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Opening address by Mr. Ibrahim Salama representative of the Secretary-General at the 1st session of the Committee on Enforced Disappearance

8 November 2011

Distinguished members of the Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Secretary-General, I have the honour to welcome you to this historic first session of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances.

First of all, I would like to congratulate all of you on your election to the Committee. I also transmit a warm welcome from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay. The High Commissioner regrets she cannot be with you on this historic day. She is currently travelling to New York where she will brief the Security Council on the protection of civilians and other important matters. The High Commissioner wishes you strength and energy for the challenges ahead in consolidating your Committee as the tenth UN human rights treaty body.

1. Responding to enforced disappearances

We have come a long way in combating the unfortunately widespread phenomenon of enforced disappearances. Many societies have at different times in history experienced this scourge. During the 1970s and the 1980s, a number of Latin American countries witnessed systematic patterns of enforced disappearances. However, the practice is not limited to any particular region in the world. In fact, it still occurs in various parts of the world today.

In an endeavour to combat this phenomenon, the international community embarked on the long road to adopt this landmark treaty. In 1978, the General Assembly expressed its deep concern about reports of enforced or involuntary disappearances and asked the former Commission on Human Rights to act. In response, the Commission in 1980 established a Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. The Working Group has done important work in assisting victims and families and continues to meet. I am glad to note that you will have the opportunity to meet with them later today.
This in turn led to the drafting of this Convention. The Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights adopted the first draft in 1998. It took a further eight years until the Human Rights Council, at its historic first session, and then the General Assembly, to adopt it. The Convention entered into force in February 2007 and Montenegro was the 30th – and the most recent – State to ratify last September.

This week provides the next step in the process of putting an end to enforced disappearances and ensuring redress for victims and families. You, as members of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, have a significant role to play.

In some situations, victims have pierced the veil of impunity that surrounds so many cases of enforced disappearances by successfully advocating for the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions, reparation programmes and the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators. However, in far too many cases, the relentless efforts of victims to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones and to obtain reparation for their suffering have been in vain.

To make sure that these victims are not forgotten is part of your work. While it is true that the Committee only has competence with respect to disappearances that commenced after the entry into force of the Convention, it can have a significant impact in assisting States parties to prevent the occurrence of enforced disappearances and provide guidance on how to address barriers faced by victims and their families in obtaining justice and reparation. I encourage you in your important endeavours in the Committee and pledge the support of OHCHR as secretariat.

Allow me to provide you with some information on some ongoing processes that will affect your work.

2. Treaty body strengthening process

As you embark on your first session, you join a system of treaty bodies that has been rapidly developing over the last fifty years. Indeed, since 2004, the human rights treaty body system has doubled in size, with the addition of four new treaty bodies examining the rights of migrant workers, persons with disabilities and supporting victims of torture. In addition, existing treaty bodies are dealing with new optional complaints mechanisms covering economic, social and cultural rights, the rights of persons with disabilities and child rights. With a total of 1565 ratifications to all human rights treaties, the system has surpassed its limits in terms of both coherence and sustainability – and all this, unfortunately, in the face of much slower growth of resources.

The fragmentation of the treaty body system and the multiplication of procedures urgently call for continuous, ongoing harmonization and coordination. This is why two years ago the High Commissioner called upon all stakeholders to initiate a process of reflection on ways to strengthen the treaty body system. The High Commissioner has held a series of consultations among different actors, including States parties, treaty body experts, national human rights institutions, civil society, and academics. Many proposals have been tabled concerning more focused and concise State party reports, a fixed calendar for treaty body reporting, a more efficient structure of the dialogue between treaty bodies and States parties’ delegations, more focused and shorter concluding observations, and more effective follow-up on treaty body recommendations. In addition, you will be interested to know that the Chairpersons of the treaty bodies decided at their meeting in June to prepare and adopt a document providing guidance on the eligibility and independence of treaty body members.

At the very time that you are holding your inaugural session, the treaty body strengthening process is entering its decisive phase. A wrap up meeting with treaty body chairpersons and facilitators of the different consultations will take place in Dublin this week, and of course, you will be informed about its outcome. Moreover, the final statement of this meeting will be shared with you for your input.

In addition, the High Commissioner is seeking written contributions by States until the end of this year and intends to convene another round of informal consultations with States in Geneva in January 2012 and, possibly, in New York in March/April 2012, during which the proposals collected will once more be looked at. At the beginning of 2012, the High Commissioner will compile in a report, all the proposals that have been made by different stakeholders in response to her call in 2009 for reflection on strengthening the treaty body system.

In her briefing for States parties in the General Assembly on 24 October, the High Commissioner recognized that the treaty body harmonization exercise, while important, has its limits in addressing the challenges posed by the significant growth of the treaty body system. She called for additional resources from the regular budget of the UN, recalling that the treaty bodies discharge core mandated activities, and stressed the need for additional meeting time for treaty bodies to address the backlog of reports pending consideration.

For further reference, you can find this year’s report of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly on measures to improve further the effectiveness, harmonization and reform of the treaty body system in your files.

3. Your first session

Distinguished members of the Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

While your work begins today, you have more than a year before you will begin your examination of initial reports of States parties. During this time, you will be able to adopt your rules of procedure, establish your working methods, interact with other human rights mechanisms, and position the Committee within the treaty body system.

As the most recent treaty body of one of the most recent human rights instruments, you have room to be innovative. As just one example, article 29 of the treaty allows you to request additional report from States parties – a novel tool in the Convention allowing for flexibility, efficiency and responsiveness of your work. I have no doubt that you will make the best use of this and other tools to leave a real mark before the review conference that will take place before the end of 2016, in accordance with article 27 of the Convention.
Operationally, you may also be innovative. The new UN greening policy is one important reform that several of your peer treaty bodies have subscribed to. You can see before each of you a multitude of documents which have been printed for your folders, most of which will be thrown away at the end of this session. The UN as a whole is gradually reducing the production and distribution of hard copy documents. Some Committees have already conducted paperless sessions by working with electronic files. I would like to wholeheartedly encourage you to give thought to conducting “green sessions” in the future.

To assist you in your task of developing your work methods, we have proposed a work programme for the next four days. As I noted above you will meet with the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances later today. You will also have the opportunity to meet with both States parties and non-States parties to the Convention, as well as with NGOs. In addition, you will participate in an induction programme which will commence later this morning which I trust will broaden your understanding of the OHCHR and the broader human rights system. Last but not least, you will start the important process of adopting your rules of procedure and discussing the programme of work of your future sessions.

Before concluding this statement, I am delighted to introduce you to Mr. Simon Walker, who was recently selected as the new Chief of the Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Section of my Division. He brings with him vast experience and expertise from different parts of the Office, including from the field. He will be assisted during this session by Mr. Jorge Araya, Secretary a.i. of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Mr. Jakob Schneider, Secretary of the Committee on Migrant Workers. In addition, Ms. Linda Engvall, our Swedish JPO, and Ms. Mounia Atiki, the Committee’s administrative assistant, will form part of the team for this session.

In conclusion and without further ado, I wish you a very successful and constructive first session and open the floor for any questions you might have.

Thank you.