UN Human Rights Committee concludes its session in New York

The 104th session of the UN Human Rights Committee, which has been under way in New York from 12-30 March 2012, will conclude tomorrow. The Human Rights Committee is one of the UN convention bodies, and is tasked with monitoring whether countries comply with their commitments under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Committee. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The Committee consists of 18 experts, who are independent members. Krister Thelin from Sweden has been a member of the Committee since 2008. He has previously been State Secretary at the Ministry of Justice and also served as a judge with the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

The Committee has two other functions besides monitoring countries: it considers complaints made by individuals who feel their human rights under the ICCPR have been violated, and it issues comments to the ICCPR in which the meaning of the various Articles is interpreted.

"In one way we are as close as we can come to something that resembles a world court," Mr Thelin explains regarding the examination of the human rights situation of both states and individuals that the Committee carries out. At the same time, not all states have signed the optional protocol that gives the Committee competence to examine individual complaints. The USA is an example of a state that has not signed, as opposed to Sweden, where individuals can make complaints.

"I understand that it is a rather sensitive issue that, in purely technical terms, we would be able to review the US Supreme Court," says Mr Thelin. He says that he therefore understands why certain countries are hesitant about signing the optional protocol.

During the newly concluded session in New York the Committee examined five countries: Cape Verde, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Turkmenistan and Yemen. The examinations consist of the Committee compiling a report with questions concerning the countr's human rights situation. The countries subsequently have the opportunity to submit written comments and replies. At one of the three annual sessions, the Committee takes up the replies that were submitted and poses questions to those representatives of the countries who are present.

The questioning session can be compared to a hearing where the representatives attending explain the human rights situation in their country. Both these questioning sessions and the Human Rights Committee's other work have received greater international attention in recent years. It is thought that much of the increased attention is due to the fact that all sessions are now webcast live. The webcasts were initiated by the Centre for Civil and Political Rights with funding from Norway.

"We receive a great deal of feedback from the countries being examined," Mr Thelin says. According to Mr Thelin, feedback has increased recently thanks to the webcasts and show the benefits of the Committee's work. Different organisations at national level follow the Committee's work and use the results in their efforts to promote human rights nationally and to hold those in power to account.

The concluding observations of the countries examined were presented at a press conference on 29 March 2012. At the same time, the Committee's annual report, which is a summary of its work during the previous year, was presented to the General Assembly. The next session of the Human Rights Committee will be held in July in Geneva, where five new countries will be examined: Armenia, Iceland, Kenya, Lithuania and Maldives. Sweden was last reviewed in 2009.