The Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) has built up considerable experience engaging with the United Nations treaty bodies that monitor countries’ human rights records over the years. This blog shares some reflections and lessons learned about some of the strategies that CESR has found help such interventions be effective. It also poses a number of questions with the aims of encouraging comparative perspectives to be shared.
How do Treaty Bodies Monitor ESCR?
The United Nations treaty bodies are specifically mandated to monitor how countries are implementing the provisions of each body’s corresponding treaty. They do this by reviewing periodic reports submitted by the countries that have ratified a given treaty, generally every 4 or 5 years.
The review process generally involves:
- A pre-session: which is a closed meeting to outline the list of issues the treaty body wants the country to respond to.
- A plenary session: where the treaty body meets with a delegation from the country under review to ask questions and discuss implementation of the treaty provisions.
- Concluding observations: the final report of the treaty body, which makes recommendations on how the country could improve, based on areas where it has concluded that there have been gaps or weaknesses in the implementation of the treaty.
Why Should NGOs Engage with the Treaty Committee Reviews?
The main outcome of the review is a series of recommendations to the country. Because they are issued by a body of international experts and contribute to evolving international jurisprudence, these recommendations carry significant influence and so can be a helpful source for civil society groups to cite in their advocacy. It would be great to hear how others have used treaty body recommendations in their work.
To really be helpful, recommendations need to be concrete and specific, which they aren’t always! A fundamental challenge with the reviews is that they are based on self-reporting. In other words, the treaty body relies on information from governments, who obviously have an interest in presenting their human rights record in the best light possible. Another challenge is that the treaty bodies have limited time and resources to dig deeper to corroborate or question what the government presents in its report. For this reason, civil society plays a crucial role in offering the type of independent information that can enable the treaty bodies to make specific and measurable recommendations.
WHAT MAKES FOR EFFECTIVE NGO ENGAGEMENT?
Throughout the review process, there are important entry points—both formal and informal—where civil society can have influence. For example, NGOs can submit “shadow reports” presenting an alternative assessment of the country’s human rights record to the report presented by the government of the country in question. Depending on the particular body’s working methods, NGOs can often hold briefing sessions with the treaty body members prior to the plenary session. They can also attend the plenary session as observers.
In the Center’s experience, the following strategies can be helpful ways to make the most of these entry points:
- Work collectively. The treaty bodies tend to give greater weight to information submitted by coalitions of NGOs. Though working in collaboration with others is not without its challenges, it does allow for a broader range of topics to be covered in one report or briefing, as well as more coordinated advocacy around some of the issues that have been raised. .
- Be concise and provide well-evidenced arguments. It’s particularly important to highlight the links between poor outcomes on the ground (e.g. school drop outs) and inadequacies in the policy efforts of the government (e.g. long distances to get to school), with arguments based on facts and, when possible, figures.
- Provide statistics, but explain their significance. The treaty bodies generally like to receive statistics as evidence of a particular human rights issues (OHCHR’s work on indicators was the result of a demand from the treaty bodies). However, when presenting data, for example, the number of doctors per capita, it’s important that it’s interpreted against relevant human rights norms. For example, many doctors in some parts of the country and not others might show discriminatory policy-making, decreasing numbers of doctors per capita might be evidence of retrogression etc.
- Supplement the shadow report with additional information. Shadow reports can be quite formulaic as they’re generally structured around each article of the relevant treaty. It’s possible to share additional materials with the treaty body members when attending the session in Geneva. For example, CESR’s Visualizing Rights factsheets (see e.g. on Spain and Egypt) present similar information as the shadow reports they relate to, but in a way that’s much quicker and easier for treaty body members to digest.
- Contact treaty body members. NGOs can approach and discuss their concerns with treaty body members before, during and after the review session. They are generally approachable and open to hearing NGO views. Briefing sessions can be helpful in fostering a constructive dynamic between NGOs and treaty body members.
- Monitor the implementation of recommendations. It’s easy to see the recommendations as the ‘end’ of the review process, but in reality, sustained pressure at the national level is essential for getting them implemented. It’s also possible to report back to committee members in between sessions. It would be great to hear examples of good practice on this.
Are these strategies that others have used in their work with treaty bodies? If so, how effective have you found them? What other strategies have others found to be helpful? Are there particular topics or particular treaty bodies you’ve found you’ve had more or less success engaging with?
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT THE TREATY BODIES?
Information for each of the 10 treaty bodies is available from OHCHR. The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) has also published a helpful guidebook on the treaty bodies, including key formal and informal entry points for NGO participation in the work of particular bodies. Are there additional resources that others would suggest?