The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) turned its attention to the broad promotion and protection of human rights today, with United Nations experts addressing nuanced questions around child marriage, persons with disabilities trapped in conflict zones and conditions in countries that have raised concerns for years.

In one of four interactive dialogues held online during the half-day meeting, Craig Mokhiber, Director of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), introduced 10 reports prepared by the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner, covering such topics as child, early and forced marriage, missing persons and human rights conditions in countries including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Myanmar and Iran.

In the related online dialogue, Ethiopia’s delegate said minors should be better protected against early and child marriage, and that such protections should include equal access to education, quality health care and robust legal mechanisms.  The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, meanwhile, took issue with the report on conditions in his country, stressing that “the Secretary-General should not allow his name to be used in reports aimed at politically motivated provocation”.

Ahmed Amin Fathalla, Chairperson of the Human Rights Committee, presented that body’s annual report, discussing State reporting procedures, as well as a “growing backlog” of registered cases, which he said will only worsen without more support from the Secretariat.  It is a question of credibility that the Committee is able to provide assistance to victims of human rights violations in a timely fashion.

The dialogue that followed focused predominantly on the Committee’s ability to carry out its mandate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Regarding country-specific reports, the Russian Federation’s delegate stressed that any “innovative measures” taken by independent experts should not be considered binding by the Committee.  Rather, the Committee should be bound only by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  Mr. Fatallah replied that any innovations used are included in the Committee’s rules of procedure.  “We are independent experts elected by States Parties to the Covenant,” he said.  “We are not judges; just mechanisms to assist you in implementing your obligations.”

Ana Maria Menéndez, Senior Advisor on Policy to the Secretary-General, meanwhile, shared the main ideas behind the United Nations disability inclusion strategy, while delegate questions centred on the difficulties faced by persons with disabilities during the pandemic.

In his online presentation, Renato Zerbini Ribeiro Leão, Chairperson of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, made special mention of the timeliness of the Committee’s General Comment on science as related to these fundamental freedoms, which was published in March.  He underscored the importance of sharing best available scientific knowledge in the context of access to COVID-19 treatment and vaccines.  Responding to a query on the role of States in obtaining broad access to a vaccine, he said States must mount a coordinated, response to the health crisis, particularly when assisting vulnerable groups.

The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 14 October, to continue its interactive dialogues on the promotion and protection of human rights.

Interactive Dialogues — Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

The Third Committee took up the promotion and protection of human rights today in a series of interactive dialogues, which featured presentations by:  Ana María Menéndez, Senior Advisor on Policy to the Secretary-General; Craig Mokhiber, Director of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); Ahmed Amin Fathalla, Chairperson of the Human Rights Committee; and Renato Zerbini Ribeiro Leão, Chairperson of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Disability Inclusion

Ms. MENÉNDEZ discussed the main themes of the Secretary-General’s report Disability inclusion in the United Nations system (document A/75/314), which outlines the United Nations disability inclusion strategy, as well as advances achieved across the system since it was launched in 2019.  Many entities are working together towards disability inclusion, she said, stressing that the Organization must lead by example and leave no one behind.  The report highlights challenges and opportunities in achieving disability inclusion, notably in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the ensuing dialogue, Armenia’s delegate asked the Senior Advisor about the mechanisms envisaged for persons with disabilities in conflict areas, while the representative of New Zealand asked how COVID-19 has impacted work undertaken by the Senior Advisor’s office, and about any pressures to deliver results.

Ms. MENÉNDEZ responded briefly, noting that COVID-19 has had a major impact on persons with disabilities.  She pointed to the Secretary-General’s policy brief on the topic, which was endorsed by many States, and the formation of a working group which involves civil society representatives.  She also cited action plans to improve disability inclusion and the Security Council’s focus on the impact of conflict on persons with disabilities.

Reports of Secretary-General, High Commissioner for Human Rights

Mr. MOKHIBER presented 10 reports of the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, among them, the Secretary-General’s report on the issue of child, early and forced marriage (document A/75/262), which recommends revising legislation that encourages the practice.  The Secretary-General’s report on missing persons (document A/75/306) addresses the applicable international legal framework, detailing the high number of missing children, as well as the impact on children whose family members have gone missing.  It recommends prevention, preparedness and early action.  The Secretary-General’s report on the question of human rights in the administration of justice (document A/75/327) focuses on the rights of persons with disabilities in such matters, underlining the importance of access to justice or the right to a fair trial.  

He said the Secretary-General’s report covering the moratorium on the use of the death penalty (document A/75/309) outlines developments towards the abolition of that practice and the establishment of moratoria on executions.  He welcomed progress made towards universal abolition, in the context of different legal systems, cultures and religious backgrounds.  He also introduced the Secretary‑General’s reports on the role of the Ombudsman, mediator and other national human rights institutions in the promotion and protection of human rights (document A/75/224) and on combating intolerance (document A/75/369).

He also presented the Secretary-General’s reports focused on country‑specific human rights situations in:  the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (document A/75/271), Islamic Republic of Iran (document A/75/287), Myanmar (document A/75/288) and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine (document A/75/334).

In the ensuing dialogue, many delegates voiced concern over the disruptions brought about by COVID-19 impacting the work of the Office.

The representative of the United States focused on reprisals towards human rights defenders, stressing that they “must be able to promote human rights without fear”.  She underscored the importance of freedom of expression and asked about critical challenges in the area of reprisals that require immediate attention.

In a similar vein, the representative of Armenia drew attention to the issue of missing persons, especially in the context of hostilities.

Ethiopia’s delegate meanwhile pointed to early child marriage, stressing that children should be shielded by legal mechanisms and stronger social protections as well as equal access to education and quality health care.  She asked about the economic underpinnings of early and child marriage.

“The Secretary-General should not allow his name to be used in reports aimed at politically motivated provocation,” the representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea emphasized, before going on to denounce “all campaigns aimed at overthrowing our social system”.

Mr. MOKHIBER covered a range of themes in response, stressing the importance of including measures to fight early and child marriage in stimulus packages to fight COVID-19.  He agreed that the enormity of this task is particularly difficult for developing countries.

Also participating in the dialogue were representatives of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Syria.

Human Rights Committee

Mr. FATHALLA presented the Committee’s annual report, detailing the body’s work between July 2019 and March 2020.  He discussed the reviews conducted by the Committee, measures to simplify and increase the predictability of the reporting procedure, assistance provided by the OHCHR to States in building their capacity to implement treaty obligations and the effects of COVID-19 on the Committee’s work.  Noting that the Committee’s ability to address the growing backlog of registered cases will continue to be seriously compromised without a significant increase in support from the Secretariat, he said such issues impact the Committee’s credibility in providing timely remedies to victims of human rights violations.  He also called on Member States to adequately fund the treaty body system from the regular United Nations budget so that the system can fulfill its mandate.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates affirmed their support for the work of the Human Rights Committee and its contribution to the promotion of human rights worldwide, with Egypt’s delegate asking about challenges the Committee faces in achieving its mandate and about the best means for overcoming them.

An observer for the European Union said the pandemic cannot serve as an excuse to limit civil society space.  She asked about how COVID-19 has affected the Committee’s agenda and about the working methods applied to new challenges.

The representative of the Russian Federation said that innovative measures by independent experts, including follow-up procedures for country-specific reports, should not be deemed binding by the Committee.  “We must adhere to the Covenant alone,” he stressed, referring to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  Expressing concern about the “political game-playing in individual complaints”, including one alleged violation his country was said to have committed 50 years ago, he went on to note a “trend” of cases not taken by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg being “deemed acceptable by Geneva”, despite being governed by comparable criteria.  Turning to General Comments made by treaty bodies, he said it is “odd” that time and resources are being devoted to “scare tactics and aggressive lobbying” by the Human Rights Council.

Mr. FATALLAH responded that any innovations are included in the rules of procedure of the Committee.  Follow-up procedures for country-specific reports reflect the needs of the community itself, and subsequent follow-ups look into actions taken by the State in response to recommendations.  Human Rights Council reports must reflect whether their recommendations have been acted on or not.  “We are independent experts elected by States Parties to the Covenant,” he stressed, adding:  “We are not judges; just mechanisms to assist you in implementing your obligations.”  Concerning the General Comments, he said they were adopted by the members of the United Nations, and therefore gave the Council “a green light to deal with the issue”.  He went on to provide his “personal explanation as a lawyer” for these additions, noting that the Covenant was adopted 60 years ago, and must be updated with new developments, such as the inclusion of climate change and the environment to the right to life enshrined in Article 6, for example.

Also participating in the dialogue were representatives of Mexico and Iran.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Mr. RIBEIRO LEÃO updated delegates on the work of his Committee, as well as matters related to the strengthening of the treaty body system.  He noted that in 2020, the Committee considered State Party reports during the sixty-seventh session.  The reviews scheduled for the ongoing sixty-eighth session have been postponed due to the current unprecedented situation.  In the meantime, the Committee continues to work on communications, the adoption of lists of issues and lists of issues prior to reporting, and on General Comments, including relating to land. He is working with other treaty body chairs, discussing matters of common concern.  Regarding the submission of State Party reports, the Committee continues to face a general situation of non- and late reporting, he said, noting that numerous States are more than 10 years late.  He called on States Parties to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as an invaluable tool to expand cooperation with the Committee and ensure the realization of these fundamental freedoms.  He noted the timeliness of the General Comment on science and economic, social and cultural rights adopted by the Committee in March 2020, underscoring the importance of sharing the best available scientific knowledge in the context of access to treatment and vaccines.

During the interactive dialogue, the representative of Portugal welcomed the Chair’s remarks on scientific progress and asked him to elaborate on the role of States in guaranteeing secure and widespread access to a COVID-19 vaccine, when one exists.  He also asked about measures being taken to monitor the International Covenants and to promote ratification of its Optional Protocol.

An observer for the European Union, noting that the crisis requires a response that adheres to international law, asked about lessons learned from State approaches to the pandemic, and about what more must be done to “rebuild fairer”.

Meanwhile, the representative of the Russian Federation encouraged the Committee to prepare a study on the effects of unilateral coercive measures on State abilities to fight the virus.  He asked the Chair if he is succumbing to “external pressure” to coordinate his work with the Human Rights Council.

Mr. RIBEIRO LEÃO, responding briefly, said any action taken in response to the pandemic must be done on the basis of scientific methods.  States must make adequate resources available to health care, and mount a coordinated, broad response to the health crisis, which takes into account the most marginalized people.  He called upon States to cooperate with each other in the pandemic response.  Responding to the representative of the Russian Federation, he said the Committee is already carrying out studies on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures.  It has not been pressured to combine efforts with the Council, adding that its work is done in coordination with other human rights treaty bodies in order to help States save time and resources.

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