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When recently asked what keeps him up at night, António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, gave a straight answer: bureaucracy as well as “fragmented structures, byzantine procedures, endless red tape.” Such flaws also apply to UN human-rights mechanisms, and Guterres should ensure that his UN-wide reform agenda prioritizes strengthening such tools, which can be done through practical steps.
UN reform on human rights should not just focus on the Human Rights Council; it should also aim at improving complementary roles and coherence among the three major UN human-rights aspects: treaty bodies, special procedures and the universal periodic review.
The Trump reform agenda for the UN has resulted in major cuts to some important UN humanitarian programs that benefited millions of women and girls around the world, especially in developing countries. Yet Trump’s call for UN reform has also contributed to building momentum for major changes and, if used in a smart way, could also directly benefit Guterres’s reform agenda.
Two of the 10 reform proposals recently endorsed by at least 128 nations are directly relevant to improving UN human-rights bodies:
• Point 6 proposes “reducing mandate duplication, redundancy, and overlap”
• Point 9 supports “concrete changes in the United Nations system to better align its work”
As recently noted by Bertrand Ramcharan in an op-ed published by PassBlue, Guterres has indicated a strong willingness to reform the UN system, but details of his plans on the human-rights front remain vague. Ramcharan rightly identifies UN support to treaty bodies as a priority, and Guterres will report to the General Assembly in 2018 on the treaty body strengthening process. Treaty bodies are international committees of independent experts that monitor countries’ implementation of the core international human-rights treaties.
Guterres should carefully consider the proposed options for a comprehensive overhaul of the treaty bodies. As part of his review, he can draw on some of the suggestions made by civil society (e.g. on occasions of the annual meetings of treaty body chairs), as well as by an academic platform that is looking into new models for treaty bodies. He should also identify lessons learned from previous attempts to reform the treaty body system and adopt a strong strategy to establish a “coalition of the willing,” as they say, to support ambitious reform that better protects rights holders, strengthens implementation and enhances accountability for perpetrators.
Such reform could entail an alignment of existing treaty bodies, resulting in one or several consolidated clusters, or treaty body “chambers.” The chamber option could consist of grouping all of a country’s reviews on a regular basis, such as every four years. Each country would be reviewed by a chamber consisting of experts from each relevant treaty body — those to which the country is party — over a period of one to two weeks. This would streamline reporting processes without diminishing specialization and expertise.
Of course, consolidating the 10 treaty bodies can risk weakening the system. But the gains that a powerful new independent and expert-led consolidated treaty body or bodies could yield should carefully be considered. For instance, predictable reviews by all relevant treaty bodies every four years would considerably improve the ability of relevant stakeholders, especially civil society, to engage in the reviews. This would tremendously improve civil society engagement and scrutiny of treaty body reviews.
Improving complementarity of UN human-rights bodies should also entail strengthening the special procedures (independent experts who report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective), which are the jewel in the crown of the Human Rights Council. Like treaty bodies, special procedures produce an array of recommendations, many of which are ignored by countries.
Overall, the visibility of their recommendations is relatively weak, particularly for national entities. To promote complementarity and better contribute to actual change on the ground, special procedures should do more to monitor and support implementation of treaty body recommendations.
The Universal Periodic Review, recently described as “mainly a diplomatic exercise in which countries of doubtful virtue shower platitudes on their bedfellows,” could also be reformed to enhance complementarity and coherence with other human-rights bodies. If future treaty body reviews were done by a cluster of specialized chambers every four years, a country’s periodic review could be scheduled two years after the country’s treaty body review.
This arrangement would enable the review to be used to assess and report on countries’ compliance with treaty body and special procedure recommendations, giving political support to expert recommendations. Rather than remaining yet another UN human-rights recommendations producing body, the periodic review would be used as a monitoring and compliance tool in which countries would be held accountable on how well they comply with human-rights recommendations.
Such assessments could be based on objective and transparent criteria, like the existing grading system adopted by most treaty bodies.
The UN human-rights system has the potential to contribute to development and peace and security at all levels, nationally, regionally and internationally. By enhancing the system’s complementarity and utility and better leveraging its expertise and political weight, Guterres could fulfill this potential.