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Strengthening the Treaty Bodies, guardians of the world's human rights covenants and treaties

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Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Excellencies,

Let me start by thanking the President of the General Assembly and the two co-facilitators for the review of the UN human rights treaty body system – the Permanent Representatives of Morocco and Switzerland – for convening this important and timely consultation. 

Human rights treaties constitute the legal basis of a wide portion of the work of the United Nations. From human rights-based development work, to action to protect people everywhere from climate crisis and efforts to prevent and mitigate  the harms generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, these are the pillars that mark our shared and agreed normative foundations as we face global and local challenges around the world.

To function best, these pillars need their own guardians – and this is the critical role of human rights treaty bodies. For decades, independent treaty body experts, supported by my Office, have provided victims an essential space for seeking justice and remedy, and offered Member States key recommendations and guidance on steps that Member States should implement to improve the enjoyment of human rights for all people in their countries, and ultimately how to best enhance more stable and inclusive societies.

This work by treaty bodies has been invaluable. It has guided legal reforms in countries in every region, across every aspect of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development. It has helped Member States to remedy violations suffered by hundreds of individual victims. The careful expert scrutiny and detailed recommendations produced during country reviews have inspired policies and programmes that have benefited countless people. Such recommendations are also widely used and cross-referenced in the work of the UN, including other human rights mechanisms.

We are here to find ways to strengthen this system as it confronts a range of challenges.  

The scope, complexity and resulting workload of the treaty body system have grown vastly, as existing treaties and their protocols have attracted additional ratifications, and as new treaties have been introduced. But resources allocated to treaty bodies have not kept pace with this expansion of the system and corresponding workload, widening the gap between expectations on the ground and our ability to meet them.

It is crucial to take steps to safeguard the accessibility and impact of this invaluable system. General Assembly Resolution 68/268 represented a milestone in this respect. It served as a catalyst for the harmonization of the treaty bodies' working methods; encouraged simplified procedures, and better reporting compliance; provided an objective basis for calculation of resource needs; and introduced a new capacity building programme.

Today, six years after the adoption of Resolution 68/268, it is time to take stock of successes and challenges in its implementation, and consider necessary adaptation in light of lessons learned. I am pleased that the Permanent Representatives of Switzerland and Morocco have agreed to take on a leading role as co-facilitators of the 2020 review process.

While this review is an inter-governmental process, it should be transparent and inclusive, taking into account the recommendations of other key stakeholders – including the treaty bodies themselves; UN agencies; national human rights institutions; and civil society. The decision-making process will also benefit from including expertise from both Geneva and New York – and the current requirement of on-line dialogue can contribute to the review's inclusion of many voices. 
Today's event represents the formal launch of the 2020 review, but we are not starting from zero. A wealth of information, analysis and proposals are at our disposal, produced by Member States, treaty bodies, NGOs, academic experts, my Office and others. These include the vision agreed by the Treaty Body Chairs in June 2019 as well as important comments and proposals made by Member States.

Many of these preparatory proposals share some key conclusions, and I want to highlight a few crucial points from my own perspective:

  • There is no need to reopen treaties. The treaty body strengthening we seek can and should be advanced within the present normative framework.
  • Resolution 68/268 remains directly relevant. It addresses key challenges that treaty bodies face, including the accessibility, predictability and coherence of the system. There are recommendations to adapt, complement or update the balance struck of Resolution 68/268, but its content continues to serve as a key point of reference.
  • Many steps to improve the system can be taken by treaty bodiesthemselves. Some steps have already been taken: several treaty bodies have begun coordinating lists of issues; expanding simplified reporting procedures; and holding regional dialogues. Other innovations to address shortcomings of the system need to be reinforced and resourced. A case in point is the planned introduction of a predictable review cycle by the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Such review cycles would not only make treaty body calendars easier to navigate; they would also mean that all States Parties – not only those that submit reports – are regularly reviewed. 
  • Better digital tools are needed to strengthen the accessibility of treaty bodies. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the related cancellation of recent in-person treaty body sessions, underscore our need to find new ways to advance the work of treaty bodies on-line at the present, while addressing the need for interpretation, and other challenges. This is also an opportunity for reassessing where digital tools can and will add value to the treaty bodies’ work. The continued suspension of treaty bodies’ work would be deeply harmful to human rights work – and to its millions of beneficiaries around the world. Virtual exchanges cannot substitute for all in-person work. Yet, shifting to more digital work, in certain circumstances, could deliver more direct contact with civil society and government officials. It could also result in on-line case management and other long-term gains in effectiveness. These possibilities warrant careful reflection.
  • An open and transparent, merit-based process for the election of treaty body candidates is essential to achieve a diverse membership that meets the highest criteria of professionalism and independence. Proposals include setting up national competitive selection process or any other independent vetting process, such as a shared, and possibly on-line, platform to present treaty body candidates. I welcome all efforts to set the bar high for membership of such important bodies.
  • Finally, treaty bodies need sufficient and regular budget resources and adequate staffing, based on their real workload and all mandated activities. The proposed predictable review cycles would enable a forward-looking formula for the allocation of resources. As you explore various ideas in the coming weeks and months, I trust that their resource implications will be fully taken into account.

Excellencies,

Today's pandemic starkly demonstrates the importance of human rights reforms in building resilient societies. COVID-19 finds and exploits the gaps in upholding human rights which make communities and societies more vulnerable to its harms. This review process is an opportunity to strengthen the key protective pillars that are guideposts towards safer and less unequal societies. With many creative, promising elements on the table, I look forward to your contributions.

Thank you.