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Human Rights Committee holds ninth informal meeting with States parties

GENEVA (21 July 2017) - The Human Rights Committee this afternoon held its ninth informal meeting with States parties, discussing issues such as the backlog in individual communications facing the Committee, limits on the size of documents produced by treaty bodies, and the Committee’s draft General Comment on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the right to life.

In his opening remarks, Yuji Iwasawa, Chairperson of the Committee, informed that the Committee had undertaken a substantial amount of work since the last meeting with States parties in July 2015, including the review of 41 reports of States parties.  The number of cases registered under the Optional Protocol had continued to increase.  In order to maximize the Committee’s meeting time allocated to communications, several measures had been introduced, such as the repetitive communication procedure, the guidelines on measures of reparation under the Optional Protocol to the Covenant, the pilot process for inviting the parties in significant communications to offer oral comments on the other party’s submissions, and the simplified reporting procedure.  Mr. Iwasawa warned that unless there was significant increase in the capacity of the secretariat to process communications, the Committee’s ability to address the backlog would be seriously compromised.  He also called on States parties to seriously reconsider the limit of 10,700 words for each document produced by treaty bodies, which created a major challenge to effectively discharge the Committee’s core mandate under the Covenant.

Yuval Shany, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Rapporteur for the draft General Comment on article 6 of the Covenant on the right to life, briefed States parties about discussions on the draft General Comment, which would be adopted in the current session of the Committee, and would be open to comment to all stakeholders once published.  He noted that General Comments were a very important part of the Committee’s work as they codified the case law of the Committee, aligned the interpretations with those of other committees, developed practices in international human rights law, and drew attention to important challenges in implementation.  The purpose of the General Comment on the right to life was to protect individuals from unnatural and premature death and to enjoy life with dignity.  It protected individuals from threats to the loss of life.  Mr. Shany asked delegations to inform their capitals about the opportunity to make comments on the General Comment on article 6 because General Comments often shaped States’ practices.   

In the ensuing discussion, States acknowledged the Committee’s work and the progress made in improving the functioning of the human rights system.  Nevertheless, they drew attention to the reporting fatigue and the need to address the problem of repetition of observations and recommendations made on the same issues by several different committees.  They called for the harmonization and streamlining of working methods across different treaty bodies.  Turning to the draft General Comment on article 6, some delegations reminded that there was no international law that prohibited the practice of the death penalty and that the Committee did not have a mandate to define the most serious crimes.  Certain delegations underlined the need to respect the principle of multilingualism in the work of the Committee, even though there were budgetary constraints.

Speaking this afternoon were New Zealand, Austria, Ecuador, Japan, Indonesia, Mozambique, Pakistan, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Latvia and Paraguay.

The Committee will next meet in public on Wednesday, 26 July, at 3 p.m. to discuss its methods of work and draft rules of procedure. 

Statement by the Committee Chairperson

YUJI IWASAWA, Chairperson of the Committee, informed that the Committee had undertaken a substantial amount of work since the last meeting with States parties in July 2015, including the review of 41 reports of States parties.  The number of cases registered under the Optional Protocol had continued to increase.  Some 191 new cases had been registered in 2014, 196 in 2015, and 211 in 2016.  One hundred and one cases had been concluded in 2015, and 113 in 2016.  However, as the pace of the increase of the registered cases had been great, the backlog of individual communications had grown.  The number of cases pending before the Committee had been 532 at the end of 2015, and 599 at the end of 2016.  At the end of March 2017, there had been some 220 communications which had been ready to be examined by the Committee.  Some of those communications had been registered as early as 2012.  The Committee faced challenges of resources in the secretariat and unless there was a significant increase in the capacity of the secretariat to process communications, the Committee’s ability to address the backlog would be seriously compromised. 

In order to maximize the Committee’s meeting time allocated to communications, several measures had been introduced.  One of them was the repetitive communication procedure adopted in March 2016.  It sought to expedite the decision-making process for dealing with individual communications where the facts and legal issues were similar and the Committee’s jurisprudence was well established.  In October 2016, the Committee had adopted guidelines on measures of reparation under the Optional Protocol to the Covenant.  The guidelines provided an overview of the jurisprudence regarding the measures of reparation the Committee had requested when it found that a Covenant right had been violated by a State party.  The guidelines sought to harmonize criteria on measures of reparation and ensure consistency in the Committee’s jurisprudence.  The Committee also decided to develop a pilot process for inviting the parties in significant communications to offer oral comments on the other party’s submissions.  Furthermore, the Committee decided to make public the list of communications registered for and pending consideration through the Committee’s webpage.  That list applied to cases registered as of 1 January 2017.  The Committee also appreciated the webcasting of its public meetings through the United Nations Web TV, which contributed greatly to enhancing the visibility of the Committee’s work. 

As for reporting, in 2010 the Committee had taken an important decision to adopt the list of issues prior to reporting (simplified reporting procedure).  In July 2014, following the General Assembly resolution 68/268 on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system, the Committee had decided that the simplified reporting procedure should be offered to all States parties submitting periodic reports.  That procedure assisted States, especially those with limited resources.  States could draft reports by replying to the list of issues sent by the Committee and they were no longer requested to submit both reports and written replies to the list of issues.  So far, 42 States had opted to be considered under the simplified reporting procedure.  Furthermore, recognizing that many States had difficulties in living up to their multiple reporting obligations, General Assembly resolution 68/268 had designed a significant capacity building programme to support States in building their capacity to implement their treaty obligations.  Finally, Mr. Iwasawa noted that the limit of 10,700 words for each document produced by treaty bodies put the Committee under a major challenge to effectively discharge its core mandate under the Covenant.  The Committee therefore requested that States parties give serious consideration to that matter when reviewing the General Assembly resolution in 2020.  

Presentation by the Rapporteur for the Draft General Comment on the Right to Life

YUVAL SHANY, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Rapporteur for the draft General Comment on article 6 of the Covenant on the right to life, said that the General Comment on article 6 would be adopted in the current session of the Committee, and would be open to comment to all stakeholders once published.  General Comments were a very important part of the Committee’s work.  They codified the case law of the Committee, aligned the interpretations with those of other committees, developed practices in international human rights law, and drew attention to important challenges in implementation.  The right to life was one of the most important and longest General Comments.  The lengthy and thorough process of more than two years ensured the high quality of the General Comment.  The purpose of the General Comment on the right to life was to protect individuals from unnatural and premature death and to enjoy life with dignity.  It protected individuals from threats to the loss of life.  It contained specific provisions for the protection of the lives of women.  It also referred to euthanasia, new autonomous weapons systems, the duty of States to negotiate nuclear disarmament, measures of economic and social development as necessary preconditions for life with dignity, environmental challenges, corporate social responsibility, the death penalty, and the issue of discrimination.  The General Comment also underlined that the right to life was influenced by other international legal instruments, such as the refugee law and international environmental law.  Mr. Shany asked delegations to inform their capitals about the opportunity to make comments on the General Comment on article 6 because General Comments often shaped States’ practices.   

Statements by States

New Zealand drew attention to the section of the General Comment on the death penalty, namely that there was an emerging consensus that the death penalty constituted a cruel and unusual form of punishment.  It welcomed the Committee’s work on the issue of the death penalty and it looked forward to further engagement on the issue.

Austria noted that it was a strong supporter of the international independent human rights monitoring system.  It appreciated the regular and constructive dialogues with the treaty bodies.  At the same time, it noted the ongoing increase of reporting obligations, not only at the United Nations level but also at the European level, combined with the constant reduction of financial and personal resources within public administrations.  Austria highlighted the lack of harmonization and streamlining of working methods, as well as a significant overlap and duplication of issues raised by various treaty bodies at the same time.  There was a need to improve the system as a whole.  

Ecuador acknowledged the progress made in improving the functioning of the human rights system.  However, there was still room for improvement, such as dealing with reporting fatigue, duplication of information, observations and recommendations which referred to the same issues.  Ecuador was working hard to guarantee the right to life, and it reiterated its unwavering commitment for the respect of all human rights.

Japan stated that it placed great importance on the effective and efficient work of treaty bodies.  Further efforts were needed to address the accumulated backlog in the work of the Committee.  The effect of the simplified reporting procedure had been rather limited.  What could be done to increase its efficiency? Was the Committee willing to re-apply the double-chamber mechanism?

Indonesia complimented the Committee on the number of positive achievements, but raised concern over its methods of work, noting that the Committee had put more emphasis on publishing press releases that were biased and subjective, which would discourage States to engage with the Committee.  There was no international law that prohibited the practice of the death penalty and the Committee did not have a mandate to define the most serious crimes.  The Committee’s restricted interpretation of the most serious crimes was merely Experts’ advice and not a binding international law.  The application of the death penalty to drug traffickers was legal in Indonesia. 

Mozambique stated that it highly valued and appreciated the mandate of the Human Rights Committee at a time when the promotion and protection of human rights were facing serious challenges all over the world, with millions of people deprived of the enjoyment of their fundamental rights and of leading a dignified life.  It pledged to continue cooperating with the Committee in a constructive manner, and to make good use of the simplified reporting procedure.

Pakistan fully supported the Committee’s work and it appreciated that the Committee recognized Pakistan’s successes and challenges during the review period.  If committees focused on positive achievements by States, that would encourage States to increase their engagement.  The Committee should consider avoiding the repetition of recommendations already made by other committees.  

Responses by Committee Experts

YUJI IWASAWA, Committee Chairperson, thanked delegations for their comments and shared the concern about the backlog in the Committee’s communications.  It was very important to reduce the backlog in individual communications.  It was thus essential to increase resources available to the secretariat.  The Committee was fully aware of the need for the effectiveness of the Committee’s work and of the heavy reporting burden of States.  The Committee found that the dialogue in the simplified reporting procedure was more focused and it was one of the first committees to adopt that procedure.  Other treaty bodies were also meeting in the direction of the simplified reporting procedure.  Mr. Iwasawa encouraged more States to adopt that practice in the future.  In performing its functions, the Committee was trying to faithfully interpret the Covenant and to monitor its implementation.

YUVAL SHANY, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Rapporteur for the draft General Comment, responded to some of the points made by delegations with respect to the General Comment on article 6.  The Committee acknowledged the national context with regard to the application of the right to life, and it recognized the diversity of national laws.  Nevertheless, some principles should be respected by all national legal systems.  Responding to Indonesia, Mr. Shany clarified that the Human Rights Committee was a monitoring body and not a court of law.  The fact that a State was a democratic one did not mean that it did not have international obligations.  The Committee was of the view that its interpretation should carry significant weight, but it was also open to dialogue on different interpretations. 
 
Another Expert reminded of the General Assembly’s reaffirmation of the importance of multilingualism in treaty bodies in order to promote international understanding.  Restrictions on the use of working languages presented a significant difficulty in the work of the Committee and they should not create a precedent.  States parties should take into account the fact that most individual communications were only available to the Human Rights Committee in English.  The United Nations General Assembly resolution on multilingualism also reaffirmed the importance of multilingualism on the websites of the organization. 

An Expert reminded that there were 10 individual treaty bodies with separate mandates and authority to create separate proceedings.  Some of the measures would not be particularly complicated or resource heavy.  However, in order to implement a reform, a well-resourced secretariat was needed.

The Committee tried to be as cooperative with States parties as possible, and it was constantly improving its methods of work, and it tried to be very careful and objective in the follow-up to States’ reports.  The Committee’s objective was not to simply underline that States did not respect their obligations under the Covenant, but to improve dialogue to advance the implementation of the Covenant. 

With respect to the duplication of States’ reporting work, one Expert reminded that those who negotiated treaty bodies were States parties and not Experts.  Experts could only promise not to repeat and address the same issues raised in other committees. 

Statements by States

United Kingdom expressed appreciation for the Committee’s work and welcomed the fact that the Committee was using lists of issues prior to reporting to facilitate discussions with States parties.  It would be helpful to encourage other treaty bodies to adopt the same model of work.  As for the draft General Comment on article 6, the United Kingdom welcomed the opportunity to make comments and asked about the expected timeline for the publication of the General Comment.

France reiterated its general support for the Committee’s remarkable work.  It hailed the work done by the secretariat with a limited budget.  As for the reporting burden of States, France encouraged all possible coordination among different committees in order to be able to work in a more coherent and logical way.  With respect to the General Comment on article 6, what was the timetable for making relevant comments?  The principle of multilingualism should be respected, even though there were budgetary constraints.  Many other delegations shared a concern that there was a trend that went against that principle. 

Spain stressed the importance of the respect for and practical implementation of the principle of multilingualism in the work of the Committee.  Multilingualism should not be traded off in the current context. 

Latvia stated that improvement in the work of treaty bodies was needed for the sake of dialogue, which was necessary despite reporting fatigue and limitation of financial and human resources.  Multilingualism was a fundamental principle that should be upheld.  However, it was also necessary to see how multilingualism could be implemented in practice.  As for the increase in the Committee’s resources, what kind of budget was necessary? 

Paraguay supported the principle of multilingualism because development needed to be inclusive and information used efficiently.  Limitation of resources remained the problem of funding.  But multilingualism should not be the victim.

Responses by Committee Experts

YUJI IWASAWA, Committee Chairperson, noted that the Committee would continue to perform its functions faithfully and to ensure efficiency, effectiveness and transparency in its work.  The lists of issues prior to reporting aimed to cover the human rights situations in States parties comprehensively.  For the moment, the simplified reporting procedure was offered to States submitting initial reports because the Committee needed to gather more information on the ground in order to be able to create a list of issues.  The Committee tried to be specific and succinct in its concluding observations.  The issue of harmonization was important for all stakeholders.  It might not be able to achieve complete harmonization of procedures, but treaty bodies were trying to bring about as much alignment as possible.  The Committee had applied the double-chamber mechanism twice and it was now considering its results.                    

An Expert drew attention to the problem of cooperation between States and the Committee.  That cooperation was trilateral in nature because it involved non-governmental organizations.  Some delegations called into question the information provided to the Committee by civil society.  Some States were somewhat hesitant to take part voluntary in the Committee’s work, such as in follow-up procedures and review of communications.   

Another Expert noted that States parties had an opportunity to respond regarding individual complaints received by the Committee.  Under that procedure, there was a possibility for meetings with States parties.  As for the backlog in communications, the Committee had been trying to reduce it.  But that would require more assistance. 

YUVAL SHANY, Committee Vice-Chairperson and Rapporteur for the draft General Comment, said that the Committee had still not decided on the timeline for the publication and reactions to the General Comment on article 6.  The Committee previously allowed 60 days from the date of publishing to receive comments from States parties.  Mr. Shany underlined the critical role of an adequately staffed secretariat in compiling the lists of issues prior to reporting.    

One Expert noted that multiple reporting by States parties in fact led to greater professionalization of delegations in responding to committees’ questions.  Once the country was involved in preparing multiple reporting to treaty bodies, it would provide more thorough and better integrated responses regarding the situation of human rights.

Concluding Remarks

YUJI IWASAWA, Committee Chairperson, thanked all delegations for their comments and reiterated that the Committee would work to further improve the efficiency of its work.

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