May 2015 Discussion: Using UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies to Monitor State Compliance

Publish Date: 
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

UN treaty monitoring bodies (TMBs) are a key avenue through which the Center for Reproductive Rights engages to pressure states to respect, protect and fulfill women’s reproductive rights. Over the course of any given year, the Center submits upwards of thirty shadow letters to the various TMBs on the status of reproductive rights in our priority countries across the globe. We then participate during the individual country review processes to highlight the issues raised in our shadow letters and elicit concrete recommendations on the measures states must take to comply with their international human rights obligations.  

When the Center first started engaging with the TMBs, it was a challenge for some to explicitly recognize that the articles of their respective treaties apply to women’s reproductive rights. Reproductive rights have historically been deemed “women’s issues,” which led a number of TMBs to believe that they should only be addressed by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. After much persistence by the Center and innumerable other CSOs worldwide – in the form of submitting shadow letters, conducting outreach and sensitization with committee members, and submitting individual complaints – the TMBs now squarely recognize that denials of women’s reproductive rights jeopardize their lives, health, dignity, autonomy and self-determination, among other human rights. To date, nearly all of the TMBs have included reproductive rights in their general comments or concluding observations, demonstrating the indivisible and interdependent nature of these rights.  Are there other examples when monitoring bodies have been reticent to recognize certain abuses as human rights violations that others have observed? If so, what have been some of the strategies used to overcome this resistance? 

The TMBs have addressed different facets of reproductive rights in different ways, and the Center firmly believes that it is important that each committee has a holistic understanding of the broad range of issues that constitute reproductive rights. The Center ensures that our shadow letters discuss the array of violations stemming from states’ actions (or inaction) and that we raise particular reproductive rights issues before TMBs that have yet to address them. In persuading committees to take up issues they have not addressed, it can be useful to show how such issues intersect with ones they have tackled. For example, if a committee has routinely addressed sexual violence, but has not addressed reproductive health services, the shadow letter might show how guaranteeing women access to emergency contraception and safe abortion services is critical for responding to and mitigating the harm caused by sexual violence. We have also produced publications analyzing the status of reproductive rights under specific human rights treaties to demonstrate how they can reinforce each other’s work, and often cite the general comments or concluding observations of other committees in shadow letters. 

Monitoring country situations on the ground is critical for ensuring that the information presented in our shadow letters is accurate and reflects the priorities and concerns of national-level reproductive rights advocates; for this reason, maintaining strong relationships with local organizations is a fundamental component of the Center’s advocacy and litigation.  Our partners on the ground are always in the best position to assess whether states have taken appropriate measures to comply with prior concluding observations, recommend the further steps states need to take, and identify emerging reproductive rights issues. Without these relationships, we simply would not be able to do much of our work. It would be great to hear about how partnerships between global, national and local organizations contribute to the effective monitoring in other contexts.

In addition to effecting change in individual countries, the Center also works to advance reproductive rights norms more broadly. Diligently monitoring advancements in the TMBs outside of our priority countries is fundamental to promoting this agenda, as it enables us to understand the TMBs full body of work on reproductive rights and related issues. For this purpose, we have enlisted the support of a pro bono attorneys at White & Case LLP. Each month, a team of dedicated attorneys thoroughly reviews, identifies and compiles relevant concluding observations issued by TMBs, as well as Special Procedures mandate holders. This has greatly expanded our monitoring capacity and allowed us to be far more informed about the diverse ways in which all of the TMBs and Special Rapporteurs are urging states to realize women’s reproductive rights. We use these compilations to periodically disseminate our Reproductive Rights Rundown, an e-newsletter which includes updates on recent TMB country reviews and Special Procedures reports.  It would be interesting to hear about other experiences tracking particular ESCR issues across different TMBs. 

Finally, our new annual resource, Breaking Ground 2015: Treaty Monitoring Bodies on Reproductive Rights, provides a succinct overview of these standards in relation to maternal health care, contraceptive information and services, and safe abortion, in order to enable both committee members and human rights advocates worldwide to have an accessible snapshot of where these standards currently are and how they are evolving. 

We are interested to know how the Center’s approach to monitoring women’s rights using TMBs resonates with readers. How have other groups worked with TMBs to women’s rights, or other rights issues? To what extent have these other efforts employed a similar approach? Have there been different experiences in other cases?

Katherine Mayall (CRR)
Working Group(s):