Next steps for improving human rights compliance and protection
19 January, 2015
The UN’s human rights treaties are key components of the international human rights framework. In recent years, there have been concerted efforts within and outside the UN to strengthen the functioning of the monitoring bodies of these treaties, resulting in the UN General Assembly’s adoption in April 2014 of a resolution detailing specific action. Building on this momentum, our conference identified the continuing challenges and opportunities, generating a wealth of ideas for potential next steps.
Strengthening the UN human rights treaty monitoring system: what are the next steps?
Wednesday 14 – Friday 16 January 2015
The 11th annual conference in our series of UN related human rights meetings, sponsored by the Norwegian and Swiss Governments, ended last week with a strong menu of ideas for next steps in strengthening the UN human rights treaty body system.
Bringing together representatives of nine of the ten UN human rights treaty bodies – the 10th, the Committee on the Rights of the Child is currently holding one of its annual sessions in Geneva – a range of governments, staff from the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), academic experts and non-governmental organisations, the meeting aimed to:
- Take stock of developments following the resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in April 2014 on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system;
- Identify what outstanding issues need to be addressed, and how this could be done;
- Examine how to achieve greater compliance by States Parties to their treaty obligations, for the protection of rights holders, and remedy of violations of their rights.
Among key issues discussed were:
Composition of the treaty monitoring bodies: treaty monitoring bodies should be demonstrably independent and impartial, with members of integrity. The process for seeking candidates for membership of treaty monitoring bodies should be open and transparent. OHCHR could produce a manual of good practice in this respect. Elections for the monitoring bodies should not be determined by ‘inter-governmental trading’ but based on the requirements for and eligibility of candidates, with platforms for evaluating the appropriateness of candidates. NGOs could be part of this process of determining eligibility. Once a member of a treaty monitoring body, members should exercise self-regulation, and abstain from engagement in issues where a conflict of interest may exist – in accordance with the Addis Ababa Principles.
Visibility: the work of human rights treaty monitoring bodies is generally not well known among the constituencies they serve, in particular, the victims of human rights and other rights-holders. States Parties to treaties should have a website showing the treaties to which they adhere, treaty bodies themselves could promote their work more through social, and other, media, including webcasting – on which a start is being made – to involve actors at the national level.
Connectivity: the recommendations of the treaty monitoring bodies need to be integrated into the work of other mechanisms of the UN human rights architecture, as well as the wider UN, and better coordinated with regional human rights organisations. Within the UN human rights system, better coordination should be achieved with human rights institutions or mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review, and the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteurs. At the national level, the UN country teams need to integrate the treaty bodies’ recommendations within their country work. The deployment of dedicated human rights capacity building officers to the field, as well as the post-2015 development agenda and the Rights Up Front initiative provide major opportunities for mainstreaming the findings of human rights treaty monitoring bodies.
Individual communications on human rights violations could be dealt with in a more coherent and efficient manner. There is a strong argument for all individual complaints to treaty bodies to be dealt with by one team. The UN might usefully look at how the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) manages cases, and explore the possibility of seconding UN staff dealing with individual communications to the ECHR registry. The opportunity for greater dialogue, and understanding, between government agents, counsel for victims, and the secretariat of the UN dealing with individual complaints should be encouraged. A meeting to explore these issues should be organised.
National mechanisms for coordinating with treaty monitoring bodies, and overseeing implementation at the national level, could be beneficial. Such mechanisms could be responsible for all reporting obligations, respond to individual complaints, and establish and execute modalities in government for engagement with civil society. Longer term, such bodies could institutionalise oversight of treaty obligations, encourage States Parties to develop National Action Plans on Human Rights, contribute to awareness raising, and provide a focal point, not only for the treaty monitoring bodies but for domestic stakeholders.
Reprisals: rights-holders need to have access to and engage with treaty monitoring bodies. In some instances, States Parties are preventing this through intimidation and reprisals. There needs to be concerted action on the part of treaty monitoring bodies, and other governments, to counter this. Governments need to be held accountable.
The General Assembly resolution of 2014 has bought time for the treaty monitoring system, rather than a long-term and sustainable solution. Many argue there is a remaining need to ‘think big’. The question arises as to who will lead a continuing strengthening and reform process. Some suggest it is the responsibility of OHCHR. Arguably, however, as has been demonstrated by developments in recent years, there needs to be an ongoing multi-stakeholder process. The experience in reaching consensus over the General Assembly resolution in 2014 has shown that there is a political will to proceed in this way.
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