Human rights are measured through United Nations covenants and conventions. Regular State reviews monitor how the rights enshrined in these treaties are being implemented. The review of every nation offers a chance to educate citizens and demand realization of the rights enshrined in the treaties ratified by their governments. Indigenous Peoples’ involvement is essential to seek justice through the review process. In this series we aim to break down the core treaties.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a comprehensive international legal agreement of civil and political rights. The aspirational and customary law nature of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provided the basis for the International Bill of Rights, consisting of twin binding covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a global mechanism to monitor a State’s policies and practices in meeting promises to its people, including the demand for inherent dignity, participation in democratic political structures, cultural and linguistic expression, and full cultural self-determination.
Both covenants share Article 1 on self-determination. Indigenous Peoples understand the universality of Article 1, recognizing the right of all peoples to freely determine political status and pursue economic, social, and cultural development. Article 1 secures Indigenous Peoples as equals with the ability to advocate for how their own territories serve society, and not taken for corporate or colonial economic gain. It is the basis for sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples to be recognized and respected.
Human Rights Committee and Country Reports
An 18-member committee of experts reviews States as guarantors of the rights enshrined in the Covenant. Serving a four-year term with potential for reappointment, the experts assist states with compliance. One member agrees to serve as the Country Rapporteur researching and compiling information regarding the State and also participates in the review, opening the interactive dialogue. The Country Rapporteur is the first to speak and offers concluding observations. The task of the Special Rapporteur on Follow-up to Concluding Observations is to guide the committee based on priorities selected by the Human Rights Committee to be implemented within a year from the review.
An initial report is due one year after ratification of the covenant. Periodic reports are due every five years and upon issuing concluding observations the next due date is provided. Country reports clarify compliance with the articles of the covenant. States submit periodic reports focusing on issues raised in the concluding observations, as well as significant developments with thorough explanations of measures taken to address complaints against the country since the last reporting cycle.
In the followup procedure, two to four recommendations in the concluding observations are raised for immediate attention. The State is asked to provide information on implementation one year after issuing concluding observations. The Human Rights Committee now meets three times a year, in spring, summer, and fall for up to four weeks. As with all treaty bodies, the committee meetings take place in Geneva, predominantly at the Palais Wilson.
The Review Cycle: Preparation
The result of the preparation phase is education that mobilizes a national rights movement and explanation of the international human rights instrument through a country shadow report and multiple thematic working groups. This alternative report is written by civil society and can be submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee as a supplement to the country report documenting realities on the ground. Other elements are disseminating concluding observations of the previous cycle and the followup priorities of the committee. It is advisable to coordinate for the preparation phase 18 months prior to the review of the State. This allows for six months of discussion and dialogue that can be expressed to the UN Human Rights Committee before the review of Lists of Issues Prior to Reporting.
The interaction phase consists of participation with the UN Human Rights Committee secretariat and committee experts to ensure that issues, questions, and specific recommendations from the grassroots are understood and considered by the committee. This phase especially prepares the country rapporteur to raise specific questions around current practices by policy makers. By civil society transforming shadow reports into short, detailed summaries with specific language, this phase prepares the Human Rights Committee members to discuss the facts and suggest recommendations for change. Simplified documents in the structure of issue/question and recommendation for each article and list of issues in one or two pages should be shared with expert members. It is also essential to attempt engagement with the State to partner for solutions for civil and political rights. Recommendations should be targeted toward transformation of the current political model to achieve the articles of the Covenant.
Interaction with committee members can occur via correspondence, public presentations, and lunch briefings immediately prior to the consideration phase. NGOs should provide information on States for the list of issues 12 weeks before the plenary session, and should be prepared at least one year before the review of a State to assist the country rapporteur and the Country Report Task Force regarding followup to the prior session’s concluding observations. It is imperative to research the immediate prior state reviews and provide updates on previous lists of issues and followup priorities.
The interaction can begin two sessions prior to the review of the State, all the way up to the start of the session and the six-hour review. During the review session in Geneva, interaction should begin on Monday with briefings by civil society to the full Human Rights Committee, and continue through the lunchtime briefing as well as the final discussions in the hallways of the Palais Wilson, providing actual recommendation language for the concluding observations. It is also an opportunity for civil society to meet with the state delegation for a town hall or consultation to plan for how to ensure that the human rights recommendations are realized at home. The Human Rights Committee offers two opportunities for civil society organizations to interact directly with committee experts.
The consideration phase is where committee members informed by civil society through interaction and reporting share results of their research and raise their questions and concerns to the State under review. There are two, three-hour sessions where the country rapporteur opens the discussion, and then there is a pattern of the remaining Committee members raising questions and the state delegation responding. Beyond the structured interventions at the NGO briefing, there is the opportunity to discuss with committee experts. It is also possible to present in thematic working groups immediately prior to consideration at the lunchtime briefing. NGOs should submit their shadow reports to the Committee three weeks prior to the plenary session for States to be examined. Use of social media at every phase of the consideration, at the Monday morning briefing through the State review, ensures Indigenous voices are heard. Global partners such as the Center for Civil and Political Rights can assist with press releases.
The adoption phase is necessary for mobilization of the people’s movement to improve human rights in the State. Recommendations are issued based on the list of issues, shadow reports of NGOs, civil society briefings, and the State review. The priorities of Indigenous Peoples should be featured in concluding observations. On the final day of the UN Human Rights Committee, there is an open meeting and a press conference where the chair and members share their concluding observations. The adoption of the concluding observations outline positive aspects, subjects of concern, and recommendations on how to address the challenges faced by a country to realize civil and political rights. It is vital to ensure the communities receive results of the campaign.
The implementation phase requires dedication to followup on the concluding observations. This phase closes the cycle, returning to the community and country level demand for action based on recommendations from the articles and list of issues mentioned in the concluding observations. The followup mechanisms of the UN Human Rights Committee allow monitoring of the assigned priority areas to be reported upon in a year. The Committee appoints a Special Rapporteur on Follow-up to Concluding Observations to establish a dialogue during this phase. There is a one-year period for the State to supply information and support realization of the two to four recommendations. The committee will make a decision on the priority recommendations at a session one year after the review.
— Joshua Cooper is a professor at the University of Hawai’i, West Oahu, Kapolei and director of the Hawai’i Institute for Human Rights.
Photo: Indigenous people of Cambodia exercise their civil and political rights at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Peoples Forum in Dili, Timor-Leste.