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Hears opening statement by the Director of Human Rights Treaties Division
6 August 2012

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this morning opened its eighty-first session, hearing an address by Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Committee also adopted its agenda and programme of work.

In his opening statement, Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, focused on the publication of the High Commissioner’s report on the strengthening of the treaty body system, and highlighted the proposals it contained, including one made by the Committee on establishing a joint working group on communications.  He summarized the outcomes of the recent twenty-fourth annual meeting of the Chairpersons of the Human Rights Treaty Bodies, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between 25 and 29 June 2012, and welcomed the day of thematic discussion on racist hate speech scheduled this session, which the High Commissioner considered to be very timely. 

In the ensuing discussion Committee members raised issues surrounding the treaty body strengthening process, such as the challenges of implementing the proposals, how best to coordinate on follow-up, the issue of reservations and the new ‘Addis Ababa guidelines’ on the independence and impartiality of treaty body members.  Mr. Salama responded to some of the comments, speaking about the legal issues surrounding follow-up and the responsibilities to ensure compliance, opinions expressed by States regarding the treaty body process, and eligibility regarding the ‘Addis Ababa guidelines’.

The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 7 August for an informal meeting with non-governmental organizations from Ecuador and Thailand.  At 3 p.m. tomorrow, the Committee will begin its review of the combined twentieth to twenty-second periodic report of Ecuador (CERD/C/ECU/20-22).

Opening Statement

IBRAHIM SALAMA, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, focused his address on treaty body strengthening, reminding the Committee that after almost three years of consultations with different actors, including treaty body experts, States parties, national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and United Nations entities, on 22 June 2012 the High Commissioner released her report on the strengthening of the treaty body system.  Mr. Salama drew the Committee’s attention to the inclusion by the High Commissioner in her report of its proposal to establish a joint working group on communications.  Other proposals included the establishment of a comprehensive reporting calendar that would ensure strict compliance with human rights treaties and the equal treatment of all States parties; measures to ensure the consistency of treaty body jurisprudence in relation to individual communications; measures to increase the accessibility and visibility of the treaty body system through webcasting public meetings and the use of other new technologies; a simplified reporting procedure to help States meet their reporting obligations; standardising interaction with non-governmental organizations; and appointing focal points to prevent reprisals against those who engaged with the treaty bodies. 

Mr. Salama then turned to the recent twenty-fourth annual meeting of the Chairpersons of the Human Rights Treaty Bodies, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between 25 and 29 June 2012, which was attended by the Committee’s Chairperson, Mr. Antonomov.  During the annual meeting the Chairpersons discussed the High Commissioner’s report, endorsed the vision it contained, and issued a Preliminary Statement welcoming the report.  A videoconference with two co-facilitators of the General Assembly process on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system was also convened.  A significant achievement of the meeting was the discussion and endorsement of guidelines on the independence and impartiality of treaty body members, termed the “Addis Ababa guidelines”.  The Chairpersons strongly recommended that treaty bodies promptly adopted those guidelines.   The Chairpersons also held a fruitful meeting with the African human rights mechanisms as well as stakeholders including United Nations agencies, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations. 

Finally, Mr. Salama referred to the Committee’s busy agenda for its forthcoming session, in which it would consider the implementation of the Convention in ten States parties.  It was also due to consider several country situations under the Committee’s early warning and urgent action procedure and a number of countries under the follow-up procedure as well as individual communications.  He spoke in particular about the day of thematic discussion on racist hate speech scheduled for Tuesday 28 August, which would include debate on the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred and incitement to hatred, and penalties applied by State parties.  The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights had actively taken up that issue in a series of regional workshops, and felt it was a very timely discussion. 

Dialogue with Committee Experts

ALEXEI AVTONOMOV, Committee Chairperson, said he thought the High Commissioner’s report on treaty body strengthening was a highly valuable document that would have many implications for the work of the Committee.  He asked Committee Experts for their thoughts and opinions on the process.

An Expert noted that there had been almost four years of discussion on treaty body strengthening and over 20 meetings and consultations on the issues involved, and said he was glad to see a general sense of satisfaction with the achievements made so far given the substantial amount of time dedicated to it.   However, he commented that in order to avoid the danger of ‘naval-gazing’ or being a ‘dog chasing its own tail’ the treaty bodies must carefully consider their next steps. 

Treaty body reform had now passed the point of no return, an Expert stated, saying the challenge was now best to implement the recommendations.  The competence and the independence of the treaty bodies must be affirmed, stressed another Expert, who also referred to the mention of single working groups on communications.  Some Committees – and some States – had objections to that proposal, and the Committee would be interested to hear who was objecting and what those objections were.  With regard to objections and input from States, the Expert asked, did that mean that only Experts from States that had ratified the Optional Protocols of the Human Rights Treaties could sit on those Committees?  He thought that should possibly be the case, in order to preserve confidentiality. 

Concerning the issue of follow-up, an Expert said that despite the huge number of time devoted to treaty-body strengthening, more reflection on how to improve follow-up was needed.  He recommended that the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights consider appointing a Follow-Up Coordinator to lead a system which linked all Committees to the High Commissioner.  He also raised the question of reservations, and said that treaty bodies needed to come up with some new ideas on how to coordinate in that area.  What was the status of eligibility of the new Addis Ababa guidelines?

Response by Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division

IBRAHIM SALAMA, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division replied to points raised by Committee Experts, in particular about the issue of follow-up.  He spoke about the legal issues related to follow-up.  The proposed reporting calendar would also deal with follow-up; once established it would hopefully provide an integrated structure for all of the Committees.  Turning to the question about eligibility regarding the Addis Ababa guidelines, Mr. Salama said issues of transparency, knowledge and any conflict of interest should be taken into consideration.  It was important that Experts were independent, but also that they were perceived to be independent, in order for their recommendations to carry more weight. 

Objections from States that had not ratified any Optional Protocol were a sensitive issue, Mr. Salama agreed.  The complex nature of that discussion made it difficult to talk about competencies, and Mr. Salama said he did not think States would appreciate being told that their contributions were not welcome if they had not ratified the Optional Protocols.  Some States felt like the treaty body strengthening process was overly dominated by Experts and non-governmental organizations, and that they only became a part of the process at a very late stage.  Some States also felt that the High Commissioner had too active a role in the treaty body strengthening process.  It was up to the treaty bodies to defend their system, and despite political reservations, many States recognized the fact that the treaty bodies provided balanced and objective findings on human rights issues. 

No reforms were cast in stone, Mr. Salama reminded the Committee, and changes were up to them to implement, in accordance with resources.  There was now time for the Committee members to consider the High Commissioner’s report amongst themselves.

Procedural Matters

ALEXEI AVTONOMOV, Committee Chairperson, warmly welcomed Committee Member Ms. Patricia Nozipho January-Bardill (South Africa) back to the Committee after her absence last session.  He also welcomed new members of the Secretariat.  

For use of the information media; not an official record