Cuts to the UN Human Rights Bodies? We Know What This Leads To

Ben Warwick - 10th June 2019

The global populist backlash against multilateralism and rights is reaching the UN treaty bodies. These reactionary politics are manifesting in States’ refusal to pay their dues to the UN (the USA owes the UN $2182m), resulting in  ‘severe liquidity issues’.  Cutbacks have been scheduled. The UN treaty bodies have been informed that it is very likely that this will lead to a number of their sessions in the later part of 2019 being cancelled.

This is unprecedented and will have serious consequences for the efficacy of the monitoring process. Others have outlined the principled reasons that this cut to the work of the human rights committees is dangerous, symbolic, avoidable, and deeply concerning. In this post I address the impact that a cut from three to two session per year will have on the State examination process. I use the CEDAW Committee as an example, but similar patterns would be seen across the treaty bodies.

Significant delays in examining States are a catastrophe for the international human rights system. They damage trust and respect for the institution. The role of the treaty bodies in chiding States to realise rights is damaged when they check in on States too infrequently. It also leads to ineffective monitoring, as information that is years out of date is reviewed. The cumulative effect of these challenges means that the utility of the treaty bodies findings within domestic contexts is also more limited. Domestic advocacy is challenging with Concluding Observations that are years out of date.

For a period between 1997-2001, the CEDAW Committee was given the resource to hold only two sessions resulting in a significant backlog of States to be examined. States reports on their efforts to comply with CEDAW sat in a dusty UN office for up to two and a half years before being examined. In some cases, this meant no examination of a State’s progress on women’s rights had been made in six and a half years. Critiques of the backlog problem during that period were rife and a number of reform processes and a change to the way that States reported resulted.

Significant efforts to clear and limit the backlog have been made, as the analysis of 500 reports to the CEDAW below shows. From the peak delay of over two and a half years, the delay now between a State submitting its report and it being examined is now relatively stable at around a year and a half.

The black curved line shows (in years, on the left-hand scale) the delay between a State filing its report to the CEDAW Committee and the report being examined by the committee. The height of the grey bars shows the number of states (on the right-hand scale) examined by the CEDAW Committee in a given year. The number of sessions held per year is noted in text on the bar.

The number of sessions the CEDAW Committee has to examine States is a crucial factor in the size of the delay. It has been forced to become more efficient as the size of its workload has increased through more States ratifying CEDAW and through additional tasks being added under the Optional Protocol to CEDAW including adjudicating individual complaints. The CEDAW Committee has largely met this new set of demands within its existing resources through a combination of procedural changes and the imposition of time and space limitations in their discussions. It is highly unlikely therefore it has the space to absorb yet further constraints on its working that would result from a cut from three sessions to two. The inevitable result will be an increased backlog of States waiting to be examined, an increased delay before national human rights situations are addressed, and – most likely – a dent in the relevance of the international human rights monitoring system.

These cuts to the UN mechanisms are undoubtedly difficult to contest. They flow down from organisation-level budget cuts, and from financial manipulation by a range of reticent States that have been emboldened by global populist discourses. But they can be countered. It should be highlighted to the UN that human rights deserve to be ringfenced within the budget; that they have already undergone significant efficiency improvements, and that cuts should be sought elsewhere. And to those that claim to be driven by evidence-based policy making, it should be highlighted that we have already tried a treaty body system run with two sessions per year and the impacts are clear. It’s frustrating to re-run the same debates from two decades back. It is, however, the only way of avoiding the failed policies of 20 years ago.

added under the Optional Protocol to CEDAW including adjudicating individual complaints. The CEDAW Committee has largely met this new set of demands within its existing resources through a combination of procedural changes and the imposition of time and space limitations in their discussions. It is highly unlikely therefore it has the space to absorb yet further constraints on its working that would result from a cut from three sessions to two. The inevitable result will be an increased backlog of States waiting to be examined, an increased delay before national human rights situations are addressed, and – most likely – a dent in the relevance of the international human rights monitoring system.

The black curved line shows (in years, on the left-hand scale) the delay between a State filing its report to the CEDAW Committee and the report being examined by the Committee. The orange line shows the number of new ratifying States (on the right-hand scale, starting at 163 at the end of 1997 and rising to 192 in 2015). The purple line shows the accumulation of jurisprudence under the Optional Protocol complaints process (on the right-hand scale).

These cuts to the UN mechanisms are undoubtedly difficult to contest. They flow down from organisation-level budget cuts, and from financial manipulation by a range of reticent States that have been emboldened by global populist discourses. But they can be countered. It should be highlighted to the UN that human rights deserve to be ringfenced within the budget; that they have already undergone significant efficiency improvements, and that cuts should be sought elsewhere. And to those that claim to be driven by evidence-based policy making, it should be highlighted that we have already tried a treaty body system run with two sessions per year and the impacts are clear. It’s frustrating to re-run the same debates from two decades back. It is, however, the only way of avoiding the failed policies of 20 years ago.

Author profile

Dr Ben Warwick is a Lecturer in Law at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. He predominantly researches the international system(s) of protection for human rights, with a particular focus on how these rights interact with resource questions. He can be contacted at b.t.warwick@bham.ac.uk and tweets @btcwarwick

Citations

Ben Warwick, ‘Cuts to the UN Human Rights? We Know What This Leads To’ (OxHRH Blog, 11 June 2019)

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