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Charting a new path for UN treaty bodies, with countries front and centre

Participants in the pilot initiative met in Freetown, Sierra Leone last week for three days of discussion and debates. (Credit: Dr Domenico Zipoli, GHRP)

Earlier this week we heard about a new initiative that is looking to address some of the flaws of the United Nations' treaty body system, which safeguards the world's human rights treaties.

The project piloted in Freetown, Sierra Leone, by the Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP) looked at how UN treaty body experts and national human rights actors can better work together and strengthen the process of human rights monitoring, implementation and follow-up.

We caught up with some of the participants to hear how things went.

Bringing treaty bodies to the field.

Despite new travel restrictions linked to Covid-19, the GHRP managed to convene government officials, independent state institutions and local rights groups in Freetown last week for the three-day in-country review of Sierra Leone’s human rights situation.

“Observing the national actors engaging with treaty bodies in a very relaxed manner has been very interesting, as have the extended debates about national issues really looking at what is most critical to national actors,” said Florence Simbiri Joako from the GHRP, speaking to Geneva Solutions from Freetown.

Experts from four treaty bodies attended the pilot both in-person and online to discuss outstanding recommendations on issues ranging from torture to gender equality, including discriminatory laws and women’s affordable access to health care, and children’s rights covering freedom from exploitation and abuse.

Communication between treaty bodies and national actors is often insufficient, leaving both sides in the dark regarding countries' human rights progress. Members of the treaty bodies also generally meet in Geneva, creating a gulf between themselves and the countries they are working with.

By bringing national actors and treaty body members together, the project provided an opportunity for national actors to ask questions regarding the recommendations and resolve certain issues that had been hampering progress – for example, regarding the country’s definition of torture – or misunderstandings of what should be reported and when.

A lively exchange.

Rights advocates were able to discuss their concerns with the government directly, while usually civil society and governments submit separate reports to the experts.

“We had discussions with a delegation from children's rights groups who were very impressive and precise about the things that need to be done with regard to sexual offenders, for example,” said Joako.

“Ordinarily if you are in Geneva, it's very likely that the government delegation will not give observers a say. But in this environment where we were all together, if people had something to say they were free to do so. That was eye-opening for me because usually it’s not like that.”

Understanding the reality on the ground

Treaty bodies working in silos – from each other as well as with governments and NGOs – is a key stumbling block of the current system. Participants explained the initiative gave the UN experts a chance to connect with the national context to better inform their recommendations.

“Our presence here at the national level was very useful in terms of enhancing the participation of the state party, and also, more importantly, the civil society, which ultimately is helpful to enhance the implementation of the treaty bodies,” explained Imeru Temerar Yigezu from the UN human rights committee.

“It’s helpful to look at the reality on the ground and understand the challenges that both the civil society and the state party face in trying to engage with the treaty body system, and some of the other burdens they face such as the lack of resources, especially in developing countries,” he added.

“[The national actors and CSOs] felt that we are now more accessible to them when present in the country, and they were very eager to learn from the process and to enhance their participation.”

The involvement of rights defenders in the process was particularly valuable. Alphonus Gbanie of the Human Rights Defenders Network Sierra Leone, who was present at the meeting, said the convening of organisations from a range of sectors such as children’s rights, women’s rights and justice gave them the chance to learn from each other as well as discuss the country’s most pressing issues with the treaty body members.

“For us as a network and as human rights defenders it was useful as it gave us the opportunity to have direct interaction with treaty bodies, bringing them closer to us,” said Gbanie.

“It helped us build a relationship, trust and confidence, and gave us the opportunity to continue engaging with them. Bringing them [to Sierra Leone] was also useful as it reduced the financial implications for members to travel from here to Geneva to engage with them.”

A blueprint for the future?

In the coming months, the GHRP platform, in partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat, will be trialling similar pilot focused reviews in a number of other countries to show how such a new procedure could strengthen and contextualise the treaty body system.

Although there is no plan to push for such a mechanism to be adopted at present, Gbanie said it would be invaluable for CSOs and all actors involved in the process if it were. 

“[The initiative] would be beneficial for CSOs if it were adopted,” said Gbanie. “You would see more participation from CSOs, and people finding ways and resources to come to the city to be part of the process rather than trying to find funds to get to Geneva. Very few of us have the chance to go to Geneva, so in-country focus reviews would give more opportunity for other CSOs to be part of the process.”