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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination holds informal meeting with States parties

18 February 2014

18 February 2014

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this afternoon held an informal meeting with States parties. The discussion included updates on new working methods and the latest general recommendations, on preventing racial discrimination against people of African descent, and on combating racist hate speech.

Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, Chairperson of the Committee, said that while the Committee was the oldest of the human rights treaty bodies it was often very innovative. He continued to support the idea of greater efficiency and coherence in the system of human rights treaty bodies. Cooperation with non-governmental organizations was perceived as crucial for the promotion of the implementation of the Convention. A major challenge was achieving greater gender balance in the Committee.

An Expert presented General Recommendation 34 on combating racial discrimination against people of African descent, adopted within the framework of the Decade of Persons of African Descent, which would begin in 2015. Special measures for people of African descent were encouraged, and it was requested that States parties collect desegregated data on their populations. The importance of self-monitoring and education were emphasized.

General Recommendation 35 on combating racist hate speech was introduced by another Expert, who stressed that comprehensive legislation on that matter in each States party was needed, as all cases of racist hate speech did not lead to same sanctions. Freedom of expression was recognized as being integral to the Convention. Only the most serious cases should be dealt with in a criminal context, whereas others should be given non-criminal responses.

In the ensuing discussion States parties expressed their appreciation for the chance to exchange views with the Committee, learn more about the new working methods and ask questions regarding to the reporting and examination procedures.

Guatemala, Brazil, Switzerland, Morocco, Peru, Uzbekistan, Uruguay, Tanzania, Mexico and Armenia took the floor in today’s meeting.

At 3 p.m. on Friday, 21 February, the Committee will hold a public meeting in which it will close the session, and issue concluding observations and recommendations on States reviewed during the session: Honduras, Montenegro, Belgium, Poland, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Statement by the Chairperson

JOSE FRANCISCO CALI TZAY, Chairperson of the Committee, said that the last informal meeting with States parties took place in August 2011 and provided an excellent opportunity for the exchange of views. The Committee had had additional meeting time, which meant it could consider between 11 and 12 reports per session. However, the Committee had now returned to three-week sessions, which meant a danger of backlogs again. There were 176 State parties, which meant that the workload of the Committee had increased.

The Committee continued to support the idea of greater efficiency and coherence in the system of human rights treaty bodies, said the Chairperson. The Committee was continuing to facilitate exchanges of opinion with the State parties, in order to lower the burden on the State parties. The Committee had received a resolution of the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which had outlined the strengthening of the treaty body system, and was being currently studied by the Committee.

Lists of issues were now being used to facilitate the dialogue between the Committee and the State parties, and provided for more focus in the course of the dialogue, the Chairperson said. That way, State parties did not need to prepare other reports and the Secretariat did not need to translate long responses into the United Nations official languages.

The Committee was working closely with a number of different organization and actors, including the International Labour Organization and ACNUR. National human rights institutions had made valuable contributions to the work of the Committee, which provided for an important monitoring and follow-up role. Cooperation with non-governmental organizations was perceived as crucial for the promotion of the implementation of the Convention.

A main challenge faced by the Committee was achieving greater gender balance. There were currently four female Committee members and State parties were encouraged to select more female candidates. Independence and impartiality of the Experts was of paramount importance, the Chairperson added.

The Committee asked for the State parties to help encourage those countries which had not yet signed and ratified the Convention to do so. The Committee also expected that the State parties would retract their reservations on particular articles and issues.

Working Methods

In the ensuing discussion an Expert briefed the State parties on the latest developments in the Committee’s working methods. The work had been done on guidelines on how reports should be prepared and submitted to the Committee. The Committee had particularly emphasized elements which were of importance for analysis and final observations. The maximum page limit for reports had been reduced to 40 pages.

The Committee’s relationship with the Human Rights Council had also developed; and live webcasting had been introduced, increasing the profile of the Committee’s work. During the previous thematic debate, a video conference had taken place with some State parties which could not have been present in Geneva.

The list of issues when the report was being discussed and final observations were both being streamlined and tightened. The list of issues was now a regular practice and its usefulness could now be evaluated. Before its introduction, the State party had been allowed to review its report between the moment the report was submitted and reviewed at the Committee. Responses were almost never available on time and rarely at all, and when presented, they were frequently too long and too technical, often going over 40 pages. With the list of issues, it represented a “golden thread” leading the dialogue between the Committee and the State party; the delegation was thus allowed to take into account recent developments when reporting. Most State parties were using the list of themes to provide their responses and sometimes even included the plan of their presentations.

Since the introduction of the list of issues in 2010, the Committee had examined 75 initial and periodic reports. Not only had the Committee’s work been made easier but a significant amount of money, an estimated US$2 million, which would have been spent on translation, had been saved.

The Expert explained in detail the way meetings with State parties were run, including timings for State party presentations, Rapporteur’s statements and interactive dialogue.

Concluding observations provided for the implementation of the Committee’s guidance. The work of the Committee, as the longest established treaty body, had become more refined over years, as it had come into contact with other treaty bodies. At the same time, the scope of the Convention had become more complex, as it had been highlighted by the Dublin Conference. The Committee had made every effort to make sure that its concluding observations were issued in due time and followed the same structure of other treaty bodies across the system.

There were usually around three recommendations on which States parties should focus on. They were brought to the attention of the Human Rights Council when the States parties in question were undergoing the Universal Periodic Review. The Committee was holding the States parties accountable to the implementation of its earlier concluding recommendations, which provided the basis for the following report.

The Committee, while the oldest, had often been very innovative. The Committee was continuously striving to improve its working methods and was looking forward to discussing those with States parties.

Discussion with States Parties

Guatemala commanded the Chairperson for his work in combatting racial discrimination and on the rights of indigenous people. It was the first time in the history of the Committee that an indigenous Expert had been its Chairperson. Guatemala was aware of budgetary constraints on the Committee. Guatemala was making every effort to present its reports in a timely fashion.

Brazil expressed the appreciation for the presentation of the Committee’s working methods, which it held in high regard. The Committee set an example to other treaty bodies. Brazil encouraged the Committee to continue its cooperation with States parties with regard to follow-up mechanisms.

Switzerland asked what the Committee thought of the new approach used by the Human Rights Committee, in having a list of issues prior to reporting.

An Expert answered that the Committee had considered drafting a list of questions prior to reporting, but the Committee had found out that it could not follow up that method of work. There were 16 reports for the ongoing year, and a number of States parties had already submitted their reports for the following year. It would be very difficult to introduce prior lists of questions as it was not usually known which States parties would submit reports and at what time. It was a practical issue, as the Committee did not have the time.

Another Expert added that soon the Committee would no longer be talking about the list of issues prior to reporting, but rather a new procedure which was being suggested by States parties regarding the work of all committees. The Committee had been the first one to establish follow-up procedures, which were operational and working well. Lists of questions were not prepared in advance, an Expert noted. The Committee always appreciated receiving reports indicating that its recommendations had been useful one way or another.

Another Expert agreed that some of the State parties had prepared their reports on the basis of the guidelines and concluding observations, which had led to an excessive length of some reports. He noted that the Committee’s dialogue with the State parties had become more interesting and interactive, which was something to be commended. The Committee counted on States parties to submit their reports in time and help it do its job efficiently.

The issue of States parties which could not represent their reports at the Committee, sometimes for the lack of resources, was raised by an Expert. He expressed hope that soon a solution would be found to that problem, which was of concern to all of the Committee Experts.

An Expert said that it was important for all State parties to bear in mind that each committee had its own practice, scope of work and methodology. The Convention was very much focused on one issue – combatting racial discrimination. The Committee had never had time to discuss the ideology of the Committee and the broader guidance. The Expert commented that the Committee’s recommendations often focused on preservations of cultures as they were, rather than racial discrimination per se.

Another Expert expressed appreciation for the trust that the States parties had put into the work of the Committee. The Committee’s working methods were coherent and were securing progressive implementation of the Convention. The Committee supported innovative approaches such as webcasting and sharing information with other human rights treaty bodies, and the Universal Periodic Review process. She said that further diversification of the Committee in the terms of gender would be welcomed, but the independence and impartiality of Experts had to remain the paramount criterion.

Morocco said the two largest problems the Committee faced were the delay or lack of submission of periodic reports by States parties, and obstacles related to financing. Morocco believed that there could be several reasons for that particular situation, including the lack of competent people in reporting States parties or the overwhelming burden of reporting to a number of treaty bodies. Morocco asked whether financial problems had indeed led to cancellation or shortening of certain sessions.

Peru expressed gratitude for the Committee’s guidance through the latest two General Recommendations, especially General Recommendation 34 on Racial discrimination against people of African descent.

Uzbekistan informed that it had acceded to the Convention in 1995, after which it had submitted a number of periodic reports, latest one just during the previous week. Uzbekistan had developed a system of involving all governmental bodies and civil sector in addressing the existing problems. Uzbekistan welcomed the innovative approaches used by the Committee.

An Expert explained that the Committee was financed from the regular budget of the organization of United Nations. There was now a solid legal basis on which the Committee was operating; the Expert reminded that the amendment to Article 8 of the Convention had been adopted in 2012. The Committee had managed to deal with the backlog, but was barely keeping with the workload, given the high number of State parties.

Financing was the largest concern of another Expert. It was very expensive to hold sessions in Geneva and New York - had anyone ever thought whether the work of the United Nations could be done in other places, he asked. Could reports be classified on the regional basis, so that Committee would go to certain regions and consider a number of State reports at that time, which would make it possible for more State parties to attend?

An Expert presented the General Recommendation 34 on racial discrimination against people of African descent. In July 2014, 50 years since the abolition of segregation in the United State would be marked, she said. Examples of discrimination against persons of African descent had been numerous in recent years, including in Italy, France and Brazil. Within the framework of the Decade of Persons of African Descent, the Committee had adopted the current recommendation. It highlighted the achievements made and pointed out at the close links between racism and poverty. Special measures for people of African descent were encouraged, and it was requested that State parties collect desegregated data on their populations. Importance of self-monitoring was emphasized, as well as education measures which State parties were asked to undertake. Recommendation 34 went hand in hand with Recommendation 35.

Uruguay said that since 2011 the discrimination of people of African descent had attracted the international attention. Uruguay had adopted particular policies to implement progressive policies for people of African descent, and had made improvements in the field of data collection.

Brazil welcomed General Recommendation 34, which provided an important source of work for the Decade starting in 2015. Affirmative action played an important role. Brazil had implemented a number of initiatives in addressing the situation of people of African descent.

Tanzania took the floor to expressed its support for the Committee’s work.

Mexico informed that it had set up an intra-institutional working group dealing with the implementation of the recommendations issued by the Committee. Mexico reiterated its clear commitment to the Convention, also through a multidimensional approach to combating racial discrimination.

An Expert welcomed the fact that Mexico had acknowledged the presence of people of African descent in the country and taken significant measures to improve their overall conditions.

Another Expert noted that progress made by some countries, such as Uruguay, in promoting the rights of people of African descent had to be recognized. It was positive that the issue of people of African descent had come to the fore of the international agenda.

An Expert presented General Recommendation 35 which was adopted in August 2013 on combating racist hate speech. Comprehensive legislation on that matter in each State party was needed, as all cases of racist hate speech did not lead to same sanctions. All of the cases had to be dealt with and should not be allowed to prevail by any means, in published text or online.

Another Expert added that the General Recommendation discussed the rights of freedom of expression throughout. It was recognized that the freedom of expression as being integral to the Convention. Racist speech was defined broadly, and it was specified that only the most serious cases had to be dealt with in a criminal context, whereas others should be given non-criminal responses. The position of the speech, the reach and the objective of the speech should also be taken into consideration by State parties when determining the gravity of fine.

Armenia welcomed the Recommendation, acknowledging that it was difficult to strike a balance between hate speech and freedom of expression. Did the Committee have in its arsenal any means to address the issues when high dignitaries, including Heads of States, were involved in hate speech?

An Expert said that the Committee had in the past examined cases of hate speech by political leaders and leaders of political parties. In some cases, the Committee had made direct recommendations to State parties in which the hate speech had occurred. The Committee was thus using its prerogatives when any such cases were brought to its attention.

Hate speech was ethno-religious in nature, which put “weapons” in the hands of the Committee to tackle the issue, an Expert commented. He continued to say that hate speech often times had effects beyond the borders of the State party, which was another reason the Committee was working hard to ensure that the perpetrators were punished in time, before a possible escalation.


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