Pilot project brings UN human rights treaty bodies from Geneva to the field

Credit: Domenico Zipoli

The United Nations’ treaty bodies are the so-called guardians of the world’s human rights treaties. From protecting children’s rights to eliminating racial discrimination and torture, they make sure that states do not stray from their legal obligations and are putting the treaties into practice.

But the 50 year-old system has been hampered by challenges and inefficiencies, sparking calls for radical reform and several reviews by the UN into how to make it more effective.

Long gaps between countries' reporting cycles, backlogs of recommendations and the fact that states are often late in submitting their reports or do not report at all means that years can pass without any proper follow-up to the recommendations issued. A new pilot project hopes to address this.

The initiative being trialled by the Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP) – a project of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in partnership with the human rights unit of the Commonwealth secretariat – is looking at how UN treaty body experts and national human rights actors can better work together to strengthen the process of human rights monitoring, implementation and follow-up.

Bursting the Geneva bubble. One of the main tasks of the independent experts that sit on the treaty body committees is to carry out periodic reviews to ensure countries are following the treaties. This complex process means engaging in dialogues with state delegations and also receiving input from national human rights institutions and civil society organisations before issuing recommendations. There are currently ten treaty bodies that conduct the process largely from Geneva. This in itself poses problems.

“With the UN being based in Geneva, there are often challenges for small states with smaller capacities to engage with as many stakeholders as possible during the review process,” explained Dr. Domenico Zipoli from the GHRP, speaking to Geneva Solutions from Freetown in Sierra Leone where the initiative was being trialled last week.

“When you think of least developed countries and small island developing states, or countries in the global south more generally having to travel the whole world for a six-hour review, the costs that can incur are substantial,” added Yashasvi Nain of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Zipoli and Nain are part of a team that travelled out to Freetown last week for the three-day pilot project, despite concerns that new Covid travel restrictions could derail their trip.

They were joined there by 25 officials from Sierra Leone’s government, four representatives from independent state institutions and 15 representatives of national civil society organisations, along with members and former members of four UN treaty bodies. Representatives from the UN country team and OHCHR also took part as observers.

“Reporting often places a heavy burden on state parties, particularly on small states,” explained Dr Shavana Haythornthwaite, head of the human rights unit of the Commonwealth.

“Some of the main challenges that small states face when engaging with the treaty body reporting process often relate to coordination issues between various ministries and state agencies, as well as capacity constraints. Such in-country focused review can help to address some of these challenges.”

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Participants in the pilot met in Freetown, Sierra Leone last week. (Credit: Domenico Zipoli)

“Having these reviews in Geneva means many national stakeholders are either required to attend online or cannot attend,” he added. “So it’s not just about including the government, but also all those important stakeholders that make the treaty body system an open and independent review of human rights standards and practices in any one country.”

The pilot initiative aims to bring UN treaty body members closer to the countries they are working with to help inform their recommendations.

“It is important for treaty body members to visit these countries, learn what problems these countries are facing, and hear from local civil society organisations who cannot often attend the sessions in Geneva,” he explained. “So the treaty body members get imbued in the context which can facilitate more context-savvy recommendations in the long run, while the process also facilitates access to the treaty body system and promotes it in the country and the region.”

Representatives of four treaty bodies attended the pilot in Freetown this week, all acting in a personal capacity. A member of the Human Rights Committee (HRC) and a former member of the Committee Against Torture (CAT) attended in person, while one expert from the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and a former member of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) joined discussion virtually.

Treaty bodies working in silos is another of the key stumbling blocks ingrained in the current system, which prompted the GHRP and the Commonwealth Secretariat to convene representatives from a number of different bodies to foster collaboration.

The rights experts met with government representatives, independent state institutions and national civil society organisations for three days to receive updates on the implementation of a number of specific outstanding recommendations for Sierra Leone. The civil society segment was co-organised with the support of the CCPR Centre and the Geneva-based coalition TB-Net.

The recommendations covered rights related to the prohibition of torture, gender equality, including discriminatory laws and women’s affordable access to health care, and children’s rights covering freedom from exploitation and abuse.

A blueprint for the future? “From a state perspective, the number of recommendations that come in are many and have to be fulfilled in a short period of time,” explained Zipoli.

“The recommendations can also lack awareness of local sensibilities. And we hope that by having treaty body members find the time to be in the country and to exchange updates with local stakeholders and seeing the reality on the ground, these recommendations can become more context aware.”

These pilot focused reviews could help at a national level mitigate these issues. The GHRP, in partnership with the Human Rights Unit of the Commonwealth Secretariat, is putting the idea to the test in a number of other countries in 2022, Covid restrictions permitting.

“We are trying to mirror the official procedures that are taking place in Geneva,” explained Felix Kirchmeier, executive director of the GHRP.

“The widest participation possible and the concept of leaving no one behind is really a crucial aspect of the focused review, and we think that despite the different capacities of different national human rights actors, they should all be able to interact as much as possible with the treaty body system. To be able to have a face to face meeting in a country may strengthen the independent, thorough monitoring of human rights standards.”

Geneva Solutions will catch up with participants in the pilot from Freetown in the second part of this article series to hear how it went.