In June this year the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report setting out a series of recommendations for strengthening the treaty body system. Those recommendations were based on the outcomes of a series of consultations that had been held since late 2009, known informally as the ‘Dublin process’. Those consultations included participation by States, treaty body members, NGOs, NHRIs, and others. On the basis of the High Commissioner’s report, States parties, treaty bodies, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) were to coordinate with each other to reach decisions on which proposals to implement and how.
However, in February 2012, just two months prior to the High Commissioner issuing her report, the General Assembly launched a separate intergovernmental process on the treaty body strengthening. The fact that the intergovernmental process was set to start before the launch of the High Commissioner’s report, left the relationship between the two processes unclear. OHCHR held consultations with States in New York on 2 and 3 April in an effort to appease those that that felt states had not been sufficiently consulted in the Dublin process.
The High Commissioner’s report was eventually released at the end of June, following which the co-facilitators of the intergovernmental process held consultations on 2 July 2012 and again from 16-18 July 2012. The discussions amongst States at the General Assembly covered a range of issues including the idea of a comprehensive calendar, methods of work such as webcasting, individual communications procedures, and reprisals against defenders cooperating with the treaty bodies. One worrying element of the discussion was the unified front presented by a group of States calling themselves the cross-regional group (CRG) who had rather negative proposals. This group is composed of Belarus, Russia, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Cuba, Pakistan, Syria, and Venezuela. States supportive of the independence and strengthening of the system were less coordinated in response.
A further troubling aspect of this intergovernmental process is the inadequate provision made for non-State stakeholders in the process. This is in stark contrast to the broad consultations facilitated by OHCHR in the context of the Dublin process. The initial draft of the resolution setting up the intergovernmental process excluded NHRIs, treaty body members, and NGOs without ECOSOC status entirely. The final draft included these key stakeholders but limited their participation sharply. The resolution requested the President of the General Assembly (PGA) to work out ‘separate informal’ arrangements, ‘after consultation with member States’ that would allow treaty bodies, NHRIs, and ‘relevant’ NGOs to provide input and expertise ‘bearing in mind the intergovernmental nature of the process’.
Under this provision the two co-facilitators of the process, Iceland and Indonesia, announced on 26 July that civil society consultations would take place on 31 July, and that NGOs from Geneva would also be able to take part via videolink. This gave NGOs three working days to prepare for the consultations. Nevertheless NGOs were ready to deliver statements when the consultations were called off on the eve of the consultations. These consultations have now been rescheduled for Tuesday 4 September at 4pm Geneva time, 10am New York time. Regrettably, participation is limited to NGOs physically present in New York or Geneva. No provisions have been made to facilitate the participation of national and regional level NGOs in the process.
At the time of writing, it remains unclear how these consultations will feed into both the outcome of the intergovernmental process and the OHCHR-led process. This lack of clarity is compounded by the fact that no timeline has been set for concluding the intergovernmental process. At present the expected next step is a non-substantive report by the PGA with a ‘non-exhaustive list of issues for continued negotiations’, Following this, Member States of the General assembly will negotiate a resolution ‘rolling over’ the process to the next session of the General Assembly. Discussions will likely pick up again in New York in early 2013.
Heather Collister is a Human Rights Officer with the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva (www.ishr.ch).