States parties. This could contribute to 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. This idea in addition to regular follow-up workshops could become a joint follow-up procedure for all treaty bodies.

The Human Rights Treaties Division has prepared a background note on the three topics for discussion which is available in your files. The note takes into account concerns raised and proposals made during our various consultations

As requested by the last inter-committee meeting, the Human Rights Treaties Division has also prepared a consolidated implementation table of recommendations adopted by the inter-committee meeting since its first session which you will also find in your files. I am sure that you will undertake a thorough assessment of this table which will also contribute to your reflection on the future of the inter-committee meeting. I therefore ask the Chairpersons to relate their views on this matter, as well as on the next annual Meeting of Chairpersons which I am keen to hold at the regional level..

In a nutshell, the challenges treaty bodies face are twofold: harmonization and resources. In respect of harmonization, you can bring about change with a shared vision that is progressively emerging. Resources are clearly the responsibility of States. I am certain that despite their legitimate frustration or doubts, States cannot avoid their responsibilities. It is unacceptable that the treaty body system functions with a 30% compliance rate, it is equally unacceptable that treaty bodies are victims of their success, and that lacking resources is weakening State parties’ accountability under international human rights law.

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.