The 11th Inter Committee meeting of the UN human rights treaty bodies met June 28-30, 2010 in Geneva. This year for the first time, the companion chairpersons meeting took place in Brussels instead of Geneva, a practice that will apparently be taken up every other year in future years (the chairpersons will meet in Geneva one year, and then in a regional hub city the following year).
The Inter Committee meeting (ICM) presents an opportunity for members of each of the present 9 treaty bodies to share experiences and discuss reforms and improvements. Non governmental organizations (NGOs) and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are also invited to participate in some parts of the meeting. The organization of these meetings is undergoing change, with several important developments in the past year.
Among the developments this year:
- The next meeting date will be scheduled for January 2011 instead of December 2010, as previously indicated (the exact dates are not yet known). This will technically be a working group of the ICM, not the full ICM group. The discussion will focus on a single topic rather than many topics as in the past. The single agenda item will be how the treaty bodies can improve the followup and implementation aspects of their work -- in other words, how can they encourage states to implement the treaty body recommendations when a state report is heard or an individual case is decided. NGOs and NHRIs are welcome to participate. This should be an important session -- both because of the importance of the topic (implementation is one of the highest priorities for improvement in the system) and the debut of this new format.
- Both the Committee Against Torture and the Human Rights Committee are now experimenting with a different format for reviewing state reports. Rather than ask the state concerned to submit a report every 4-5 years that covers all topics in the relevant human rights treaty, a list of issues or questions is prepared by the Committee first and the state is requested to focus its report on those topic areas. The idea has some promise, permitting a more focussed debate on human rights issues that matter most in a country, rather than have the state issue a general report that often spends more time touting achievements than admitting or tackling concerns. It also has potential for reducing the mountain of paperwork that has become the standard procedure under the existing state reporting exercise. However, it is not yet clear how interested NGOs and NHRIs can participate effectively in such a changed procedure. I hope to take up this topic in more detail in a future post.
- More discussions occurred again this year on the harmonization of working methods between treaty bodies. Each treaty body has developed in isolation concerning many of its day to day working methods. It has led to a cacophony of different requirements for those who interact with the treaty bodies. One treaty body requests input on lists of issues, others don't. Some reveal the identity of the lead committee member who will take overall responsibility for the drafting of the Committee's recommendations and examination of the state report in the public session; others do not reveal the identify of this "country rapporteur." Some committees conduct a rapid fire Q&A session; others take long blocks of time to ask a series of questions that pile up over an hour or two, after which the state is given a large block of time to answer the questions. This has meant that the "look and feel" of the treaty body experience is very different from committee to committee. It is a difficult nut to crack -- since there is a history and a reason why each committee does it the way they do. Trying to harmonize, without losing the individual identities and particularities of each committee's work, has been difficult. One size doesn't fit all. But needless differences should be removed if possible, to make the treaty body system more effective and less mysterious. The Secretariat has prepared a good overview of some of the key differences that still exist between committees (see document HRI/ICM/2010/2 of 10 May 2010) and some of this material was discussed at this year's ICM. The idea of "herding cats" sort of comes to mind when watching how this subject has played out over the last several of years in the treaty body meetings.
- Treaty body reform initiatives are again in the air and came under some discussion at this meeting. The "Dublin Statement on the Process of Strengthening of the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Body System" was issued in November 2009, and was signed by many of the existing and prior treaty body members. It seems clear that there will be a number of different conferences and discussions over the next year or two on the subject of treaty body reform. I know NGOs are planning to produce a collaborative document commenting on the Dublin Statement and suggesting reform initiatives that would improve the treaty body system from the point of view of the victims and intended beneficiaries of the system. The Dublin Statement was not compiled as an official UN document, but was organized by the University of Nottingham's Human Rights Law Centre. It's a good initiative and will hopefully give all stakeholders an opportunity to reflect and discuss the subject of reform, with the hope of accomplishing something constructive from the process.