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Remarks of Ms Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights to the informal brainstorming meeting on the United Nations human rights treaty body system

14 July 2006

Thank you Mr. Chairperson,

Mr. Chairperson, Colleagues and Friends,

I am delighted to have the opportunity to make a few remarks on the United Nations treaty body system at the opening of this informal brainstorming meeting which my Office has convened. But first, I would like to express my gratitude to the Government of Leichtenstein for providing this venue during an extremely busy week marking Liechtenstein’s 200 years of sovereignty. I also wish to thank all the individuals who have helped organize our meeting.

I am very pleased that representatives of States parties, treaty bodies, United Nations system entities, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations took time from their very busy schedules to participate in this consultation. I am aware that this period of transformation of the United Nations human rights system, particularly as a result of the creation of the Human Rights Council, has put extreme pressure on all of us.

As you recall, an earlier meeting in 2003 led to the elaboration of guidelines for streamlining reporting to treaty bodies. I am confident that our discussions in this informal setting, as well as during social activities, will set the stage for further progress.

The purpose of this meeting is to consider ways in which the United Nations human rights treaty system can be enhanced so that it fulfils its principal objective of ensuring human rights protection at the national level through the implementation of treaty obligations. To this end, ideas have been solicited and developed since the Secretary-General’s 2002 report, Strengthening the United Nations: An Agenda for Further Change (A/57/387). That report encouraged treaty bodies to harmonize their approaches and working methods and to streamline the reporting requirements of States parties. In 2002, also, the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services recommended that the High Commissioner consistently pursue consultations with the treaty bodies on modalities of streamlining reporting. In 2005, in his report In Larger Freedom (A/59/2005), the Secretary-General again emphasized the need to streamline and strengthen the treaty body system, and called for implementation of harmonized guidelines on reporting to all treaty bodies, so that they can operate as a unified system.

In response to an invitation by the Secretary-General to address the human rights aspects of his call for reform, my Plan of Action (A/59/2005/Add.3) echoed his view on reporting guidelines. Further, I proposed the creation of a unified standing treaty body in order to provide a strengthened and more effective monitoring system to enhance the impact of the human rights treaty system, particularly at the national level. This proposal has been elaborated in a concept paper prepared by my colleagues (HRI/MC/2006/2) which was made available in late March this year.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The human rights treaty system is the cornerstone of the United Nations framework for human rights. The reporting system, in particular, is positive and successful and has stimulated the creation of constituencies to promote implementation of human rights at the national level. The work of treaty bodies has provided direct input to the development of new laws, policies and programmes. National and regional courts also refer to the jurisprudence of treaty bodies developed through the consideration of individual complaints and reports. The process of reporting provides a platform for national dialogue on human rights among the various stakeholders, and an opportunity for public scrutiny of Government policies. The recommendations contained in the concluding observations provide a framework for joint action by Governments, United Nations entities, civil society and others, while the views adopted in individual complaints procedures have often resulted in individual relief for victims. The treaty body system also holds a potential for country engagement which constitutes one of the main strategies of my Plan of Action.

However, it is almost universally acknowledged that the system faces significant challenges, not least because many States parties fail to report in a timely fashion, or at all. At the same time, the sheer volume of reports and complaints from States that do comply with their obligations means that the committees themselves, as part-time bodies, with unremunerated, but highly dedicated members, are unable to keep up with the important work that is before them. As a result, reports that are submitted sometimes are not considered for at least two years. Similarly, it may be several years after submission that treaty bodies with competence to consider petitions are able to take up complaints. Importantly, despite innovations introduced by treaty bodies, there is a gap between the recommendations of treaty bodies and their implementation at the national level. These challenges will deepen as we pursue our objective of universal ratification and acceptance of all optional procedures, as well as timely reporting, and as new treaties on enforced disappearance and the rights of persons with disabilities are finalized and enter into force.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good progress has been made in addressing these challenges over the last four years. The seven committees have intensified efforts to coordinate their working methods and activities, with the Inter-Committee and Chairpersons’ meetings being key in this context. The acceptance of the guidelines on the common core document and treaty-specific documents and their implementation by the treaty bodies should result in simplified reporting requirements. I am very pleased that we will have the opportunity to hear later today from Mr Christoph Spenlé, of the Directorate of International Law of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, about work that has been undertaken by Switzerland using the guidelines to create a unified reporting system.

Implementation of harmonized working methods and streamlined reporting guidelines will go some way to making the system more predictable, enabling the existing committees and those which will be created in the future to function in a unified manner. These measures should also facilitate reporting, particularly by small States. But these measures will not by themselves address all the challenges the system faces. Despite its achievements, the system is insufficiently known. Rarely, is it perceived as an accessible and effective vector of change. Moreover, due to the fact that treaty body sessions take place in Geneva and New York, and visits by treaty body members to individual States are an exception, the system is regarded as disconnected from realities on the ground.

We must continue to emphasize the need for coordination and cooperation amongst the treaty bodies. To this effect, I believe that the proposals offered in the course of this important debate deserve full and careful consideration. For my Office’s part, we elaborated a concept paper to facilitate discussions and progress. Our analysis takes stock of the fact that the current system is reaching the limits of its performance. We recognize that steps can be devised to improve its functioning in the short and medium term, but we are persuaded that more fundamental structural change will be required in the long-term. The OHCHR concept paper is also based on the premise that the lack of visibility, authority and access affecting the current system will persist unless the human rights treaty body system functions and is perceived as a unified, single entity responsible for monitoring the implementation of all international human rights obligations, with a single, accessible entry point for all rights-holders. We present the advantages that such a unified standing treaty body might have. Furthermore, we flag issues that must be considered in the creation of such a body.

Additional reflections on other measures that can be taken to strengthen the treaty body system have emerged from discussions my colleagues and I have had with a variety of stakeholders, as well as suggestions put forward during OHCHR’s on-line dialogue, and meetings and seminars. The Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child has suggested the creation of a permanent coordinating committee or devolving formal and structured coordinating functions to the InterCommittee meeting and meetings of chairpersons in order to create a unified approach to reporting and petitions procedures. Others have suggested joint thematic working groups and the harmonization of agendas and priorities. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination proposes the unification of petitions procedures. These are views that require discussion.

I know that there are many important issues—not least legal and procedural—that arise as we consider the possibility of the creation of a unified standing treaty body. But, at a minimum, it is important to begin an informal process of discussion which can help to identify ways for:

· Enhancing the system’s authority and visibility;
· Prioritizing action at country-level to comply with human rights obligations;
· Improving the use of financial and human resources; and
· Strengthening the coherence and consistency of legal interpretation and working methods.

I am aware that the creation of a unified standing treaty body may carry potential risks and I am very open to hearing what these might be.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The next few days provide us with an opportunity for true brainstorming. This is not a formal forum. There are no summary records, there is no taping. You will discuss issues in a plenary session as well as in working groups. In other words, the environment is conducive to a frank exchange of ideas. I look forward to a range of views, which will be aired in a robust, but respectful, debate.

Let me assure you that my Office is planning many other opportunities for views on strengthening the treaty body system to be shared in formal and informal settings. In October, a two-day meeting of the chairpersons of the treaty bodies and States parties will be convened. I would welcome any suggestions for other meetings. You will recall that my Plan of Action foresaw an intergovernmental meeting of States parties to consider options in 2006. I now regard this timeline as too ambitious and consider that such meeting should take place in 2007. While we work, both now and in the future, we should never lose sight of the goal that the system was created to achieve: the implementation of human rights obligations at the national level. It is important here to consider short-, medium- and long-term measures that are practicable, achievable, and deliverable.

Thank you.