Sunday, January 18, 2015

Key takeaway points from Wilton Park Conference

Wiston House at Wilton Park, West Sussex, England
I attended the Wilton Park Conference on Treaty Body Strengthening held this week.  About 60 participated, from 28 countries, coming from governments, treaty bodies, the UN Human Rights Treaty Division staff, academics and NGOs.  The discussion was lively. The facilities were stately. And the environment was picturesque. What a beautiful setting within which to have this discussion.  Thanks also to the financial support of the conference by the governments of Norway and Switzerland.

The purpose of the conference was to exchange views and challenge our thinking on the human rights treaty body system. What should be the next steps? How can we improve the protection of rights holders and the compliance of governments with their human rights treaty responsibilities?  Where are the present gaps in the system?

All views expressed were for non-attribution, so that a free flow of ideas could result.

Here are some of my key takeaway points from the conference:

  • GA resolution. Many of the measures recommended in last year's UN General Assembly resolution 68/268 have already been implemented or are well on their way, including expansion of the treaty body meeting time from 72 weeks to 95 weeks in 2015. This expansion has required a major reshuffling of the treaty body calendar.  It now means that at least two treaty bodies are in session at virtually every point during the year.  
  • Not enough. Assuming the measures adopted in last year's GA resolution will put the treaty body system on a stable, sustainable footing for the foreseeable future would be seriously underestimating the challenges the system faces. We need to start thinking now about how the future will affect the capacity of the system and finding ways to meet those pressures. 
  • Paradox. Yet radical transformation of the treaty body system takes time and probably needs a crisis to trigger its consideration. The paradox is that we need a crisis to make such a radical shift, but we will not have the time to do so once the crisis is upon us.  How do we solve this problem?
  • Implementation. The implementation topic is an especially complex one. How do we get more attention on implementation of treaty body recommendations without drawing too much time away from other core responsibilities of the treaty bodies? Some participants also believe the treaty bodies should not be the primary actor who monitors compliance; if not, who then and how?  I think most of us think that the follow up procedures adopted by some of the treaty bodies whereby certain recommendations are flagged for special followup within one year, has been a good development.  But measuring its success and spreading the best practices of the procedure to each of the treaty bodies is a challenge. Also, has this development in some ways drawn attention away from the broader implementation topic -- tracking to make sure that each state party has responded to and implemented each of the prior recommendations of the treaty body, not just the ones specially flagged in the follow up process.  Also, follow up to individual case decisions is critical; but this information tends to get lost in the overflow of information in the system.  How many judgements of the treaty bodies where violations by a state have been found and a remedy required, actually been implemented by the state concerned? How do we track this information and put the appropriate pressure on states to comply with these responsibilities?
  • Awareness. Promoting better public awareness of the treaty body system is another difficult challenge. More and better social media, webcasting and media outreach were all discussed. I tend to think that webcasting especially, will be the entry point to most new awareness of the system.  We should be prepared for this opportunity and make sure as webcasting becomes more available that information links provide the necessary basic information about the treaty body system.  But the public awareness topic needs some serious brainstorming and planning, in order to make the treaty body system better known to the public at large. 
  • Migration. Migration is a special problem.  The Committee on Migrant Workers is in danger of becoming irrelevant in the system. The Convention has been in effect for 25 years, since 1990. Yet this treaty has the smallest number of ratifications, at 47 with no new ratifications received in 2014 (only the Committee on Disappearances has fewer ratifications, but that treaty has just gotten started and is only 3 behind, at 44).  The Migrant Workers Convention has poor reporting compliance. Only two state reports were received during all of 2014. It has an individual complaint mechanism that has still not come into force because of lack of ratifications (it needs 10, it has only 2).  When we think of the treaty body system failing we usually think of work overload; in fact the more near term failure might be part of the system that is being ignored, underworked. If one part of the system fails, can it have a knock on effect to the next weakest link, and then the next, and so on? If state parties who do not wish to comply with their reporting and implementation obligations see that one treaty body has failed from lack of use, doesn't it become easier to choose to disengage from other treaty bodies?  I believe this makes the migrant workers convention especially important to focus on, and to make sure it becomes a healthy part of the treaty body system. Strengthening a system must include strengthening its weakest parts, not just addressing its capacity issues. There is a critical need for more ratifications and better compliance with state reporting requirements. Other ways to make the CMW more relevant in the system as a whole should also be explored, like joint general comments, more NGO involvement, and more publicity efforts. 
  • Individual complaints. Individual complaints is another topic that tends to get overlooked when we look at the existing system.  The GA resolution had very little to say about this part of the system. Some problems with the handling of such complaints also surfaced in the discussions at this conference and should be examined more fully. The numbers of complaints submitted are relatively small compared to other aspects of the system, about 100 complaints per year with the majority of those going to the Human Rights Committee. Yet now we have 8 of the 10 treaty bodies with a complaint mechanism in effect.  If there is a sudden uptick in the numbers of individual complaints how will the treaty body system handle them? 
  • Going back to old ideas too. Brushing off old ideas and rethinking them makes sense at this juncture too. Prior proposals from the Dublin process, prior high commissioner proposals, and other ideas that surfaced in the most recent round of treaty body strengthening discussions which did not make their way into the GA resolution. 
  • TB Chairs. The leadership role of the treaty body chairs was noted by several participants. They have emerged in the last couple of years as a positive force in the system. They were a very important influence on the final results in the GA resolution. The question becomes how to institutionalise that leadership in a positive way that adds value to the system.
  • Harmonisation. How far should efforts to harmonise practices between the treaty bodies go?  Do the treaty bodies themselves believe in harmonisation? These questions were raised a number of times in various discussions at the conference, without any clear answers emerging. It seems it is a difficult issue to grapple with in the abstract, but also in the specifics. A balance of diversity and alignment would seem to be called for, but how to orchestrate the balance? And how to recognise when we have reached the right balance? 


These are just a few takeaways that I had after attending the conference. Thanks to the sponsors who invited me and thanks to all who participated for the rich discussion. It was a very thought provoking and enriching experience. Now, onward to action!

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