Successful Final UN Human Rights Treaty Body Pilot Took Place in Fiji

18 December 2023

From 28 to 30 November 2023, the Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP) – in partnership with the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Commonwealth Secretariat – conducted its third and final United Nations (UN) human rights treaty body (TB) follow-up review pilot in Nadi, Fiji.

This event was the third in a series aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of conducting TB follow-up reviews at the regional level, bringing the TB system closer to those directly affected. Unlike in Sierra Leone (2021) and Grenada (2022), which were in-country pilots, this review pilot in the Pacific involved multiple member States and therefore allowed to explore the benefits of hosting such reviews in regional/sub-regional UN hubs as a way to maximize their strategic role.

GHRP staff Felix Kirchmeier and Domenico Zipoli travelled to Nadi to facilitate the three-day event aimed at discussing the latest recommendations for follow-up issued by three TBs – the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – to three Pacific Small Island Developing States: Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu.

They joined the SPC Human Rights and Social Development team in Fiji, together with an informal TB delegation composed of one member from each committee – nominated by their respective committee yet acting in their personal capacity: Ms Rosemary Kayess (CRPD), Mr Bragi Guðbrandsson (CRC) and Ms Marianne Mikko (CEDAW) –, and a representative from the Commonwealth Secretariat. Overall, 70 national representatives participated in the three-day event, many of whom had never actively participated in TB reviews before, including Government delegations, representatives from national human rights institutions/offices of the ombudsman and civil society organizations from the three participating Pacific Island States.

‘Besides its main objective of future-proofing the TB state reporting procedure and testing the regional approach, this pilot also entailed a strong capacity-building element to introduce national human rights actors to the TB reporting procedure and TBs to national realities and challenges’ explains Domenico Zipoli, Project Coordinator of the Geneva Human Rights Platform.

IN-SITU VISITS: INTRODUCING TB MEMBERS TO NATIONAL EFFORTS AND CHALLENGES

Before commencing the pilot follow-up review sessions, the TB delegation conducted in-situ visits, directly engaging with two distinct and significant projects in Fiji, each addressing intersectional aspects linked to the recommendations for follow-up under scrutiny.

These visits focused on initiatives for persons with disabilities, including children, and those affected by corporal punishment and abuse. The TB delegation notably visited the National Council of Persons with Disabilities regional offices in Lautoka, as well as a home for children lacking parental care in Nadi, supported by the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Protection.

This pre-review exploration allowed the TB members to gain firsthand insights into national efforts and challenges in these specific areas. The visits highlighted the realities faced by these vulnerable groups, and the dedication of those working on the ground whilst displaying the need for more resources and support to tackle these complex issues.

A MODEL FOLLOW-UP REVIEW AT THE REGIONAL LEVEL

The design of the pilot agenda actively mirrored the interaction protocols with national stakeholders that TBs typically observe during sessions in Geneva.

On the first day, the TB delegation engaged in confidential briefings with National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), offices of the Ombudsman, and civil society organizations (CSOs) from Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tonga. The main goal of these briefings was to equip the TB delegation with a detailed understanding of the governments' actions and inactions in response to the latest follow-up recommendations.

During the second and third days, the TB delegation conducted follow-up review sessions with each government delegation. These TB-specific sessions offered platforms for constructive dialogues, including on gender-based violence against women and girls, the impact of climate change and natural disasters on the rights of women and children, corporal punishment, as well as women and children with disabilities.

‘With the treaty body system moving into a new 8-year cycle of reviews, it is imperative that regional and national engagement by the committees be built into these new modalities including the planned follow-up reviews in between. Fiji is taking a strong position on this to ensure that the new treaty body system reflects the needs of the Pacific and enables Pacific voices to be heard’ stated Honourable Lynda Tabuya, Fiji’s Minister for Women, Children, and Social Protection Lynda Tabuya, Fiji’s Minister for Women, Children, and Social Protection during her opening remarks.

Broader and More Inclusive Participation

Many participants noted that the regional setting of this exercise encouraged more inclusive participation from various sectors and allowed for more focused and context-specific interactions, creating an atmosphere that was noticeably less confrontational than what is typically observed in full TB review preparations.

‘This regional engagement and dialogue is a positive novelty, as it saves both time and financial resources for a small nation like Fiji, in comparison to preparing for and travelling to Geneva or New York. Additionally, having TB members within the country enhances accessibility for civil society organizations, making it easier for them to connect and interact’ underlines a representative from the Fiji government.

Deeper Exchanges and Analysis

Common preparation methods typically involve desk-based research, email correspondence, and isolated involvement from different ministries and agencies. However, the direct engagement in this environment enabled a degree of cooperation and understanding that perfectly complements the conventional process of a regular review in Geneva.

‘This pilot project offers significant advantages. Its proximity allows for the participation of numerous experts from national ministries, enabling comprehensive responses to all queries raised. This approach is also cost-effective compared to European trips, where we are limited to sending only one or two representatives. In addition, a follow-up review held in the region fosters better understanding and more comfortable self-expression’ stresses Pacco Siri, Acting Director General, Ministry of Justice and Community Services of Vanuatu.

A Strong Capacity-Building Component

A specific capacity-building segment concluded the pilot, an opportunity for government delegations, NHRI/Ombudspersons and CSO participants to pose questions to the TB delegation on implementation strategies and seek clarifications on what is expected by the Committees in terms of reporting and follow-up.

This event, structured similarly to the dialogues held in Geneva, offered national human rights actors an authentic experience of the state reporting process and a deeper understanding of the rights outlined in the conventions. Concurrently, it enabled the participating TB members to gain a practical grasp of the unique challenges faced in the implementation of these rights within the Pacific context.

‘There's a sense that so far we've all been working separately, lacking a unified effort. However, this chance has united us, aligning our understanding and goals. When we meet with representatives from Fiji and Vanuatu, we gain insights from their experiences. Despite their ratification of more treaties than us, it's clear that ratification is just the beginning, with a long multi-actor journey ahead towards full implementation’ says Roman Vaihu, Director of Investigations, Office of the Ombudsman of Tonga.

‘The UN should consider this regional approach. I could not stress this enough. The UN TB system should start considering organizing reviews in the Pacific, with Fiji potentially serving as the central hub. This would introduce constructive dynamics and address the high costs associated with sending delegations to Geneva for each report’ adds Jenny Tevi, Policy Advisor, Ministry of Justice and Community Services of Vanuatu.

‘The Human Rights Unit of the Commonwealth Secretariat is committed to supporting small states to engage effectively with Geneva-based human rights mechanisms and to strengthen their capacity, including with TBs. Pilot initiatives, such as regional follow-up reviews, not only increase visibility and deepen treaty bodies' understanding of the situation on the ground but also strengthen the engagement of States, national institutions and CSOs in the UN human rights framework’ recalls Yashasvi Nain, Human Rights Advisor, Commonwealth Secretariat.

FOLLOW-UP WITH THE PACIFIC UN COUNTRY TEAM AND THE FIJI ATTORNEY GENERAL

Following the conclusion of the pilot, GHRP representatives and the CEDAW member Ms Mikko travelled to Suva, the capital of Fiji and headquarters of the Pacific UN Country Team (UNCT). This visit provided a platform to inform the UNCT Human Rights Theme Group of the TB follow-up review pilot results and to engage in a more comprehensive dialogue about incorporating UN human rights mechanism recommendations, including those from CEDAW, into regional UN initiatives.

The meeting, jointly chaired by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), saw participation from a majority of the agencies within the Pacific UNCT: UN Women, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Additionally, the GHRP delegation and Ms Mikko participated in a focused meeting with the Pacific Office of UN Women and a high-level discussion with Fiji's Attorney General Siromi Turaga. Both meetings addressed the pilot’s findings and the feasibility of conducting TB engagement in the region, particularly in light of the Pacific Islands Forum Women Leaders request to host an extraordinary CEDAW session in Fiji in 2025.

NEXT STEPS

The completion of this third pilot has yielded valuable insights into the benefits, challenges, and framework of conducting these assessments at a regional level. The forthcoming report on this pilot will provide an account of this exercise and the role that regional UN hubs might play in facilitating these regional follow-up reviews. This document will also encompass a diverse array of feedback and responses from the participants of the pilot project.

‘It is important to highlight the importance of TB engaging closely with countries and policymakers worldwide. It is crucial to understand and respect cultural contexts to effectively operationalize general human rights principles. The success of the pilot project underscores the significance of regional follow-ups’ says Bragi Gudbrandsson, CRC Member.

A final report, encapsulating the key findings from the pilot series of follow-up reviews, is also in preparation. It will offer a comprehensive overview of the lessons learned and put forward recommendations regarding the structure, advantages and challenges of holding review processes in the regions. The release of this conclusive report is scheduled for the first quarter of 2024.

According to Miles Young, Director of the Human Rights and Social Development Division at SPC, ‘It is a historic event that other regions and the UN can learn from as part of the ongoing TB reform process, the shift to a new 8-year calendar and new-look mid-term reviews’.

‘We now possess a thorough understanding of the possible formats for these reviews, both at the national and regional levels. We anticipate that our evaluation will offer UN TBs, OHCHR and member States a distinct insight into the significant benefits that meaningful follow-up reviews can bring to the system and, in the end, to the effective implementation of human rights at the national level’ explains Felix Kirchmeier.

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