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Human Rights Committee holds informal meeting with states parties

24 July 2019 - The Human Rights Committee this afternoon held an informal meeting with States parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The discussion centred on the reform of the treaty bodies, the improvement of the working methods of the Committee, and the Committee’s draft General Comment on the right of assembly.

Committee Chairperson Ahmed Amin Fathala, in his opening remarks, noted that the Chairs of the treaty bodies had met in New York in June to produce a common vision on the improvement of the functioning of the treaty bodies. 

The three Vice-Chairs of the Committee described a number of measures discussed to rationalise the work of the Committee and to coordinate its work with other treaty bodies.  They said that the simplified reporting procedure had been successfully tested and would now become the regular procedure.  States would soon be informed by this, and they had the option of opting out and continuing with the old reporting procedure.  The Vice-Chairs also noted that the list of issues would be limited to 25 questions.

Concerning the budget, Mr. Fathala said the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, had assured that the third session of the Human Rights Committee in the fall of 2019 would be held.  As for 2020, the situation depended on States, who provided the funds and voted on how it would be spent.
Speaking in the discussion were Paraguay, Spain, France, Iran, Tunisia, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Pakistan, Costa Rica, Egypt and the United States.

The Committee will next meet on Friday, 26 July in the afternoon to conclude its one hundred and twenty-sixth session and adopt its concluding remarks on the Netherlands, Tajikistan, Nigeria, Mauritania, Paraguay and Equatorial Guinea.  

Statements by Committee Experts 

AHMED AMIN FATHALA, Committee Chairperson, in his opening remarks, noted that the Chairs of the treaty bodies had met in New York in June to produce a common vision on the improvement of the functioning of the treaty bodies.  They had discussed reducing the unnecessary overlap between lists of issues and limiting the lists of issues to 25 questions, in order to simplify the work of States.  The idea of a consolidated report to be presented to Committees was discussed and would be possible in certain cases.  The Chairs also discussed making concluding observations more concise.  The Chairs proposed measures to accelerate the examination of reports, for example for a committee to work in two chambers on individual communications.  Mr. Fathala said the aim was to better coordinate the dialogues with States and to synchronise the examination of reports. 

Concerning the simplified reporting process, the Chairs agreed that all treaty bodies could offer it for all periodic reports, but they still had to decide about initial reports.  All treaty bodies would coordinate lists of issues to ensure that they were comprehensive and that there was no overlapping.  On the reporting cycle, the Committee on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had decided to review countries on an eight-year cycle and to synchronize them.  This involved only these two committees.  Some States were interested in holding back-to-back reviews, while others were more interested in spacing out the reporting process.  For follow-up, the Committee had agreed to have a maximum of four urgent recommendations, and States would be given two years to reply to them.  The Committee had also agreed to increase its capacity to review reports of States parties, and it was now dealing with individual committees in two chambers. 

Mr. Fathala said the Chairs of the treaty bodies had agreed to align their procedures and working methods, and this would coordinate and streamline the dialogue process for States.  He reminded that the Chairs had met in New York from 22 to 26 June, and had met with the Secretary-General to discuss the financial crisis of the United Nations and how it was affecting the treaty bodies; they had also met with Member States of the United Nations and with civil society.

YUVAL SHANY, Committee Vice-Chairperson, said he had served as the Committee’s focal point for the 2020 review of resolution 68/268 on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system.  The Committee adopted in its March 2019 session a position paper on certain elements which they would like to see as outcomes of the 2020 process.  These elements were largely endorsed by the vision document adopted by the Chairs of the treaty bodies in June 2019.  Most of the main elements agreed on would allow the treaty bodies to increase the efficiency of their work and enhance the sustainability of the treaty body system.  What they offered was budget neutral vis-à-vis the 68/268 formula.  On individual communications, the backlog continued to grow because in the last biennium, less than 50 per cent of the staffing requested by the Office of the High Commissioner to prepare the extra weeks was allocated.  Concerning simplified reporting, the Committee had adopted simplified reporting, or list of issues prior to reporting as a permanent feature of its procedures and encouraged Member States to switch to it.  The Committee also decided to limit the number of questions on each list of issues to 25 questions.  The Committee had adopted certain measures to increase coordination and predictability of the reporting process, and its first predictable review cycle for 2020-2027 would be published in the coming weeks.   

PHOTINI PAZARTZIS, Committee Vice-Chairperson, said she would focus on the main elements of the measures taken in order to enhance the work of the Committee.  The Committee had decided to adopt the simplified reporting procedure as a permanent feature, as this would make reporting more focused for the States parties and would increase efficiency and the burden of over-reporting.  The Committee had seen a positive response from States.  The Committee had decided to make the simplified reporting procedure the rule, but States that wished could opt out of the procedure and go back to the old reporting procedure would be able to do so.  A list of issues would be limited to 25 questions.  States would be informed by the secretariat on this.  The Committee was looking at aligning the lists of issues with other Committees and keeping in mind what other Committees were doing so as not to duplicate work.  The Committee had adopted a new set of rules, including the possibility to examine individual communications in dual chambers, and also the use of a thorough, complete and expedited process for repetitive issues. 

TANIA MARIA ABDO ROCHOLL, Committee Vice-Chairperson, said the Committee had started its first reading of the General Comment on article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the right of peaceful assembly.  It would provide States parties with interpretation of this important right.  It also raised new issues, like how social networks were now used broadly to reach participants and inform about what was happening.  The Committee hoped that the first draft would be ready by the end of the year, and it would then be made available to the public and to States to allow them to provide detailed comments.  The Committee hoped the General Comment would be finalized in 2020. 

Statements by States

Paraguay said it fully supported the work of the treaty bodies to ensure the protection of human rights.  Paraguay believed that improvements needed to be made in the working methods to improve the efficiency of the treaty bodies.  The differences in the methods of work of the treaty bodies led to a lack of understanding among States.  Paraguay also believed that the calendar of the Committee must take into consideration a State’s scheduled dialogue with other Committees as well as the Universal Periodic Review process. 

Spain expressed its support for the work of the Committee and the whole treaty body system.  Spain recommended that the Committee declare inadmissible individual communications that had already been examined by another international court, like the European Court of Justice.  Spain did not agree with how the Committee looked at this issue.  On the draft General Comment, Spain requested clarification on objects that may be interpreted as weapons, and also what was meant by serious violence.

France believed the Human Rights Committee was a major pillar of the international human rights system and it supported the work of the treaty bodies.  It recommended that the Committee compare the compatibility of its General Comments with international jurisprudence, as the divergence of interpretation was problematic.  A dialogue between judges and Committee Experts would benefit human rights.

Iran said the choice of Committee Experts should better reflect equal geographic representation and also diverse judicial systems.  Different cultures and civilizations should be taken into consideration by the treaty bodies, as some issues raised by them were against the cultures and religions of the States.  Many States had to deal with the effect of unilateral coercive measures.  Could the Committee consider drafting a General Comment on the negative impact of unilateral sanctions on States. 

Responses by the Committee

In response, the Committee Experts said that one of the purposes of resolution 68/268 was to tackle the differences in the working methods of the various treaty bodies and now they would all almost have the same working methods.  The Chairs of the treaty bodies were also working on the issue of the calendar.  Their document following the June meeting dealt with moving toward the simplified reporting procedure, the alignment of the methods of work of the Committees, and their greater productivity.  The Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights were collaborating closely.  As for the 2020 review of the treaty body system, there was a need to work together on a new resolution that had to deal with many issues.  States had to examine the situation of funding.  As for visits to the regions, this was an interesting idea, but it would need funds. 

One Expert said the Committee had to strike a balance between the different elements related to the respect of civilizations and cultures and the universality of human rights.  On the draft General Comment on the right of assembly, an Expert said General Comments provided updated interpretation of articles.  States were always involved in the process and their comments were incorporated as much as possible.  Concerning individual communications and their consideration by other international entities, each entity had its different rules.  They lived in a world with many mechanisms and courts working on human rights, but each worked in a legal environment with specific rules, and this could lead to divergent interpretations of issues.  The Committee was conscious of this issue, but it was also aware of what was happening in the world and what other courts were doing.  The comment by the State party was well taken and the Committee understood that States did not want to repetitively take up the same issue. 

Concerning the comment on the independence of the various treaty body Experts, an Expert said that it was States that presented their candidates and that evaluated and voted for them.  So this issue was in the hand of States, not the treaty bodies. 

Statements by States

Tunisia reiterated its commitment to cooperate with all the treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee.  Tunisia welcomed all efforts to improve the efficiency of the treaty bodies and to ensure more openness with Member States. 
Tunisia believed that the implementation of recommendations of the treaty bodies and follow-up to recommendations was vital.  At the same time, each State should take ownership of the recommendations.  Did the treaty bodies have a vision on ways in which national human rights mechanisms could be supported, as they had a vital role to play in this procedure. 

Germany said it was encouraging to see the progress that had been made on the issue of the reform of treaty bodies.  The situation of the budget was difficult and multi-layered.  Could the Committee say more about what the Secretary-General had told the treaty bodies about the budgetary situation.  As for individual communications and their consideration in dual chambers, how did the Committee make sure that decisions were considered unanimously by the Committee?

Japan expressed its appreciation for the work of the Human Rights Committee and thanked the Experts for their informative briefing.  Japan said that at one meeting with treaty bodies, an Expert had said that there was no more room to improve the work of the treaty bodies, and Japan had found that shocking.  It was very important to continue to improve the work of the treaty bodies, and many issues could be tackled, including the overlap between the work of Committees. 

Switzerland said it noted the range of measures that the Committee had implemented to improve the efficiency of its work, reduce overlaps and align procedures with other Committees.  Concerning the calendar, had it been established to enable States to benefit from the option of back-to-back reviews with the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  This seemed to be a useful solution.  Switzerland did not fully understand whether some of the reforms were in a pilot phase or if they had been adopted, particularly the possibility of presenting a consolidated report under the two Covenants.  Was this already possible, or was it still in the pilot test phase.  Would it be possible to have a common list of issues for the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, if they were moving towards a consolidated report under the two Covenants?

Pakistan said it valued the work of the Committee.  Staggering the consideration of reports to be presented to the treaty bodies was important for Pakistan, which in 2017/2018 had presented eight reports.  Also, institutionalizing the code of conduct was important.  There was a need to further develop the Addis Ababa guidelines and to build on them.  On the veracity of sources of information, this issue was also extremely important.  There was a need for overall objectivity, transparency and an even-handed approach in all processes between treaty bodies and States parties.  The simplified reporting procedure was enticing, but Pakistan wanted to know if after opting for it, a State could change its mind and return to the old reporting procedure.  There was confusion about this.  The delegation had had a positive view of the draft General Comment on the right of peaceful assembly and had shared it with its capital.  Pakistan asked whether it would be possible for medium-sized States to hold dialogues with the Committee via skype or other video conferencing, as this could ensure broader participation of officials. 

Costa Rica said it was important to hear from the Chair about the decisions taken by the Chairs of the treaty bodies in New York.  Some measures on the paper presented by Costa Rica could be promptly implemented and would give short- and medium-term results.  Costa Rica believed that the simplified reporting procedure and the coordinated calendar were important, adding that some measures would require larger budget allotments.  It hoped some of them could be started in an experimental manner. 

Egypt said this was a good opportunity to communicate between States and the Committee.  Egypt was always keen on commenting on General Comments and would provide the Committee with a response in due course.  Egypt accorded great importance to collaborating with the treaty bodies, including this Committee.  In Egypt, a committee had been created to prepare national reports to the treaty bodies after benefitting from technical support.  Egypt was also interested in improving the methods of work of treaty bodies.  The main objective had to be to alleviate the burden of preparing the reports, and Egypt looked forward to the better management of resources. 

United States said the thought that the Committee had put into reform and strengthening its work was encouraging.  The Committee Experts had mentioned the new calendar and how it would follow the eight-year reporting period.  However, for States that were already scheduled to be reporting under a Committee, would there be new information that would modify those dates, and would they be looking at different deadlines for the reviews.

Responses by the Committee Experts and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

A representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that capacity building was a central part of the work of the Office, and they had been trying to shift the focus toward national ownership of programmes.  The money for capacity building had been found from savings made by the treaty bodies.  For example, the Experts of the various Committees were working with less comfort with limited interpretation and other measures so that money could be saved and used to bolster national human rights mechanisms.  This process had been experimental, but now was the reality check and the 2020 review would have to decide if these measures had been useful. 

A Committee Expert said the Secretary-General had said that he had been able to solve the problem of the holding of the third session of the Committee in October, but had warned that 2020 would not be better than 2019 vis-à-vis the budget.  He said his concerns were not only about the treaty bodies but the whole United Nations system.  When money was received priority would be given to peacekeeping, and to replenishing the reserve fund which was now empty.

As for the question on examining individual communications in dual chambers, the cases were considered in dual chambers, but all cases were finally adopted by the plenary.  This gave the Committee the opportunity to catch up with the backlog, but in the end everything was adopted by the Committee as a whole. 

Concerning the calendar, an Expert said it currently did not offer the back-to-back feature.  It would also be important to get reaction from States on whether they were interested in back-to-back reviews.  Some States wanted to spread out reviews over different years, while others saw back-to-back reviews as beneficial.  It was premature for the Committee to adopt this as a permanent feature.  The issue of the consolidated reports had been adopted in the Chairs’ vision as an idea of going forward, but the Committee was not implementing it yet. 

Video conferencing was not optimized in all the treaty bodies.  The Human Rights Committee had used video conferencing in a handful of cases and apart from some glitches, this had worked pretty well.  At the same time, the Committee believed that exchanging views face to face with a delegation was important to ensure the dialogue, so it preferred not to deal with video conferencing.  It was open to discuss this.  Coordinating work to avoid overlapping was important as it would be good for the Committees to think together as a system.  It would good to avoid repeating questions.  Concerning the question of whether States that had opted for the simplified reporting procedure could opt out and return to the old reporting procedure, an Expert said this had not been discussed but it would probably be allowed.  With regard to the variety of sources of information, an Expert said the Committee received information from non-governmental organizations, media, and other United Nations bodies, and when they received it, they asked delegations about it and whether or not it was true, then the Committee made up its mind.  Another Expert noted that all information received from non-governmental organizations was published on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and States could consult it.

The Committee believed in working in complete objectivity, transparency and even handedness.  It followed the Addis Ababa guidelines and always sought to ensure its objectivity.  As for considering the comments by States on its draft General Comments, it considered them as far as possible, but the Committee had to have some balance in the responses and would be responsive to what the majority of States wished.  The calendar for was based on the existing reporting schedule, which would be followed for now. 

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