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Opening address by Ms. Wan-Hea Lee, Chief, Groups in Focus Section Human Rights Treaties Division, at the 15th session of the Committee on Migrant Workers

12 September 2011

Distinguished members of the Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the fifteenth session of the Committee on Migrant Workers. The High Commissioner has asked me to extend to you her best wishes for a successful and productive session.

World events have once again proven the relevance of this Convention and the urgent need for the world to confront the reality of our ever increasing mobility, be in in the search for more economic opportunities, or to flee natural and man-made disasters. This will be another session in which you will make your important contribution toward helping to ensure that all migrant workers will be able to join that blessed minority who enjoy the protection of their home, transit and receiving countries. I welcome the special attention you will be paying to a particularly vulnerable group, namely migrant workers in an irregular situation, as well as the members of their families.

This session is also important for another reason. It will be your last before the High Commissioner sums up the results of two years of consultations with all stakeholders with a report presenting her proposals for treaty body strengthening. In this sense, it will be your last live meetings at which you will be able to contribute any further reflections you may wish to share with her.

The context of these efforts continues to evolve at a rapid pace. It might therefore be useful to review the most important developments of interest to the Committee that have taken place since your last session.

New instruments and treaty bodies

Establishment of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances

Let me begin with the growth of the treaty body system. On 31 May 2011, during the first meeting of the States parties to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which took place at United Nations Headquarters in New York, the ten inaugural members of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances were elected. The long awaited Committee on Enforced Disappearances, established following the entry into force of the Convention on 23 December 2010, will hold its first session in November of this year. It will be the tenth human rights treaty monitoring body and the ninth that administers a review process on reports of States parties.

Open-ended Working Group on the Optional Protocol to CRC

During its 17th session, the Human Rights Council adopted the text of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which had been drafted by the Open-ended Working Group established to elaborate a communications procedure. The text of this new treaty will be brought before the General Assembly for approval during its 66th session this autumn. With the Optional Protocol, children will join the ranks of full-fledged rights-holders empowered to bring their complaints about violations of their rights to an international body.

Human Rights Council resolution on Sexual Orientation

During the same session, the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted, for the first time, a resolution expressing grave concern about acts of violence and discrimination against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The resolution calls on OHCHR to commission a global study to document discrimination and violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. A panel discussion informed by this study will take place during the 19th Session of the HRC in 2012.

Treaty-Body Strengthening

I referred earlier to the call of the High Commissioner in 2009 to different stakeholders, including States and civil society organizations, to express their views and suggestions on ways and means to strengthen the treaty body system. The consultation stage of this process started in Dublin in November 2009, continued in Marrakech in June 2010, in Poznan in September 2010, in Seoul in April of this year, in Sion in May with State representatives, and in Pretoria in June 2011.

150 participants attended the consultations in Sion, representing more than 90 countries. The Chairpersons or other representatives of all the treaty bodies discussed ways of improving the treaty body system over two intensive days of dialogue. Further consultations are envisaged in Luzern with academics and in also with UN actors and selected regional mechanisms in October 2011. A meeting on the individual communications procedure is envisaged as well. The consultation will come full circle with a wrap-up meeting in Dublin in November of this year. The High Commissioner will present her report in early 2012.

There are many messages that are coming out of these meetings, which I know you will review during this session and in due course. Civil society organisations are clearly calling for strengthening of the system and they propose many specific ways in which this can be pursued, with varying degrees of complexity. One key demand is that all treaty bodies align their engagement procedures, instead of multiplying them in different forms and formats; this reinforces the same request by national human rights institutions made some months before. On the other hand, the key message of States, who also lend moral support to strengthening the treaty bodies, is clearly one of austerity and self-discipline, particularly in respect of the so-called “non-mandated activities” undertaken by nearly all treaty bodies, such as follow-up procedures, and the development of general comments.

With respect to Secretariat support, at the Sion meeting we learned for the first time the full resource requirements for the preparation of the documentation needed by the treaty bodies. Two documents on the growth of the treaty body system and resource implications were prepared by OHCHR for the Sion consultation. They were prepared at the repeated request of States parties, who are continuously confronted with ad-hoc requests for additional resources by individual treaty bodies. I believe that a clear picture is now beginning to emerge for more and more States that in the absence of a comprehensive solution, these ad hoc requests will become a permanent feature of the treaty system. These documents are available in your files. I strongly recommend these as essential reading for all treaty body experts.

Inter-Committee Meeting

The Inter-Committee Meeting took place from 27 to 29 June, during which time it focused on enhancing the effectiveness of the treaty bodies and looked at the harmonization of working methods. This meeting was followed on 30 June to 1 July by the 23rd Meeting of Chairpersons, which addressed the harmonization of working methods, eligibility and independence of members and enhancing the meeting of chairpersons. Your Chair and Ms. Cubias Medina attended these meetings on your behalf and will brief you on the more relevant aspects of the meeting.

In my opening address to the ICM in June, Mr. Salama stated that treaty body experts are at the heart of strengthening the treaty body system, that you are truly the ones that can bring about change and that you will succeed if you are determined and united around a shared vision. He referred to the challenges treaty bodies face, namely, harmonization and resources. In respect of harmonization, only you can bring about change with a shared vision that is progressively emerging. Resources are clearly the responsibility of States. The High Commissioner believes that despite the financial and economic crisis, States cannot avoid their responsibilities. It is unacceptable that the treaty body system functions with a 35% reporting compliance rate and that a lack of resources weakens States parties’ accountability under international human rights law.

A number of interesting decisions were taken by the Treaty Bodies’ Chairpersons during its 23rd meeting (relevant documentation is added in your files). The Chairpersons decided to engage in a drafting process for guidelines on the independence and expertise of members of treaty bodies. They will be inspired in this work in part by the existing guidelines of your Committee from 1998. They also decided to hold their next meeting (June 2012) on the African continent in order, among other things, to interact with the regional mechanisms and other actors there.

As a measure to economize and improve efficiency, please note that the Inter-Committee Meeting was suspended by the Chairs. Not only does it have a less-than enviable success rate in harmonizing the working methods of all treaty bodies, it is also uncertain that the necessary funding for ICMs in 2012-13 will be available in view of the present funding crisis. It was agreed that if funding is available, my Office could support a substantive meeting or working group if deemed necessary by the Chairpersons. Finally, the Meeting of Chairpersons, while noting that the autonomy and specificity of treaty bodies must be respected, recommended that the chairpersons be empowered to adopt measures on working methods and procedural matters which are common to all treaty bodies. Chairpersons will consult with their respective committees on these matters in advance, and if a treaty body is not in agreement with the measures adopted by the chairpersons, it may subsequently dissociate itself from it.

UN greening policy

Mr Chairperson,
Distinguished members of the Committee,

Allow to me to express my deep appreciation for your efforts to implement the UN greening policy. The UN as a whole is gradually reducing the production and distribution of hard copy documents, and some Committees such as the SPT and CPRD have already conducted paperless sessions. By implementing the greening policy, we will save several thousands of pages a session. I am convinced that this forward-looking example will encourage other treaty bodies to follow on this path to substantially reduce the quantity of pages that need to be printed and ultimately to protect the environment. Your Secretariat will ensure that the implementation of the greening policy will not interfere with the quality of your work.

Developments and challenges related to migration (April – August 2011)

Since the Committee’s last meeting, events in North Africa have continued to dominate the news as significant numbers of migrants continue to leave Libya and other countries in the region. Around the world, migration continues to be a risky and often fatal business. In a report that will be presented to the 18th session of the Human Rights Council on the situation of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing recent events in North Africa, the Office estimates that more than 1,400 migrants have died at sea between North Africa and Europe since the start of 2011. It notes that tougher border controls could indeed heighten the risk of death or injury to migrants, as they are forced into increasingly dangerous modes of travel, including falling prey to traffickers, in order to evade such controls. The report also sets out human rights standards relevant to migrants on issues including collective expulsion, rescue at sea, the prohibition of violence, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance against migrants, as well as immigration detention. In regard to this last issue; in May of this year the Office held a Global Roundtable jointly with UNHCR on alternatives to immigration detention, Your Committee was represented at this meeting by Mr Prasad Kariyawasam. The meeting reaffirmed what you all know, that there is no empirical evidence that detention deters irregular migration. States were urged to explore effective non-custodial measures for all migrants.
Mr Chairperson,
Distinguished members of the Committee,

Ratification by Bangladesh

Slowly but steadily, acceptance of the Convention continues to grow, although not quickly enough for many of us. The recent ratification to the Convention by Bangladesh brings the number of States parties now to 45. The number of States parties that have accepted the competence of the Committee to consider complaints under article 77, however, remains unchanged at two.

The present session

With respect to your session, it will once again be a busy one with three States parties’ initial reports under consideration: Argentina, Chile and Guatemala; the discussion and adoption of a list of issues for Tajikistan and Paraguay and, last but not least, the thematic discussion on the rights of migrant workers in an irregular situation and members of their families. As a strategic priority for OHCHR, our Office has made efforts to bring the human rights dimension to migration policies. As you know, when the High Commissioner chaired the Global Migration Group, she focused the attention of the GMG on migrants in an irregular situation. This was reflected in the Principals landmark statement, which unequivocally declared that universal human rights norms apply to all migrants, regardless of their immigration status.

She was therefore pleased to see this also a serious concern of the Committee, as evidenced in the fact that it is your chosen theme of this year’s Day of General Discussion. The discussion will contribute to clarify the normative content of the rights of migrant workers in an irregular situation and members of their families, as provided for in the International Convention which you are mandated to monitor. Such clarity, it is hoped, will help promote better understanding of the scope of the Convention, thus facilitating its ratification, and ultimately helping to improve the protection of the rights of this vulnerable group of migrant workers and members of their families. I have full confidence that the discussion next week will help the Committee to adopt a general comment on the subject in the near future that will serve as an important reference for all concerned.

Before I conclude, allow me to formally introduce Mr. Jakob Schneider, who has just been appointed as Secretary of the Committee, whose experience and professionalism I have no doubt you will come to appreciate very quickly. He will carry on from the outstanding work conducted over the past year by your interim Secretary, Ms. Noemy Barrita-Chagoya, to whom we express our deep appreciation and best wishes.

I wish you, on behalf of the High Commissioner, a very successful and productive session and assure you of the full support of your secretariat to assist you in fulfilling your mandate.

Thank for your attention.