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Opening address for the 107th session of the Human Rights Committee

11 March 2013

Distinguished members of the Human Rights Committee,
Colleagues and friends,

I am delighted, on behalf of the Secretary-General, to open your one hundred and seventh session and speak to you briefly this morning.

  1. Welcome to new Committee members

Let me begin by congratulating and warmly welcoming the five new members to the Committee. All of you come with a wealth of knowledge and experience, which will greatly contribute to the Committee’s work. They are: Mr. Kheshoe Parsad Matadeen; Mr. Victor Manuel Rodriguez-Rescia; Ms. Anja Seibert-Fohr, Mr. Yuval Shany, and Mr. Konstantine Vardzelashvili. I wish all the new members the best as they embark on this new challenge.

II. Special Procedures

Many of you will know that my task in OHCHR is to head the Branch which provides support to the majority of thematic special procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Branch also supports the system of special procedures as a whole, and in that context provides servicing to the six-member Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures and the Annual Meeting of Special Procedures. We now have 48 Special Procedures of which 36 are thematic mandates and 12 mandates relating to countries or territories. As six of the mandates are comprised of five-member working groups, there are 72 mandate-holders. Two country mandates and one thematic mandates were established in 2012: the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, and the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. We expect the Human Rights Council to continue creating mandates to assist it in its scrutiny of human rights enjoyment around the world.

Members will be aware of the tasks special procedures undertake, not least because at least one of you has been a mandate holder in the past. In short, Special Procedures report annually to the Human Rights Council, either on a specific theme or the country with which they are concerned, and most also report annually to the General Assembly. A minority also reports to other inter-governmental bodies. Mandate holders communicate confidentially with Member States through allegation and other letters and urgent appeals. Indeed, in 2012, 603 communications were sent to 127 States with respect to at least 1512 individuals. The majority of communications is sent jointly: in 2012, 74.3% of all communications were sent jointly by more than one mandate. State responses are improving, but is still disappointing as Governments replied to 40% of communications sent between 1 January and 31 December 2012. The communications and replies are compiled in a report submitted to each session of the Human Rights Council.

Some mandate holders follow up on communications, with thirty one per followed up by mandate-holders last year. Mandate holders also issue public statements and press releases, and in some cases the Chairperson of the Coordination Committee will issue joint statements on behalf of all special procedures. Recent examples of these related the General Assembly’s High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law, which took place on 24 September 2012, and the High-level Panel on Human Rights Mainstreaming, which took place during the Council with the participation of the Secretary-General on 1 March. Last Friday, also, a joint statement with CEDAW and most special procedures mandate holders on the theme of International Women’s Day was also released. Special procedures also conduct country visits, with 80 visits to 55 States and territories in 2012 being undertaken last year.

Much of the thematic work of Special Procedures is very relevant to the work of this Committee and we are constantly seeking ways in which you could work together to strengthen human rights enjoyment on the ground. Last year, for example, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, in response to Human Rights Council resolution 20/16, started to prepare basic principles and guidelines on remedies and procedures on the right of anyone deprived of his or her liberty by arrest or detention to bring proceedings before court, in order that the court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his or her detention and order his or her release if the detention is not lawful. The Working Group plans to present the results in a report to the Council in 2015 following consultations with States and other relevant actors, including civil society organizations.

A number of Special Procedures mandate holders, including those on freedom of expression, on racism and on freedom of religion contributed to discussions relating to the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred by actively and substantively participating in a series of expert workshops on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred. These culminated in the “Rabat Plan of Action,” which I am sure the Secretariat will make available to you which makes recommendations on how to improve the response to racial, religious and national incitement in the areas of legislation, jurisprudence and policies. The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, in his first thematic report to the Human Rights Council of June 2012 (A/HRC/20/27), identified what he considers best practices that promote and protect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

In 2012, the issue of the death penalty was analysed in two thematic reports presented to the 67th session of the General Assembly by the Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and on torture in the light of the global trends towards the abolition of the death penalty and possible new developments in law and practice. The report was preceded by an expert consultation on the death penalty at Harvard Law School, USA, in June 2012. The report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions stressed that countries which have not abolished the death penalty, may only impose it for intentional killing offences. The report further spoke of the need for transparency from Governments on all information related to the imposition and implementation of the death penalty, as well as the issue of complicity by third parties, including abolitionist states, in instances of cooperation with retentionist states.

The Working Group on Enforced Disappearances adopted two general comments on women affected by enforced disappearances and children and enforced disappearances during its 98th session in November 2012, in which the Group points to issues that are often gendered, specifically in relation to access to justice, witness protection and remedies. As to children and disappearances, the Group refers to the different status as victim children can have, these being as children of one or two disappeared parents or as being disappeared themselves. The General Comment emphasizes questions related to the rights to identity and truth, but also issues linked to adoption and children specific needs in terms of recovery and reparation.

For its part, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted Deliberation 9 which examines the definition and scope of arbitrary deprivation of liberty in customary international law. Members will be aware that this Working Group receives communications and adopts opinions in respect of individuals alleged to arbitrarily detained. In late 2011, a database containing all opinions adopted by the Working Group was launched, making its over 650 opinions available in English, French and Spanish (www.unwagaddatabbase.org)

III. Budget issues

I am aware that Mr. Salama recently sent you some information on the budgetary constraints facing the United Nations and OHCHR. Unfortunately anticipating system-wide budget cuts of 100 million USD of the regular budget of the UN Secretariat, of which 4.5 million USD will are likely be drawn from OHCHR’s regular budget. Despite the fact that 70 per cent of these cuts must be in staff costs, I am pleased to inform you that the Human Rights Committee Secretariat will not be affected by these measures at this point in time. However, while the Office continues to do its utmost to provide the best possible servicing to the treaty bodies, it seems inevitable that we all have to make some sacrifices.

IV. Changes to the Secretariat

On the subject of the Human Rights Committee Secretariat, it is my pleasure to announce that Ms. Abane Prophette-Palasco has recently been promoted and will be moving to the petitions unit after this session. I am sure you agree that this is a well-deserved promotion and I wish Ms. Prophette-Palasco continued success in her new functions. The procedure is underway to find a replacement as quickly as possible. . I also take this opportunity to introduce you to a new member of the team, Mr. Lilian Durnescu. Mr. Durnescu is not new to the Committee having done excellent work with the Committee in when he was in the Petitions Unit. I wish you much professional satisfaction in your new role.

V. Intergovernmental process and survey

Mr. Salama has asked me to update you on the General Assembly’s intergovernmental process on the strengthening of the treaty body system. During the General Assembly session last year, the co-facilitators of the intergovernmental process, the Ambassadors of Indonesia and Iceland, were re-appointed. They have expressed their intention to finish the process by May following a series of informal consultations which have already commenced. The latest round of informal consultations took place in New York on 19-20 February. You have all been provided with information on these discussions and will no doubt be briefed by Mr. Neuman, who took part in this meeting. The contribution of human rights treaty body chairs and experts to the thematic discussions was highly valued by the co-facilitators and Member States. A number of issues was discussed, including documentation and conference services, the simplified reporting procedure, webcasting and videoconferencing, and the nomination and election process. It should be underlined as a very positive development that the co-facilitators repeatedly stated that any savings made in the final outcome are to be reinvested in the treaty body system and capacity development. The next informals will take place during mid-April.

Mr. Salama, has also requested me to thank you for taking part in the survey that was sent last December related to your satisfaction with the Secretariat’s support. Forty-five out of 172 experts completed the survey which, given the busy end-of-year period, was a quite a good response rate. The Division was pleased that 83.7 percent of respondents rated Secretariat support either satisfactory or very satisfactory. A similar survey will be sent out at the end of this year and we hope that as many of you as possible will provide us with this important feedback.

You will also soon receive a survey which invites you to contribute to OHCHR’s planning process. As you will know, since 2006, OHCHR has formulated a management plan to cover a two-year cycle. From 2014, the cycle will be for a four year period and preparations have already begun with a meeting last week in Guatemala city which sought to highlight the human rights issues of priority concern to the Latin American and Caribbean region. Four further meetings are being convened in March and April with respect to the other regions. I encourage you to participate in the survey so that we can benefit from your insights and fully take into account the Committee’s priorities as we plan our work.

Distinguished Members of the Committee

Colleagues and friends,

There are other areas that I would have wished to update you on, such as the current session of the Human Rights Council and the second cycle of the universal periodic review, but I am anxious not to take too much of your time given the tasks ahead of you. Accordingly, let me wish you on behalf of the High Commissioner, a very successful and productive session. As ever, we in OHCHR are eager to assist you in any way we can.