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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

High Commissioner opening statementInformal meeting of Chairs of treaty bodies,On-line meeting, 2-5 June 2020, 12.30-13.00

02 June 2020

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It is a pleasure to address you today, and have the possibility to exchange on-line, as part of our new reality of continuing our work, but in full safety.

I hope that you and your families are well in these challenging times and would like to thank you at the outset for your commitment in continuing to implement your mandates flexibly but effectively in the current circumstances, with the strategic aim of preventing any human rights protection gap.

Many treaty bodies have demonstrated extraordinary capacity to produce high-quality work from a distance, including insightful advice and recommendations on how to address human rights implications of the COVID-19 crisis. In exercising my own functions, I have valued the perspectives that you have advanced. The need to continue to monitor situations and provide guidance to States will remain as relevant as ever, and the role of treaty bodies will continue to be vital in the post-COVID-19 world that we are moving towards.

All aspects of our lives and livelihoods have been impacted, from the way technology has transformed our world, to greater inequalities being reinforced especially for those who were already vulnerable, to recognition of irreplaceable role of Governments to deal with the challenges of the pandemic and its aftermath.

This is the second time in a short period that chairs’ get together in an informal setting to exchange on the way forward in view of the current COVID-19 situation.

I am very much aware of the challenges we are all facing to fully discharge your Committees’ mandate as explained in the letter of 22 May 2020 from the Chair of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. That letter identified a number of challenges, including the provision of simultaneous interpretation, time difference constraints in your countries of residence, the technical challenges of the on-line platform used and confidentiality issues, accessibility for persons with disabilities, and internet connectivity issues in your respective countries. I would like to assure you that the UN is working hard to update its on-line platforms so as to be able to better provide simultaneous interpretation and accessibility features for persons with disabilities.

I have consistently maintained that the COVID-19 crisis, in addition to the many challenges it poses for us, also opens a window of opportunity to rethink and expand our methods of work for greater impact on the ground. The current crisis can be a catalyst to include new tools in our work and better outreach to constituencies that would otherwise not engage directly with the human rights mechanisms. For example, there was a very poignant on-line testimony from a victim of enforced disappearance that spoke out during the recent on-line meeting of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. I understand that it is already the practice of some Committees to hold exchanges through video conference to ensure the participation of victims and grass-roots civil society actors in their work.

The necessity of on-line work at the present time is pushing us all to modernize the way we work in the long term. Of course, virtual exchanges cannot substitute for all in-person work. But it does open new opportunities for reassessing where it can and will add value. During your discussions, I would therefore encourage you to consider what innovations may be possible – even necessary - to enable more comprehensive digital work and how we can ensure the continuity of dialogue with States Parties in these extraordinary circumstances. We fully agree that on-line work should not be seen merely as a cost-cutting measure in the longer term, but as an additional tool that can complement in-person Committee meetings. 

My Office and its Treaty Bodies Branch are your partners in achieving that goal. Different sections of the Branch have recently had on-line retreats to explore how we can better pursue our work, including through a digital shift that, rather than distancing treaty bodies from rights holders, enhances accessibility and visibility of your crucial human rights work. We hope to share our colleagues’ conclusions and suggestions with you very soon.

Creative thinking and innovation are needed to address the immediate risk of protection gaps and to strengthen longer-term working methods.

In the area of petitions and urgent actions work, COVID-19 has brought to the fore less visible parts of the petitions’ “iceberg” as it were. Pre-existing challenges with the procedures being heavily paper-based have been cast in sharp relief. On the other hand, much of the petitions and urgent action work has always been pursued outside the formal treaty body sessions themselves, so it is a good time to review internally how this work is carried out on sound technological grounds to expand our horizon of innovation.

In this regard, there have been a number of efforts to explore a digital shift of the petitions procedures to move beyond overreliance on paper-based files and to ensure impact and efficiency gains through appropriate IT tools, possibly including through a dedicated Treaty Body fundraising proposal in the longer-term. However, short to medium-term measures are now urgently needed to equip the Section with the most basic IT infrastructure on the way to a more comprehensive digital shift.

This afternoon I will participate in the official virtual launch with the President of the General Assembly and his appointed co-facilitators, the Ambassadors of Morocco and Switzerland to the UN in New York, of the 2020 review. Another virtual meeting is being planned on the 4th of June at the expert level where you will also have the possibility to participate to set out your vision of how the treaty body system needs to evolve.

The work of the human rights treaty bodies is the bedrock of our work. You translate legal norms into concrete measures and steps that States should implement to improve the enjoyment of human rights for all people. Such implementations contribute towards the implementation of the SDGs and other commitments in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Nonetheless, the United Nations financial crisis is still hitting us all, with weak prospects of improvement. Please be assured that the Secretary-General and I will continue doing our utmost to avoid or mitigate the financial crisis' impact on your work. We will continue to seek to demonstrate both the impact of our work and the necessary agility to make sure that treaty bodies receive their share of the required resources to be effective.

The Chairs’ vision, which is acknowledged by the Secretary-General in his report on the status of the treaty body system, should not remain simply that - a vision.

Fine-tuning your vision in the form of concrete adjustments both of your working methods and of the GA’s support to your work is a strategic priority for your discussions this week. This would positively enhance the treaty body practice. Enhanced coordination, expansion of the Simplified Reporting Procedure and predictable calendars by the two Covenants are also being launched.

The first regional dialogues were likewise held recently. We need to reinforce these steps and seek support, both political and financial, from States, including in the context of 2020. To do that, the more concrete you are in turning your vision to concrete action and specific needs the better our likelihood of lasting successes.

I would also encourage you to interpret your vision through the lessons learned during the last months of extraordinary circumstances. When business as usual is no longer an option, the forces of creativity and innovation that are unleashed can result in permanently anchored progress.

Thank you.