Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Value of the Human Rights Treaty Reporting Process

by Jonathan Todres

The reporting process under human rights treaties is undervalued in the United States. Critics of the international human rights regime simultaneously criticize the reporting process as weak and ineffective and as an intrusion on sovereignty. When it works well, however, the reporting process not only is valuable but in fact is a reaffirmation of a state’s sovereignty.

In a new article, A Child Rights Framework for Addressing Trafficking of Children, I review the U.S. experience reporting to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child under the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. The US government has been reviewed twice – in 2008 and 2013 – by the CRC Committee on its compliance with the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children and the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, both of which the US ratified in 2002 under then President Bush.

Following its first review of the US, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued its Concluding Observations, which included a number of recommendations pressed for by US-based NGOs. Subsequent to that, Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, and I did a mini “roadshow” in various cities in the US, reporting on the process and the Committee’s recommendations. This led to congressional briefings in the House and Senate, and following that ECPAT-USA (the lead NGO for the alternative report to the CRC Committee) met with then-Senator Biden’s office. Biden then sponsored a bill that became the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008. While that piece of legislation didn’t solve everything, it advanced efforts to respond to child trafficking in the US. And it included provisions that were responsive to the Concluding Observations, including the Committee’s call for the US to develop a national plan of action.

That review under the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children reinforces several important points about the human rights treaty reporting process. First, the Concluding Observations need to be seen not as the end of the process, but rather as the beginning of a critical stage. Advocates need to be active in bringing the message home and strategizing about how to address gaps in human rights practices at home that are identified during the review process.

Second, sovereignty is not only intact, it’s strengthened through this process. Child advocates working on the ground in the US on issues covered by the Optional Protocol had significant input in the process. And after the Concluding Observations were issued, it was the US government that had full authority to decide how it would implement those recommendations. All of this demonstrates that the review process is most of all a process for policymakers and advocates in the country being reviewed.

Third, ultimately the reporting process is just a formal mechanism for monitoring and evaluation of one’s own practices. Evaluating what you are doing on any issue (human rights, public health, education, etc.) is essential. It’s how we know the difference between doing something and doing something effective. And having outside input makes sense, because we all know that self-evaluations can miss critical opportunities. In short, the human rights treaty reporting process facilitates our ability to identify best practices for ensuring the rights of every individual.

For all these reasons, the reporting process should be welcomed and supported by all levels of government as well as civil society.

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