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Statement by Mr. Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on treaty body strengthening, New York, 8 June 2012

It is a pleasure for me to provide you with an update on the human rights treaty body strengthening process with regard to how it relates to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The treaty body system is one of the main pillars of the United Nations human rights machinery. As you will recall, the High Commissioner for Human Rights launched a process in 2009 to strengthen the treaty body system in light of its rapid growth and the fact that it doubled in size in less than ten years. The treaty body strengthening process has fully engaged all stakeholders through some twenty consultations stimulating rich, creative and thorough discussions and proposals on critical issues related to the functioning of the system. The process has also been enriched by 36 written submissions received from States parties, and several others from treaty body members and civil society organizations.

The ultimate aim of the process is to reinforce the protection of rights holders at country level through a better resourced, efficient and coherent system. Furthermore, I welcome the opportunity that has arisen, with the adoption of General Assembly resolution 66/254 of 23 February 2012, for this consultation process to move towards concrete decision-making within the General Assembly, especially with regard to financial matters.

The High Commissioner’s report on treaty body strengthening will be released by the end of June 2012. States have already launched their intergovernmental process on treaty body strengthening under the auspices of the President of the General Assembly, and it is our hope that the High Commissioner’s report will assist them in this task. I understand that the co-facilitators of the General Assembly intergovernmental process will be convening their first consultation next Tuesday 12 June at which they will discuss the way forward.

Each segment of the report will address recommendations to stakeholders, namely treaty bodies, States parties, national human rights institutions, civil society and United Nations entities, as appropriate. Some actions can also be implemented by the High Commissioner’s Office as secretariat to the treaty bodies.

In this regard, it is important for everyone to respect the legal parameters enshrined in the human rights treaties, including the competence of treaty bodies to decide on their rules of procedures and working methods. ECOSOC has a particular role in this regard as the body responsible for the establishment of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Each of recommendations in the High Commissioner’s report has its merit and if all were adopted they would significantly strengthen the treaty body system as a whole. The proposals were selected within the following parameters: First, proposals must respect the treaties and not require treaty amendments; Secondly, they must have been considered by the various stakeholders during the consultation process and bear a likelihood of generating the largest possible agreements; Thirdly they must be compatible with and implementable alongside other proposals with a view to providing a coherent vision for the future of the treaty body system; and, most importantly, each proposal must contribute to strengthening the treaty bodies and provide for enhanced promotion and protection of human rights.

Let me mention some of the key proposals which will be presented in this report.

First of all, the establishment of a comprehensive reporting calendar ensuring strict compliance with human rights treaties and equal treatment of all States parties. In addition, the report proposes a simplified focused reporting procedure to assist States parties to meet their reporting obligations involving cost savings for them and the UN while maintaining the quality of the process. It also calls for the alignment of other working methods to the maximum extent without contradicting the normative specificities of the treaties; as well as limitation of length of documentation.

I wish to reiterate that the High Commissioner attaches high importance to the independence of experts which also needs to be guaranteed in the context of the intergovernmental process established by the General Assembly under resolution 66/254. It is her hope that in this regard the Chairpersons of the ten treaty bodies will have a voice as key resource persons within the deliberations of the open-ended inter-governmental process.

However, as we seek a sustainable solution for the entire treaty body system, we must remain cognizant of the pressing needs of the various components of the system.

On this occasion I would like to refer specifically to the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. In common with several other treaty bodies, the Committee faces significant challenges in coping with its workload. While the increased workload is in large part a result of the improved rate of ratification and reporting by States parties—something to be welcomed—the Committee is concerned at the persisting and growing backlog of reports awaiting consideration (approximately 45 reports). Given that the Committee meets twice a year for only six weeks in total, it has felt severely constrained in its efforts to reduce that backlog and to consider the periodic reports of State parties in a timely manner and without undue delay. This delay acts as a disincentive to States to sustain regular reporting and fundamentally undermines the purpose of the reporting procedure by depriving States Parties of the timely advice the Committee can provide on effective implementation of the rights contained in the Covenant.

As you may be aware, the Committee has requested approval of additional meeting time – in the form of one extra annual session - already in 2009. This would have given the Committee a similar allocation of meeting time as the Human Rights Committee, CEDAW and CRC. ECOSOC has deferred a final decision on that request.

I am pleased to note that, while awaiting a final decision from the Council, the Committee has in the meantime reviewed the Council’s request “to improve the efficiency of its working methods, including with a view to further harmonizing its working methods with the other treaty bodies” and has submitted a new draft decision (in its Annual Report E/2012/22-E/C.12/2011/3) which you will have before you at your July substantive Session.

The Committee seeks the support of ECOSOC with a view to obtaining additional meeting time through the extension of the two annual sessions by one week each, rather than an additional session as originally requested. The Committee will reduce the number of meetings for the consideration of periodic reports, from three meetings to two, on a provisional and trial basis from November 2012 to address the backlog of reports, under the condition that adequate servicing is provided to the Committee, for up to two years, during which time the experience would be reviewed and a final decision taken.

However, I must stress, that this measure alone will not reduce the backlog of reports. Whilst it may prevent the backlogs from growing further, only concerted action by the Committee, coupled with your increased support, can contribute to the reduction of the backlog of reports pending consideration.

I urge you to consider the comprehensive treaty body strengthening process which would lead to a sustainable solution for all the treaty bodies, and the request from the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as two complementary items. The Committee’s current request to ECOSOC presents an interim solution to a larger problem which in turn will be addressed through the strengthening process. The challenge facing the Committee in terms of its backlog is now so severe that urgent interim measures are required.

The report of the High Commissioner on treaty body strengthening will offer a range of proposals which if implemented will provide a solid basis for a robust treaty body system on the long term in which the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights plays a fundamental role. It is our hope that the report will be well received by the relevant stakeholders and that appropriate measures will be taken to translate the High Commissioner’s recommendations into a concrete action.

Thank you.