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Opening address by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for the Treaty body strengtheningConsultation for States parties

2 April 2012

Distinguished Experts,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to welcome you to this consultation for States on the treaty body strengthening process.

In 2009, I called upon all stakeholders to initiate a process of reflection on ways to strengthen the treaty body system. I did so, based on the mandate given to me by General Assembly 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 ultimate objective of this process is to improve the impact of treaty bodies on rights-holders and duty-bearers at the national level by strengthening their work while fully respecting their independence.

As a first step, the process sought to heighten awareness among all stakeholders of the challenges the system is facing. In this context, I have attempted to highlight the importance of viewing treaty bodies as a system.
The process also sought to bring gradual improvements and harmonization of working methods both by the treaty bodies and by OHCHR in its support for their work.

The process aimed at securing the necessary resources to support the work of the treaty bodies. In the face of the current financial challenges, it also sought to identify cost saving possibilities. In this context, I wish to underline that the approach of “absorbing new mandates within existing resources” is simply not sustainable and impacts negatively on human rights protection.

I realize with great satisfaction that we have come a long way on these different fronts:

First, a weakened treaty body system would have a far-reaching, detrimental effect not only for its immediate beneficiaries but also for the entire United Nations human rights machinery, including the inter-governmental assessment by the Human Rights Council of all States’ human rights record, that is, the Universal Periodic Review, as well as the global human rights movement. Your presence in strong numbers today reflects our shared commitment to preserving the integrity of the treaty body system and to strengthening its impact.

Second, as I have highlighted on several occasions, the role of States in this process is fundamental. States are the creators of the treaty body system and the primary beneficiaries of its work. They bear the responsibility of implementing the substantive provisions of human rights treaties and ensuring that the system has an impact on rights-holders at the national level.

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, a burden or a bureaucratic exercise.

Moreover, it should involve broad-based participation at the national level both in the preparation of reports and in follow-up to recommendations. Respect for the periodicity of the reporting process is a crucial element in ensuring the effective protection and promotion of human rights around the world. Importantly, strict reporting compliance enables follow-up action to become an automatic feature of the process.

Treaty body recommendations, observations and general comments constitute useful implementation guidance tools for States, provide a constructive advocacy platform for national human rights institutions and civil society, and build a strong substantive basis for the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review.

Likewise, the mandate of the treaty bodies to consider individual communications strengthens the protection of individuals.

In fulfilling these important functions, the independence of the treaty bodies guarantees a non-selective approach 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.

I also believe that the treaty body strengthening process has increased awareness as to the challenges the system faces, namely, the fact that the treaty body system has reached its limits both in terms of coherence and sustainable functioning. At the heart of the matter is the recent expansion of the system, which has doubled in size since 2006.

Lastly, attention to the need for harmonization so as to achieve greater efficiency, accessibility and impact has been heightened. Certainly, the treaty bodies have progressively acquired a more holistic vision of their work. Due to normative specificities, however, the harmonization endeavor in and of itself cannot address the full range of challenges posed by the growth of the treaty body system.

Yet, as discussions over the past two and a half years have emphasized, funding resources for the system lag behind the expansion and increasing workload of treaty bodies. This shortfall has a direct impact on their meeting time, documentation and staffing needs. Resources for the treaty bodies should be adequate to the task they have been mandated to fulfill and should be drawn from the regular budget of the United Nations, given that treaty body functions are core mandated activities.

We are all aware of the financial constraints currently facing the United Nations 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 consistent under-resourcing of the treaty body system over many years has reached a juncture where the status quo cannot be sustained and failure to confront the issue poses a threat to the long-term future of the system. Any enforcement mechanism which can only survive by tolerating a seventy percent rate of non-compliance is unsustainable. The issue of appropriate financial resources to sustain the system remains crucial.

The question is how to overcome the impasse between dwindling financial resources on the one hand and sustainability of treaty bodies on the other. In short: where do we go from here?

Allow me to recall that the treaty body strengthening process benefitted from some twenty consultations that took place around the world among different actors, including treaty bodies’ experts, States, national human rights institutions, civil society and United Nations entities. The outcomes of these consultations as well as written submissions have been compiled in a list of emerging and diverse proposals which has been made public and are available on treaty body strengthening page on OHCHR website.

The treaty bodies themselves have contributed many interesting ideas, including through the comprehensive Dublin II outcome document which was signed by all treaty body chairpersons in their individual capacity. The Deputy High Commissioner attended the Dublin meeting where the document was finalized and told me how impressed she was with the depth of the discussions and the quality of the recommendations. Many of the recommendations could enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the treaty bodies.

The New York consultation with States, along with the earlier event in Geneva on 7 and 8 February 2012, was organized at the request of a large number of States who requested more time to continue the important discussions initiated in Sion (Switzerland) in May last year. I hope that this consultation will build on the discussions that took place earlier in Geneva and will move the process forward.

The treaty body strengthening process has thus 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.

The process has aimed at “strengthening” rather than “reforming” the treaty body system. Altering the legal parameters of the treaty body system has never been envisaged. And it has unfolded in a spirit of transparency, technical soundness and inclusiveness, and with every expectation that, towards the end of the process, there would be an intergovernmental discussion and decision-making.

Such an inter-governmental process should embrace a multi-stakeholder approach, respect the powers of the treaty bodies to decide on their own working methods and rules of procedures, and uphold their independence.

In these times of both new challenges and positive developments for human rights across the world, strengthening the treaty body system is undoubtedly a common goal for all States. I trust that your deliberations under the guidance of the President of the General Assembly can reach positive conclusions this year, based on all inputs and suggestions developed and debated during the past two and a half years, including my comprehensive report, which I will release in early June 2012.

I would like to reiterate that my report will rely on the key proposals that have emerged from the consultative phase, including the proposed comprehensive calendar, webcasting of public meetings and use of other new technologies, limitation of length of documentation, maximising the constructive dialogue, implementation and follow-up of treaty body recommendations and individual communications, the independence of members and strengthening the election process. Each segment of the report will address recommendations to concerned stakeholders, namely treaty bodies, States, national human rights institutions, civil society and United Nations entities as appropriate.

One of the main emerging proposals is the comprehensive reporting calendar based on 100 percent compliance with the reporting obligations established in the treaties. The proposal simply translates these legal obligations into a practical structure, based on the principle that all States parties should undertake their reporting obligations on time and that the treaty bodies should have all the resources they need to discharge their mandates efficiently and effectively. The proposal addresses comprehensively the challenges of non-reporting by States, backlogs and ad hoc requests for meeting time – all issues about which the Third Committee has expressed concern – without altering the system as set out in the treaties. I believe the enhanced accountability that this would bring would more than justify the necessary financial investment in the system that this implies. A presentation is foreseen later this morning by one of my colleagues on how such a calendar could be made to work.

Your commitment to human rights and your discussions in Sion, Geneva and now New York, will contribute to the elaboration of my report. In turn, this report will offer a solid basis for informed decision-making. In June, we will take an important additional step together. I count on your full support in reaching our common goal to achieve an adequately resourced and increasingly effective human rights treaty body system.

I wish you a fruitful discussion. Thank you.