Body Building: Supporting Treaty Bodies at Headquarters

24 May

This past Wednesday afternoon at UN headquarters, there was (for me at least) a truly remarkable sight — the chairs of the human rights treaty bodies seated on the dais preparing to hold consultations with the 20 or so non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that gathered to consult with them.

Though GAPW (in consultation with other human rights groups especially the International Federation of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture) only covers three of the treaty bodies (Human Rights Committee, Committee against Torture, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) we have long believed that the full complement of treaty bodies represent the lifeblood of the UN system.  Despite severe resource challenges, the indifference of some diplomatic missions, and the hesitancy of some states to fulfill their human rights obligations, Committee sessions represent some of the few venues in the UN system where independent experts can directly and actively examine state conduct on key aspects and constituencies related to the UN human rights agenda – women, torture, children, refugees and much more.

This session followed one earlier in the day chaired by Ambassador Gunnarsdottir of Iceland and Ambassador Percaya of Indonesia who have consulted on and off with civil society groups and other stakeholders, mostly in New York and Geneva, regarding the most effective ways for the UN to select Committee members and for the Committees themselves to discharge their diverse responsibilities. Their responses to NGO comments, many of which are included in their “Way Forward” documents, were not always hopeful, citing the need to balance “budget savings and capacity reforms.”  These documents, largely intended for states, contain insights partially noted in a report issued in April 2013 and are available here.

Some of those commenting NGOs, including Amnesty International and Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, have provided important guidance to Committee members on a variety of matters related to working methods, including strategies for maintaining the independence of members not only from state pressure but pressure from Secretariat offices and NGOs as well. While there is a general expectation, especially from the civil society side, that human rights are indivisible and must be upheld without reservation, many NGOs recognize that Committee members must be given significant leverage in the discharging of their responsibilities, including how they interpret state reports, the line of inquiry they pursue in formal Committee meetings, the ways in which they engage and incorporate testimony from local and international civil society groups, and how follow-up recommendations are crafted and pursued.

Such leverage is essential for several reasons, including preservation of the integrity of the investigative and interrogation processes, but also because Committee members along with diplomats and others involved with the promotion and protection of human rights must make judgment calls about how hard and far they can push states given limitations of time, available resources, and the will of states to honestly pursue improvements in human rights practices.  As anyone who has participated in Fifth Committee discussions knows well, there are many parts of the UN system clamoring for additional allocations from the regular UN budget.   Not all requests are granted and even fewer are granted in full.  And NGOs like ours are not always as sensitive as we might be to the political and fiscal tradeoffs that shadow the work of all aspects of the UN system, including the Committees.  While keeping a proper eye on the goal of universal adherence to human rights principles, we can do more to understand, appreciate and weigh in on the best ways to navigate these trade-offs, some of which require that we know more about related processes and issues than we generally care to know.

There is at least one other thing that we can do more of to help promote the Committees and communicate (though not always support) the difficult trade-offs that in part define their roles. In our view, the limitations noted above point to another, potentially fruitful dimension of NGO engagement, one that is complementary to discussions about integrated calendars, the frequency of reporting, the way in which Committee members are selected, and the best means of engaging civil society testimony.

As a number of readers of this blog recognize, GAPW engages a broad organizational mission that stresses the inter-relationships between security issues and seeks common engagement on core UN concerns – including human rights – by diverse stakeholders.    Our work highlights the gender implications of atrocity crime prevention, the security dimensions of development policy, the impact of illicit weapons on internally displaced persons, and other ‘cross-over’ concerns.

We, of course, are not alone in seeking complementary engagements.  It is important to many of our other partners that our discussions with diplomatic missions and other policymakers span a wide range of concerns – from UN media policy reform to reparations for victims of state-sponsored sexual abuse.  Diplomats, especially in the smaller missions, have to juggle what seems to be an endless stream of policies and the resolutions and treaties that seek to rationalize and bind our responses to them.   Diplomats need help juggling at times and can often receive that help from NGOs that are sufficiently attentive to their contexts and frames of policy reference.

One of those frames must have more to do with the treaty bodies, an indispensable UN contribution to which many diplomats pay less attention to than they probably should.   It is critical, while NGOs work to impact the diverse policy agendas of the missions, that Permanent Representatives and others are encouraged to receive regular updates on the issues, needs and challenges of Committee members – not only their expectations of state conduct but what is needed to ensure a robust engagement on the rights which the Committees do so much to uphold.

Those of us who regularly weigh in with missions on issues such as the arms trade, the Responsibility to Protect norm , nuclear disarmament and the dual obligations to promote women’s full participation and end impunity for gender violence can do more in those (and other) contexts to promote the essential work and testimony of the treaty bodies. We can, from our diverse organizational vantage points, insist that states engage more robustly with this vital and fundamental obligation to the entire community of states, an obligation that is essential to the integrity of the UN system and to the maintenance of trust worldwide.

The UN’s work in so many diverse fields intersects with both the policy and promise of the treaty bodies.   We all have a responsibility to build their capacity and enhance their reputation.  We urge Committee members to reflect more with us on their successes and frustrations and to also share more about their capacity needs in enhancing state practices with respect to their human rights obligations.   For our part, we need to recognize more fully the treaty bodies as a significant focus of organizational outreach and intent, even  if the term ‘human rights’ does not appear on our letterhead or in our organizational mission statement.

 

–Dr. Robert Zuber

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