COMMITTEE AGAINST TORTURE OPENS FOURTY-NINTH SESSION
Hears Address by the Director of the Human Rights Division, Adopts Agenda and Discusses Organizational and Other Matters
29 October 2012
The Committee against Torture this morning opened its forty-ninth session, hearing an address by the Director of the Human Rights Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, adopting its agenda and programme of work, and discussing organizational and other matters.
Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the increase in the number of treaty bodies had never been matched by a proportionate increase in resources from the General Assembly. In addition, the morose financial reality had resulted in an ongoing decrease in voluntary contributions to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. For the Treaties Division, which relied on extra-budgetary funds to pay for one-third of its staff, these cuts directly impacted its ability to support the work of the Committee against Torture.
Mr. Salama said it was in this difficult context that the Committee had requested the General Assembly to provide it with the necessary means to continue to meet for four weeks for the next two years. If this additional meeting time was granted without the corresponding resources, it would be very difficult, not to say not possible, to provide the Committee with the secretariat assistance provided to date.
Claudio Grossman, Chairperson of the Committee against Torture, agreed that this was a moment of great tension. At a meeting with the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Ban had expressed strong political support for the treaty bodies and their important work. In terms of economic space, however, Mr. Ban had indicated that there was not much space for support, to put it mildly.
When the Committee next meets in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 30 October, it will take up the sixth periodic report of Peru (CAT/C/PER/6).
Statement by the Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division
IBRAHIM SALAMA, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in his opening address, said that the Committee was all too aware of the challenges that the treaty body system faced. The growth of the system, due to the increase in the number of treaty bodies, had never been matched by a proportionate increase in resources from the General Assembly. This situation had placed strains on the Committee and all the other Committees, as well as the secretariat. In addition, the growth of the system had resulted in a variety of working methods and practices, in turn threatening the accessibility of the system to individuals, States and civil society alike.
In response to this, the High Commissioner had issued a report on treaty body strengthening in June, building on the three-year consultation process in which the Committee had been so closely involved. Mr. Salama understood that the Committee would review the report during this session and would discuss its recommendations in light of the Committee’s own methods of work. To assist in this endeavour, the secretariat had prepared a table to record their implementation and the progress made. Mr. Salama encouraged the Committee to reflect on the way it would follow-up on the recommendations to treaty bodies and to adopt a statement of findings, as appropriate.
Since the publication of the report, the annual meeting of Chairpersons had examined and endorsed the Addis Ababa guidelines on the independence and impartiality of treaty body experts. The guidelines provided a common standard for treaty body experts with a view to protecting and strengthening one of the pillars of the treaty body system – the independence of experts. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Committee on the Rights of the Child had already adopted the guidelines in their entirety, and other Committees were also considering them. Mr. Salama encouraged the Committee against Torture to also examine the guidelines and move swiftly in this session to adopt them.
Turning to the current global economic environment, Mr. Salama noted that the morose financial reality had resulted in an ongoing decrease in voluntary contributions to the Office, which had not left treaty bodies untouched. The budgetary constraints had already translated into a 7.5 per cent cut across the board of all extra-budgetary resources in 2012. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was now preparing a further 15 per cent cut for extra-budgetary resources in 2013.
For the Treaties Division, which relied on extra-budgetary funds to pay for one-third of its staff, these cuts directly impacted their ability to support the work of the Committee against Torture. While the Office had so far managed to avoid any cuts to fixed-term staff, it had unfortunately not been able to continue a temporary staff member who had been hired to assist this Committee with the additional weeks of meetings over the last two years. The Office sought the active collaboration of the Committee so that its work could continue to make a difference. In this context, the Committee was encouraged to examine the list of issues prior to reporting procedure with a view to simplifying it.
It was in this difficult context that the Committee had requested the General Assembly to provide it with the necessary means to continue to meet for four weeks for the next two years. Mr. Salama said that he was sure that the Committee Chairperson would brief the Committee on the discussion he had in this regard in New York last week, when he addressed the Third Committee together with the Special Rapporteurs on Torture and the Chairperson of the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture. If this additional meeting time was granted to the Committee without the corresponding resources, that is, without any resources for additional staff to support its work, it would be very difficult, not to say not possible, to provide the Committee with the secretariat assistance that the Office had been able to give the Committee up to now.
As far as the Committee’s work on General Comments was concerned, Mr. Salama looked forward to the adoption of the third General Comment this session, focusing on article 14 of the Convention. He believed this General Comment would provide invaluable assistance to States in defining their obligations and constituted important progress towards the better protection of the rights of victims. The importance of General Comments should not be underestimated. Only recently the report of the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic had made reference to the Committee’s Comment number 2.
As the Committee was about to embark on another busy four-week session, Mr. Salama wished it all the best in implementing its heavy schedule.
Questions to the Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division
CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Chairperson of the Committee against Torture, agreed that this was a moment of great tension. At a meeting with the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Ban had expressed strong political support for the treaty bodies and their important work. In terms of economic space, however, Mr. Ban had indicated that there was not much space for support, to put it mildly.
Another Expert said this was the first time she heard that the Treaties Division relied on extra-budgetary funds to pay for one-third of its staff. She would appreciate it if further information on this subject could be provided.
The Expert commended the Office of the High Commissioner for encouraging States to have national consultation mechanisms. This was long overdue and very positive. She hoped that the Committee would commend the High Commissioner for this initiative.
Turning to the issue of reprisals, which was mentioned in the report on strengthening treaty bodies, an Expert indicated that the Committee had not kept a register of reprisals, but it would hopefully establish a mechanism for doing so in the course of this meeting. Could Mr. Salama therefore elaborate on whether other such mechanisms existed in the human rights system, what the results had been, and whether there were focal points for this subject? In this regard, the Committee Chairperson wondered whether the discussion of the Human Rights Council on reprisals had resulted in any follow-up.
A Committee member noted that a meeting on the universal mechanism and regional mechanisms for the protection of human rights was scheduled for early December. As a member of the universal mechanism, it would be helpful for the Committee to know more about the agenda of the meeting, and what was expected of it.
An Expert said there were many non-budgetary challenges facing the treaty body system, and she would be pleased to hear more about Mr. Salama’s viewpoint on these challenges. As for the work undertaken by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, could Mr. Salama comment on what would happen in that regard?
The Committee Chairperson highlighted again that it would be of great value if the Committee against Torture and the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture could meet at the same location once a year.
Response by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Responding to these and other questions, Mr. Salama said that the occurrence of reprisals was positive in the sense that it showed that the work of the Committee was taken seriously. And, indeed, it was important to learn from other experiences.
Another member of the Office added that reprisals were not always well-addressed and well-recorded. An annual report of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly referred to some cases of reprisals in the work of the treaty body system. Different options could be taken, taking into account the priorities of the victims, including action through United Nations presence in the country. The Office would be happy to follow-up on this with the Committee. Other Committees were discussing measures to identify and record reprisals.
The most important question was whether the challenges facing the Committee were only financial. Indeed they were not – there were a host of other challenges. The non-financial challenges were related to what the treaty bodies could do themselves. He saw the beginning of a movement to break out of the very limited terrain of each Committee; treaty bodies must see themselves as an integrated system.
To tackle the financial challenges, it was important to consolidate and strengthen the role of Chairpersons. Committees were far weaker when approaching budget-relevant United Nations bodies sporadically and individually, rather than bringing to bear their joint weight.
In response to the request for further information about the funding of the Treaties Division, Mr. Salama confirmed that additional information would be provided. At its heart, this issue showed the vulnerability of the Office of the High Commissioner in general. Another member of the Office added that it would indeed be desirable that treaty bodies were only funded through regular funding, and this was currently being discussed in New York.
Mr. Salama said he was not sure how strong the efforts had been for the Committee against Torture and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to meet at the same location. However, he thought about the question along the lines of Chairpersons assuming more responsibility. He suggested to examine how hard this had been attempted and how much value it could bring. This idea should be pursued.
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