Archive for Institute for the Study of Human Rights

Reflections on the UN Human Rights Committee: 40 Years of Practice

by Ido Dembin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On January 24, Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted a discussion on the role and impact of the UN Human Rights Committee with David Kretzmer, an Israeli expert in international and constitutional law. Kretzmer served as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, including a two-year term as its vice-chairperson.

The discussion with Kretzmer focused on the evolution of the UN Human Rights Committee since its establishment 40 years ago. Having personally served on the committee, Kretzmer offered distinctive lessons on how the committee’s role and perception by other actors such as nation states, NGOs and individuals— as well as its self-perception— have changed.

He began the discussion by emphasizing the historic background of the committee: The UN Human Rights Committee is a treaty body comprised of 18 renowned experts from across the world who meet three times a year for three to four week sessions to consider reports submitted by no less than 169 states on their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee also considers any individual petitions concerning 116 states parties to the Optional Protocol. It is one of ten UN Human Rights bodies responsible for overseeing implementation of particular treaties.

Kretzmer emphasized the decade-long debate at the heart of the committee’s work regarding its actual role and scope of its mandate. For many years, the committee’s role was unclear, and its mandate to investigate states’ actions and commitments to the covenant’s ideals was undetermined, even overlooked, to avoid causing unrest among member states. With the committee established at the height of the Cold War in 1977, its work was further obstructed by members from the Soviet bloc. As the discussion at Columbia noted, the underlying message in the early days was that the committee should refrain from criticism of states and serve mainly as a means of constructive dialogue between committee members and representatives of states.

David Kretzmer, an Israeli expert in international and constitutional law, speaks to students during a discussion on the role and impact of the UN Human Rights Committee. // Michelle Chouinard

This meant the committee was a place of “friendly relations among nations,” Kretzmer told RightsViews. The committee was not allowed to use any information pertaining to human rights maintenance or violation other than the information submitted in states parties’ reports. In other words, so long as a country did not voluntarily report its own wrongdoings, the committee was largely toothless in examining, reprimanding or even recommending changes to its policies.

Furthermore, all decisions within the committee had to be decided by consensus, rather than by a vote. This reality was true for most of the first 23 years of the committee’s existence. Since the end of the Cold War, the unwritten rules that once limited the committee so heavily have changed in rapid fashion.

The committee began to shift from being a mere scene of “friendly relations” to becoming more informed, less limited and thus more able to actually monitor compliance with the Covenant under which it was established. It began receiving, for example, information regarding states’ behavior, mainly from NGOs— a phenomenon that became central to human rights advocacy in the 1990s onwards. Furthermore, political differences, while surely still felt, had changed: they weren’t Cold War-inspired and centric anymore. The committee could now finally arrive at concluding observations regarding a state’s compliance with the covenant.

The discussion also emphasized the differences between the committee and the better known, perhaps even controversial, Human Rights Council (which replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006). The later, a political rather than professional body, is a charter-based mechanism where states can debate human rights concerns. Kretzmer stressed the differences between the two bodies, their work and subsequent reputation during the discussion, emphasizing the need for better balance in the way the two bodies interact. Kretzmer hinted at some criticism of the council with regard to its failure to deny membership to nation states known for serial and consistent violations of human rights.

Before concluding, Kretzmer addressed further issues raised by members of the audience, such as the role of international and national courts and other legal institutions, the global effort at criminalizing aggression, and more. He stressed the importance of the human rights treaty bodies and treaty signatories while also acknowledging the gap between a nation’s willingness to declare its loyalty to human rights ideals and actual actions to advance human rights-based morality, legislation and enforcement.

In concluding, Kretzmer discussed the paradox of human rights monitoring: the countries with better human rights records are generally more open societies. Thus, there is a great deal of information available on their human rights violations. In contrast, the countries with the worst human rights regimes (North Korea, for example) are often closed societies, meaning there is an overall lack of information on their human rights practices. Thus, from the treaty bodies’ concluding observations it may sometimes appear that the more open and democratic societies suffer from more human rights violations than closed and non-democratic states.

Ido Dembin is pursuing his master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. He is focusing on the right to free speech in margins of society and the silencing of critical speech and conduct toward governmental policies in contemporary Israel. He is a Tel-Aviv University-educated lawyer (L.L.B.) with background in International Relations. Ido is a blog writer for RightsViews.