Sausage Making and UN Treaties: How They Are Really Made


On International Disability Day, December 3, 2005, Harvard Law School — through the hard work of Professors Michael Stein, William Alford, and Ryan Goodman — hosted a seminar entitled “Towards Effective Monitoring of the UN Treaty on Human Rights and Disability: A Global Challenge.” (Your trusty correspondent got up bright and early to find out what went into the making of a UN treaty. With pen and notebook, I planned to pierce the rhetoric and diploma-speak to get a small sampling of the grinding and processing that results in a UN treaty sausage.)

One of the primary purposes of the seminar was to bring together representative delegations of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) from all over the world into a an open and public forum to debate issues surrounding the monitoring and implementation of the draft United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities. The seminar provided delegates a place to work out their ideas before heading to the seventh session of the UN Ad Hoc Committee addressing the Convention on January 16 – February 3, 2006.

The seminar brought out issues concerning the relationship between domestic and international institutions, treaty drafting and the role of non-state actors. This was all set against the backdrop, as Professor Ryan Goodman reminded everyone in his welcoming remarks, of UN reform. Everyone that day agreed that this treaty should not just be another treaty full of principles but without real effectiveness.

The turn-out was impressive-Hauser 104 filled to capacity with delegates, HLS faculty and students. Timothy P. Shriver, keynote speaker and Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics International, discussed bringing the “human” back into human rights. He focused not on the legal effects of the treaty but on how to combine human rights law and social change. “Law cannot do it alone,” stated Shriver when talking about bringing about changes in attitudes towards people with disabilities, “so we have to create a culture of welcome [for people with disabilities] from the ground up.”

Jane Connors, from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the human rights treaty process and drew out the mechanics of monitoring and implementing international treaties. Connors underscored the huge administrative burden upon states and UN bodies that went along with monitoring requirements of all these treaties. The vast majority of human rights treaties have some form of a monitoring committee. Every state in the world is party to at least one human rights treaty, and the majority of states are party to at least four. Connors noted that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has recently started emphasizing the need to create a unified permanent treaty body.

The most creative ideas came from Keiren Fitzpatrick, Representative of the Asia/Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. He emphasized that most international monitoring mechanisms were inaccessible to the majority of people and that the most accessible mechanisms will be at the national level. Fitzpatrick suggested that the Convention should allow for individual complaints, collective complaints (akin to class actions), and proactive enquiries. He raised the idea of a Disability Global Advocate mandated to promote the Convention and facilitate its implementation.

Gerard Quinn, Professor from the National University Ireland and Member of the Human Rights Commission of Ireland, seemed to reflect much of the speakers’ agenda in his remarks. “We have to avoid the temptation of elegance in creating a treaty without traction,” stated Quinn. “You don’t have to be polite to get your rights.”

The second half the of the seminar was an open panel discussion with Anuradha Mohit, Global Representative of National Human Rights Institutions to the UN Ad Hoc Committee, moderating the discussion between the audience and the panel members consisting of representatives from various NGOs. The discussion highlighted the fact that the issue of disability has to be addressed at the broadest level possible. Panel and audience members discussed a multitude of sources to look for ideas. Sources of inspiration ranged from environmental laws to the United Nations Development Programme.

Ambassador Luis Galleos, Ambassador of Ecuador to the United States and former Chair of the UN Ad Hoc Committee, noted in his closing remarks that creating a human rights treaty is difficult because it is an exercise of creating a “universal language” in light of multicultural, linguistic and legal traditions. However, he did not explain why this human rights treaty is any more difficult than other ones. Ambassador Galleos did point out that countries of various levels of development have different agendas. Ambassador Gaellos stated, “This [convention] will be ground breaking issue. It will be difficult, but groundbreaking issues usually are.”

Michael Fakhri is an LL.M. student and is not a vegetarian.

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