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Opening address by the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights: Consultations with States on strengthening the treaty bodies 7-8 February 2012

7 February 2012

Distinguished Experts,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the High Commissioner, I am pleased to welcome you to this consultation for States on the treaty body strengthening process. The High Commissioner has asked me to convey her sincere regrets for not being able to be with you today. She is currently in New York for a meeting of Human Rights components of peace keeping operations.

This meeting, as you know, is the continuation of the Sion consultation for States which took place in May last year. It is organized at the request of a large number of States who required more time to continue the important discussions that took place there. A similar event will be organized in New York on 2 and 3 April 2012.

This consultation comes at a timely juncture, when the attention of States is increasingly drawn to the central importance of the treaty body system to the UN human rights programme. Your presence in strong numbers today reflects our shared commitment to preserving its integrity and strengthening its impact. As the High Commissioner has highlighted on several occasions, the role of States in this process is fundamental, not only because they are the creators of the treaty body system and the primary beneficiaries of its outputs, but also because States bear the responsibility of implementing those outputs: in other words, of ensuring that the system has an impact on rights-holders domestically.

Based on their legal commitments under human rights treaties, States parties report periodically and publicly to the treaty bodies, which assess the degree to which States are implementing their obligations. So designed, the reporting process should be on-going and dynamic; it must not be reduced to a mere formality or to a bureaucratic exercise. Moreover, it should involve broad-based participation at the national level. The periodicity of the reporting process is a crucial element in ensuring the effective protection and promotion of human rights around the world. Importantly, as a result of periodicity, there is automatically a follow-up function built-in to the process.

Likewise, the mandate of the treaty bodies to consider individual communications strengthens the protection of individuals, and the treaty body case law provides important guidance to States on how to implement their human rights obligations in concrete situations. Treaty bodies outputs - their recommendations, observations and general comments - constitute a useful feedback for States, provide a constructive advocacy tool for national human rights institutions and NGOs, and complement the inter-governmental peer review undertaken by the Human Rights Council under the UPR.

In fulfilling these important functions, the independence of the treaty bodies guarantees a non-selective approach to countries and an equal emphasis on all human rights. The treaty bodies’ expert and legal nature shields it from the risks of politicization. The accuracy, relevance and quality of the recommendations made by treaty bodies are crucial attributes that need to be maintained and enhanced so that they can be used effectively by all stakeholders to promote change at the national level.

It goes without saying that a weakened treaty body system would have a far-reaching, detrimental effect not only for its immediate beneficiaries but also for the entire UN human rights machinery, and indeed the global human rights movement, at a time when the need for a strong treaty system is getting stronger by the day.

Yet, today, that risk of weakening is very real. The system has reached its limits both in terms of coherence and sustainable functioning within currently available resources. At the heart of the matter is the expansion of the system, which has doubled in size since 2006, without corresponding increases in resources.

With respect to coherence, the increase in the number of treaty bodies and the resulting fragmentation of the system has prompted attention to the need for harmonization so as to achieve greater efficiency, accessibility and impact. Having said this, it is important to acknowledge that the treaty bodies have come a long way in moving away from working in silos towards thinking of a more holistic vision of their work. Harmonization of working methods has improved through the Inter-Committee Meetings and Annual Meetings of Chairpersons.

However, the harmonization endeavour, while essential, has limits in addressing the challenges posed by the growth of the treaty body system. No amount of harmonization would make up for the pressing and chronic need for additional resources; additional resources that must draw on the regular budget of the UN, given that treaty body functions are core mandated activities.

In short, the growth in volume and workloads has not been matched with adequate funding of the system: especially in terms of treaty body meeting time, documentation and staffing. We are all aware of the financial constraints facing the UN system, and indeed of the whole world. However, the fundamental principle of States accountability under international human rights law must not be compromised because of a lack of resources.

The open, transparent, bottom-up and participatory process launched by the High Commissioner in 2009 has involved all stakeholders concerned. It has concentrated minds and stimulated rich and serious discussions on critical issues related to the functioning of the treaty body system, its requirements, its impact and its future.

It is important to recall that this initiative is based on the mandate given to her by General Assembly in resolution 48/141 to “rationalize, adapt, strengthen and streamline the United Nations machinery in the field of human rights with a view to improving its efficiency and effectiveness”. The process is about “strengthening” rather than “reforming” the treaty body system, and does not envisage altering the legal parameters of the treaty body system. The process has unfolded in a spirit of transparency, technical soundness and inclusiveness, and with every expectation that towards the end of the process there will be an intergovernmental discussion and decision-making process. Such a process would embrace the multi-stakeholder approach of treaty body strengthening, respect the powers of the treaty bodies to decide for themselves their own working methods and rules of procedures, and uphold their independence.

Let us not lose sight of the larger objective for which the treaty body strengthening process is necessary: a robust and effective system of human rights protection and promotion. I am pleased to note that the current process has already produced positive engagement resulting in many interesting ideas, including the comprehensive Dublin II outcome document signed by all treaty body chairpersons in their individual capacity. I attended the meeting myself and was impressed with the depth of the discussions and the quality of the recommendations that could enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the treaty bodies. I am pleased to inform you that the Dublin II outcome document has just been endorsed by the CRC. Indeed, there is an emerging sense of a shared vision among the treaty bodies as being a part of the system for which they must strive to achieve an optimal level of harmonization in their methods of work.

On behalf of the High Commissioner, I would like also to thank States for the numerous written submissions received in the context of the treaty body strengthening process which will inform your discussions today. We have prepared a compilation which has been made available to you containing the most salient elements of the contributions received from State parties as of 1 February 2012. The original submissions can be found on the treaty body strengthening Webpage. I am pleased to note the increased number of submissions received during the last days which are rich, diverse and conducive to a serious discussion.

I look forward to your discussions and concrete recommendations over the next two days which will inform the report of the High Commissioner to be released in early summer of this year.

Distinguished delegates, allow me, before starting our first session on resources, to say few words of remembrance about Mr. Abdelfatah Amor, former member of the Human Rights Committee, whose sudden death last month left us all in deep sadness. Indeed, as we discuss treaty body resources, we should bear in mind that the most precious resources are the wisdom, integrity and commitment of the independent experts who serve as treaty body members. Mr Amor was among the most knowledgeable and respected human rights independent experts, whose contribution to both the special procedures and the treaty body systems will have a lasting effect for human rights.

Mr. Amor embodied the very essence of the treaty body system as a melting pot of the expertise and the universality of human rights. Through experts such as Mr. Amor, treaty bodies have been able to merge individual expertise from diverse cultures with universal standards to optimize the contribution of all cultures and civilizations to the protection of human rights. I was heartened to know about the last message OHCHR received from Mr. Amor few weeks ago. Despite his competing commitments, he was enthusiastically confirming his participation with us here today, for he was convinced that the system he served so well was in need of much greater attention and support. Mr. Amor is not with us today, but I trust that his message and commitment will inspire us so as to find solutions to the challenges before us today. Thank you