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UN human rights treaty monitoring reform update: promising OHCHR proposals now to be acted upon by the General Assembly (and the EU)

Published on July 20, 2012        Author: 

John Morijn, PhD (EUI (Law)) is senior human rights adviser, Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations and assistant professor of human rights law, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author only, and do not in any way reflect the position of the Dutch government.

A while back I reported on discussions that were (re)started in 2009 about how to revamp the way in which UN human rights treaty monitoring functions. About three years into this debate the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has now published her own long-awaited report. It contains a number of very valuable proposals that, if implemented as a package, would constitute a great leap forward. The report is an admirable piece of work by the High Commissioner and her Office. Yet it also still leaves one or two things to be ironed out and explicated in the process leading up to the likely adoption of a General Assembly resolution. It is therefore important to keep up the pressure. It is also crucial to alert the European Union, which only very recently proudly adopted its Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, that it is now time to practice what is has been preaching for decades and put its money where the mouth is. In particular, footing part of the reasonable bill that will come with strengthening the existing UN human rights monitoring system in line with the High Commissioner’s proposals would seem a natural and desirable move for the EU, simply because it would be fully in line with many of its internal and external policy objectives (and therefore a rather economical way to pursue its enlightened self-interest).

Having learnt from earlier mistakes made by her Office – previous multi-faceted proposals to reform the way in which treaty monitoring functions got to be reduced and identified only with a (perfectly reasonable yet rather far-reaching, and therefore easily criticised) idea to merge the various treaty bodies – the High Commissioner this time took a smart approach. She explicitly presented the report as a ‘compilation’ of ideas tabled by others ‘to identify synergies, linkages and mutual reinforcements’. The selection criteria she used were that, apart from actually strengthening the treaty bodies’ mission to enhance promotion and protection of human rights, the proposals should a) respect the treaties and do not require amendments, b) have been proposed by more than one contributor to the debate and be likely to generate agreement, and c) be compatible with and make for a coherent package with other proposals. This approach has the admirable effect of front-loading and side-lining expected criticism in one move, leaving space for a strategic pick-and-choose among the very numerous proposals tabled.

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New Discussions on UN Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Reform: Using the Momentum while Acknowledging Financial and Political Realities

Published on January 5, 2012        Author: 

John Morijn, PhD (EUI (Law)) is senior human rights adviser, Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations and assistant professor of human rights law, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Views expressed in this post, based on ‘Reforming United Nations Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Reform, Netherlands International Law Review, LVIII: 295-333, 2011 and further inspired by discussions during the Maastricht University seminar about UN treaty body reform in November 2011, are strictly those of the author only, and do not in any way reflect the position of the Dutch government. E-mail: j.morijn {at} rug(.)nl

Initiatives to rationalise UN human rights treaty monitoring, although simmering already for decades, have witnessed a new dynamism over the last five years. In 2006, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a policy paper about this issue. It came to be identified with (and subsequently reduced to) its proposal to streamline human rights treaty monitoring by merging all existing treaty bodies and creating a permanent unified standing expert body. This idea was widely rejected as too radical by members of existing treaty bodies and most other observers.  In 2009 the OHCHR re-launched the debate, slightly rewording the exercise (and therefore, implicitly, perhaps also its rationale) from ‘treaty body reform’ to ‘treaty body strengthening process.’ On this basis consultations have now taken place amongst academics, treaty body members, NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions, and various sets of recommendations and proposals for reform have been published. After two more early 2012 consultation sessions with States, which have so far been rather silent (seemingly focusing their energies on the less binding Universal Periodic Review-mechanism, recently green-lighting its second cycle as of 2012), the OHCHR is expected to propose, by the end of 2012, a new set of measures to alter the modus operandi of UN human rights treaty monitoring.

Notwithstanding the fact that a great many institutions and NGOs have offered input and made proposals in these consultations, there is an uncomfortable sense that the OHCHR will have little to work with if its aim is the drafting a set of realistic proposals that will actually help this human rights protection method move forward in a sustainable way. Most proposals tabled (for a useful summary see this OHCHR overview) boil down to measures and activities that treaty bodies or the OHCHR Secretariat should take up in addition to their current (overburdened) workload. This is accompanied, moreover, by a noted lack of corresponding proposals regarding what activities now carried out in the context of treaty monitoring should be re-organised, re-considered or simply discontinued.

This is striking even for a well-willing and ‘human rights friendly’ observer. Firstly, because 10 treaty bodies running 10 periodic reporting cycles in parallel, whatever the origin of this state of affairs, seems to be rather a parody of a transparent and efficient process. Secondly, and quite apart from the question of whether keeping intact the system as it currently stands is actually such a good idea (see below), it is more immediately hard to gauge how this status quo-leaning approach to ‘strengthening’ can be squared with the realities that the budget for treaty monitoring (which is already completely insufficient for the way the system is currently run) will very likely not be increased by States in the current economic and political climate. Therefore, if we want to avoid losing the momentum for revamping human rights treaty monitoring yet again, creative ideas that keep costs essentially stable but harness its added value and increase its impact are urgently needed. In this post the functioning of human rights treaty monitoring, and implemented and proposed measures to strengthen it, will first be briefly outlined, in particular highlighting apparent institutional and international level biases. Second, some reform proposals will be tabled that would fall within the parameters of current realities.  Given the importance of human rights treaty monitoring it is hoped that this post will generate some reactions and provide the OHCHR with much-needed additional input in drafting its proposals by the end of this year.

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Filed under: EJIL Analysis, Human Rights
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