The United Nations Human Rights Committee Unpacked

What is the Human Rights Committee?

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRCttee) reviews the commitments of States to, and implementation of, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). All States party to the ICCPR are required to report to this treaty body comprised of independent experts after the first year of acceding to the ICCPR, and then at regular intervals thereafter.

The State under review is supposed to report on how well it feels it has been implementing the Articles of the ICCPR. This report is examined by the HRCttee members alongside submissions from civil society actors before each review, after which the State is questioned on its human rights record and commitment to the ICCPR. Violations, cases of concern, and constitutional inconsistencies are among some of the issues highlighted by the Committee during its review.

Once the concerns have been addressed, a document outlining the Committee’s concluding observations, i.e. its concerns and recommendations to the State Party, is published.

Why is it important?

The nature of the Committee’s operational directives mean that detailed attention is given to human rights abuses. Its capacity to intensely scrutinise is welcome. While not all States cooperate, meaning they are reviewed in the absence of their State report, the HRCttee is largely viewed as being ‘independent’ compared to the equally valuable but very different mechanisms of the Human Rights Council (HRC).

The HRCttee sits in a unique gap. Its work solely focuses on a state’s commitment to each tenet of the ICCPR and operates within the legal framework of the treaty. As such, it is less politicised than the HRC mechanisms for country-focused resolutions. It also allows for a more detailed assessment compared to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR, a UN-led peer review process in which every Member State’s commitment to human rights is reviewed every four and a half years).

Why do we engage with it?

From the perspective of civil society, the HRCttee presents a valuable opportunity to raise concerns about a State’s human rights record. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are actively encouraged to participate in the review process, which features a time dedicated specifically for CSOs. This takes place in two fora – a public webcast session and a private meeting with committee members, which provides a safer space for participants who may otherwise fear reprisal.

While the strength of the UPR process lies in the number of recommendations a state receives – combined with the peer pressure to implement them – the strengths of a treaty body review are its relative independence, the fact that States cannot rely on fellow recalcitrant members for back up, and the opportunity to drill deeply into specific cases of concern.

CSW has contributed to and witnessed this detailed scrutiny. In March 2019, when the HRCttee reviewed Eritrea, the State was questioned on specific cases, reports and investigations. At first their queries were met with outright denial, then some answers were eventually given after repeated questioning.

Questions during the review included: “Could the delegation indicate if they have a register of all persons who are subject to this civilian or military detention either in official or unofficial facilities?” and “I want to ask you whether this is the official position: that people who are Jehovah’s witnesses lose their citizenship, not allowed to work, no trading license, no official documents concerning their identity? [sic]”At the end, Eritrea was given 48 hours to reply to questions and issues raised by the HRCttee, before the committee released a report of its concluding observations.

These sorts of questions can prompt responses that reveal long-awaited information, such as the whereabouts or number of people in detention. After detailed questioning, the HRCttee uses a state’s answers, or in some cases lack of answers, to draw up concluding observations. Where the state provides insufficient answers, recommendations and possible accountability measures outlined in the report provide the opportunity for ongoing advocacy in the pursuit, ultimately, of justice

At the HRC, a number of UN Member States have been identified as ‘countries of specific concern’ with regard to systematic, ongoing and egregious human rights violations and are subject to scrutiny under the HRC’s Agenda Item 4. The pathway to the establishment of a resolution, continued accountability, and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in a country is fraught with difficulties; it is an annual battle of political wills.

While HRC resolutions under Agenda Item 4 are important, the process is deemed by some states to be a political affront.

The HRCttee’s ability to operate in a less politicised forum works to its credit; its work also provides an opportunity for the UN to thoroughly question States which are not usually monitored as closely as under Agenda Item 4.

In March 2019 and June 2019 respectively, Vietnam and Nigeria were among states reviewed by the HRCttee. At this present time, neither State Party has been identified by the UN HRC as a country of particular concern, yet the situation in both has merited international attention.

In the Committee’s review of Vietnam, concerns surrounding violations and restrictions of freedom of religion (FoRB) featured prominently in the formal and informal discussions with civil society ahead of the review.  CSW took part in these reviews by submitting written evidence and delivering statements during the public webcast session and in the private dialogue with committee members. It was also encouraging to see a large cross-section of Vietnamese civil society engage in these forums too.

The prominence of the right to FoRB in these meetings was later reflected in the questions and comments of concern made by the committee members to Vietnam. CSW continues to receive reports of violations against Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and other religious groups, as well as disturbing reports of violence against human rights defenders (HRDs) such as Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton and legal expert Nguyen Bac Truyen. In light of these concerns, the Committee’s recommendations to Vietnam, urging the State to  take measures to prevent interference with FoRB, and any incidents of hate speech, incitement to discrimination, violence or alleged hate crime, were even more crucial.

What can be done to strengthen the work of the Human Rights Committee?

For all its merits, the treaty body system, including the HRCttee, faces its own set of challenges, and maintaining the status quo is no longer viable.

While the number of states complying with treaty body recommendations has increased from 13% to 19% and the Secretariat expects a small increase in the number of states who submit reports, there remains a relatively low level of engagement and implementation of recommendations from states. There has also been a 200% increase in the receipt of individual communications of concern being submitted to the treaty bodies, which translates to a backlog of cases and a delay in justice.

Calls have been made by States and NGOs alike to ensure greater coordination between the treaty bodies to guarantee a regular scheduling of reviews and reporting procedures, to increase the use of new technologies for greater accessibility and to harmonise working methods. These measures would certainly relieve some of the strain but, arguably the onus does not rest solely on the UN Secretariat.

Civil society has an important role to play in equipping committee members with reports of violations, issues of concern, cases and recommendations. Greater publicity to encourage NGO engagement in the reviews undertaken by the HRCttee should be encouraged as first hand testimonies at the formal and informal NGO sessions are a vital form of evidence and a key way civil society can participate. Contrary to popular belief, NGOs are not required to hold ECOSOC status in order to engage with the process. Those who do not have the physical or financial capacity to attend the sessions in Geneva can watch proceedings via the UN webcasting service and conduct follow-up advocacy.

UN Member States have a role to play too. The peer pressure states receive through engagement with the HRC mechanisms should also occur in response to the HRCttee’s concluding observations. States should draw on these reports during bilateral and multilateral discussions, continuing to apply both accountability and pressure on upholding human rights commitments.

Building its profile and encouraging participation from Member States and civil society will be key in securing the mechanism’s future. UN budget cuts have already impacted the Committee’s work, and with the belt around UN finances set to get tighter still, a review of funding, which protects the integrity of the mechanism, is also going to be necessary if the work is to continue unhindered.

By CSW’s United Nations Officer Claire Denman