In a new position paper, the chairpersons of the 10 United Nations human rights treaty bodies have shared their plans to increase the accessibility and efficiency of their work monitoring States’ implementation of their human rights treaty obligations. [OHCHR Press Release] Proposed changes include holding interactive dialogues with States in their own geographic regions (rather than in Geneva), conducting periodic reviews even when the State has failed to submit its report, making the simplified reporting process available to States for all reviews, and allowing civil society members to participate in briefings via video conference. See OHCHR, Treaty Body Chairpersons Position Paper on the future of the human rights treaty body system, July 2019. The position paper, adopted at the treaty bodies’ 31st annual meeting in New York, is the latest development in their ongoing efforts to implement the UN General Assembly Resolution 68/268 on Strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system. [OHCHR Press Release] These measures are a response to challenges facing the treaty bodies, including limited resources, a growing backlog of State reports and communications, lack of State compliance with recommendations, and varying working methods among treaty bodies.
The Position Paper
The measures agreed to at the 31st Meeting of the Chairpersons address three general aspects of the treaty bodies’ work: 1) aligning the working methods employed among the treaty bodies; 2) expanding the capacity of the treaty bodies to ensure the effective review of human rights situations included in their mandates; and, 3) conducting regionally-focused reviews of human rights situations. See OHCHR, Treaty Body Chairpersons Position Paper on the future of the human rights treaty body system, July 2019, 1-3. The chairpersons noted that these measures would also help improve interactions among States, stakeholders (including civil society and national human rights institutions), and the treaty bodies. See id. at 3. The three-page position paper does not go into detail, and does not address the budgeting needs or changes that the proposals might involve.
With respect to the alignment of working methods, the chairpersons spelled out a number of ways to standardize the treaty bodies’ procedures, including by:developing a standard list of issues prior to reporting (LOIPR) for each treaty body that accepts the simplified reporting procedure for initial State reports, limiting all LOIPRs to 25-30 questions, and coordinating the LOIPRs among the bodies to limit overlap of reviews conducted for overlapping time periods; adopting uniform procedures and deadlines for stakeholders to submit information and for scheduling meetings with stakeholders, including making video conferencing available for all private meetings; coordinating and standardizing reporting cycles; and standardizing and following the same general formats of dialogues that take place during the treaty bodies’ sessions in Geneva, concluding observations, and follow-up procedures. See id. at 1-2. With regard to reporting cycles, the paper indicates that the Human Rights Committee and Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will adopt a standard eight-year reporting cycle (instead of four years) and coordinate their review schedules. See id. at 1.
The measures to align the treaty bodies’ working methods also aim to increase coordination among treaty bodies to avoid duplicative work and implementing and adhering to specific timeframes for interactive dialogues with States. See id. at 1-3. Additionally, they aim to reduce the burden on States parties and stakeholders by ensuring that no State is reviewed by multiple treaty bodies without adequate time in between, allowing for the submission of a single consolidated report to the two Covenant bodies, facilitating video conferencing options, and making recommendations more clear and centered in their concluding observations. See id. Finally, the measures also aim to ensure human rights oversight continues in spite of States’ non-cooperation by agreeing to conduct reviews as required in the respective treaties, with or without State reports. See id. at 2.
In terms of increasing the treaty bodies’ capacity for review, the chairpersons note that because the committees cannot feasibly work more than three months a year, they should break into smaller groups, such as country teams, to divide the workload among treaty body members. See id. This would facilitate the review of 50 reports a year for the eight convention-based treaty bodies (dealing with specific issues or the rights of particular groups) and 25 reports per year for the two more broadly-focused covenant committees (the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). See id. 2-3.
Finally, the chairpersons’ position paper also states that treaty bodies willing to undertake dialogues with States outside of Geneva—where the treaty bodies’ currently hold their sessions—should do so on a pilot basis, with the goal of establishing a permanent regional review procedure. See id. at 3. As an example, the position paper notes that a Committee may adopt concluding observations as a whole, following the dispatch of a treaty body’s delegation to a region to conduct the interactive dialogue. See id. 3.
Again, the position paper does not provide further detail or information on how, specifically, some of these proposals would be defined or implemented. For example, it is not clear what it means to “align” the deadlines and schedules for civil society participation in reviews, or which treaty body’s practice will be adopted as the standard. And, the paper does not define the length of the “appropriate period” between different treaty body reviews for an individual State.
Efforts to improve and reform the human rights treaty bodies have been an ongoing process for decades. See OHCHR, Annual Meeting of Chairpersons of Human Rights Treaty Bodies. The General Assembly first called for a meeting of the chairpersons of the treaty bodies in 1983, and since 1995 these meetings have been conducted on an annual basis. See id. During their 31st annual meeting, the chairpersons held workshops and sessions focused on developing solutions to issues and obstacles faced in conducting the UN treaty bodies’ work, and held private consultations with civil society and national human rights institutions as well as public consultations with States parties. See Meeting of Chairpersons of Human Rights Treaty Bodies, Draft Programme of Work, 21 June 2019.
In 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 68/268 on “Strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system,” underscoring the need to offer and facilitate the use of the simplified reporting procedure, work toward the alignment of methodologies among the treaty bodies, improve time efficiency, and incorporate a variety of measures that allow for better regional service. See UN General Assembly, Strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system, A/RES/68/268, 21 April 2014, paras. 1-2, 5, 17. The Resolution also established a funding scheme to better allow the treaty bodies to complete their work, and included a number of recommendations aimed at improving the treaty bodies’ transparency through the implementation of clear and accessible election policies. See id. at paras. 9-13, 27-28.
The United Nations human rights treaty bodies are committees of experts created to monitor governments’ implementation of the UN human rights treaties. See IJRC, UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies. The 10 human rights treaty bodies undertake a large portion of the oversight and development of international human rights law, and they each cover a specified area of human rights protection under their respective treaties. See id. The committees include: the Human Rights Committee; the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; the Committee Against Torture; the Committee on Migrant Workers; the Committee on Enforced Disappearances; the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; the Committee on the Rights of the Child; the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. See id.
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