Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural)

Note: Owing to the liquidity crisis impacting our Organization, only a partial summary of statements made in today’s meetings of the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) is available at this time.  The complete summary will be issued later as Press Release GA/SHC/4266.


The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) began its debate on the promotion and protection of human rights today.  Delegates had before them numerous reports: of the Human Rights Committee (document A/74/40); the Committee Against Torture (document A/74/44); the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (document A/74/48); the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (document A/74/55); and the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (document A/74/56).

Also before the Committee were the Secretary-General’s reports on Accessibility and the status of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol thereto (document A/74/146); on the United Nations voluntary trust fund on contemporary forms of slavery (document A/74/228); and on the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture (document A/74/233); as well as the report by the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (document A/74/148); and of the Chairs of the human rights treaty bodies on their thirty-first annual meeting (document A/74/256).

Regarding alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the Committee had before it reports on: the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence (document A/74/147); the situation of human-rights defenders (document A/74/159); minority issues (document A/74/160); human-rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (document A/74/161); the right to development (documents A/74/163 and A/74/167); the right to food (document A/74/164); the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights (document A/74/165); the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (document A/74/174); and the independence of judges and lawyers (document A/74/176).

Other reports focused on: contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences (document A/74/179); the protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (document A/74/181); adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to non-discrimination in this context (document A/74/183); human rights and international solidarity (document A/74/185); the rights of persons with disabilities (document A/74/186); albinism worldwide (document A/74/190); human rights of migrants: good practices and initiatives on gender-responsive migration legislation and policies (document A/74/191); human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation (document A/74/197); working group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (document A/74/198); human rights and cultural diversity (document A/74/212); the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (document A/74/213); the effective promotion of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (document A/74/215); and national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (document A/74/226).

Further reports covered the promotion of equitable geographical distribution in the membership of the human rights treaty bodies (document A/74/227); combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons, based on religion or belief (document A/74/229); the right to education (document A/74/243); the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order (document A/74/245); cultural rights (document A/74/255); the rights of internally displaced persons (document A/74/261); the United Nations Human Rights Training and Documentation Centre for South-West Asia and the Arab Region (document A/74/262); the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights (document A/74/178); trafficking in persons, especially women and children (document A/74/189); protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (document A/74/270); the human rights of migrants (document A/74/271); the right to privacy (document A/74/277); strengthening the role of the United Nations in enhancing the effectiveness of the principle of periodic and genuine elections and the promotion of democratization (document A/74/285); the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity (document A/74/314); extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (document A/74/318); the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (document A/74/335); the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (document A/74/349); and the Subregional Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa (document A/74/460).

Delegates also had before them country-specific reports on the human-rights situations in: Somalia (document A/74/166); the Islamic Republic of Iran (documents A/74/188 and A/74/273)); Belarus (document A/74/196); the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (documents A/74/268 and A/74/275); the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine (document A/74/276); Myanmar (documents A/74/278, A/74/311, A/74/342); and Burundi (document A/74/303). Regarding the Comprehensive implementation of and follow-up to the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the Committee had before it the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (document A/74/36).

Interactive Dialogues on Human Rights

ROSEMARY A. DICARLO, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs — introducing the Secretary‑General’s report on “Strengthening the role of the United Nations in enhancing the effectiveness of the principle of periodic and genuine elections and the promotion of democratization (document A/74/785)” — reported that the United Nations has assisted 55 Member States in conducting elections during the last two years, mainly in the form of technical assistance or strengthening national electoral capacity.  The report shows progress in coordination for providing such assistance, across the United Nations system and with regional organizations.  It affirms that political leaders from the Government and opposition parties bear overriding responsibility for successful elections.  They also can strengthen trust by reaffirming opposition rights if they win and accepting the results of a well‑run election if they lose.

She said the report notes that, since 1997, the percentage of women in lower houses of parliaments worldwide has almost doubled, commenting that this is encouraging but still far short of targets outlined in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.  Support for progress remains a priority, as does stemming the violence perpetrated against women during elections.  In addition, the influence of the Internet and social media in elections has raised complex issues.  “The paralyzing suspicion that any information or discourse can be or has been manipulated — leading to the erosion of trust — lies at the heart of the Internet’s challenge to democracy,” she said.  Responses to this challenge are still evolving, but Member States may wish to focus on building the resilience of their societies by promoting critical thinking, digital literacy and professional journalism.  Attention should be paid to protecting those most vulnerable to hate speech as well.  She concluded by pledging the readiness of the United Nations to support Member States, at their request, in conducting elections.  The Organization’s strength in this endeavour lies in impartiality, diverse expertise and ability to coordinate elections with related efforts.

ANDREW GILMOUR, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and Head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), introduced several reports.  The Secretary-General’s report on social development challenges faced by persons with albinism (document A/74/184) concludes that specific measures continue to be critical to improve the terms of societal participation so that this population is not left behind.  The report on the human rights of migrants (document A/74/271) identifies legislative, policy and other measures taken to promote and protect migrants, while the Secretary-General’s report on the right to development (documents A/74/167 and A/HRC/42/29) focuses on the relationship between that right and Sustainable Development Goal 17 (partnership).  It calls on Member States to enhance international cooperation on issues of finance, including by addressing illicit financial flows.

He went on to say that the Secretary-General’s report on human rights and cultural diversity (document A/74/212) provides an overview of efforts taken at the national, regional and international levels regarding the preservation of cultural diversity.  The Secretary-General’s report on the Effective Promotion of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (document A/74/160) meanwhile urges Member States and other stakeholders to consider ways to reinforce the impact of the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues.  He also referred to the Secretary-General’s report on steps taken by States to combat intolerance and stereotyping based on religion or belief (document A/74/229), which calls for a greater emphasis on actions that must be taken by Member States and others.  The report on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (document A/74/335) notes that more must be done to ensure victims’ access to justice, while the report on the safety of journalists (document A/74/314) provides an overview of the situation.  Turning to the Secretary-General’s report on the Subregional Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa, he said it describes the situations in Burundi, Cameroon and the Congo.  He also updated the Committee on human rights situations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine; and Iran (documents A/74/268, A/74/276 and A/74/273).

When the floor opened for questions and comments, the representative of the United Kingdom asked about action to be taken to safeguard the rights of journalists and raise the costs for those who seek to harm them.  Ukraine’s representative said attention should be paid to the main cause of rights violations in Crimea:  the occupation of the peninsula by the Russian Federation.  The representative of Iran meanwhile said the mandate related to his country is an instrument of coercion and intimidation.  Morocco’s delegate asked for practical recommendations on how to mainstream a human-rights approach into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The representative of the Russian Federation said the report on Crimea is politicized and based on falsified information and the related mandate is not accepted by his country.  The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea said the report related to his country likewise is based on fabrications and lies with the aim of toppling his country’s social system.  The representative of Syria said his country’s people and economy have been destroyed, while hospitals and bridges and other services required for development have been destroyed, notably due to the support given to terrorism.

Mr. GILMOUR responded that the safety of journalists is a pressing problem and there are further measures being devised to ensure that journalists are better protected.  To Ukraine’s representative, on the issue of occupation, he said it is against the Geneva Conventions to transfer a population into an occupied area.  To the Russian Federation’s delegate, he noted that his Office has been unable to access Crimea despite that requests have been made to do so.

To Iran’s representative, he described the report as balanced, pointing out that some issues relate to the sanctions placed on Iran.  Regarding comments made by Morocco’s representative, he said he and his colleagues are focusing on how human rights can be integrated into the Agenda.  He rejected that the report on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is based on fabrication and lies, noting that it is based on comprehensive information from abroad.  “If you believe our reports are inaccurate, then let us in,” he said.  He expressed his surprise that Syria’s representative discussed the destruction of hospitals, based on what is known about who has actually done most of the destroying.

DANIELA BAS, Director, Division for Inclusive Social Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, introduced the Secretary-General’s report titled “Accessibility and the status of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol thereto” (document A/74/146), which includes an overview of progress by Governments, civil society groups and the United Nations in advancing accessibility.  Noting that the Convention is a critical development and human-rights tool, she said the report emphasizes that more action is needed to remove obstacles facing persons with disabilities in accessing products, services and environments.  It offers recommendations to enhance accessibility and demonstrates that the lack thereof results in the exclusion of persons with disabilities, presenting a fundamental barrier to the implementation of the Convention and the 2030 Agenda.

AHMED AMIN FATHALLA, Chair of the Human Rights Committee, said that since July 2018, the Human Rights Committee reviewed 23 Member State reports, providing recommendations and participating in constructive dialogue with their delegations.  The Committee has also simplified its reporting procedures.  In June, he attended the meeting of the Chairs of the human rights treaty bodies, where they agreed to offer simplified reporting procedures to all States, in addition to agreeing on other procedural matters.

When the floor was opened for questions and comments, the European Union’s delegate reiterated his delegation’s continued support for the Human Rights Committee, urging all States to become parties to the Optional Protocol.  He expressed concern that the lack of cooperation influences the Committee’s ability to fulfil its obligations.  He asked the Chair whether the Committee plans on any further cooperation with other treaty bodies.

The United Kingdom’s delegate said engagement with civil society is extremely important, expressing concern about ongoing reports of intimidation against journalists for cooperating with the Human Rights Committee.  He asked the Chair how States can be examined for not fulfilling their obligations.  The representative of Mexico meanwhile reiterated his country’s pledge to respect the human rights of all people.  Mexico will continue to be open to international scrutiny, with special emphasis on cooperation, he said, adding that improving the existing legal framework remains a priority.

The Czech Republic’s delegate, associating with the European Union, encouraged all States to ratify the Covenant, drawing attention to the decision to begin work on the General Comment on the right to life, which will offer new guidance for States.  Egypt’s delegate stressed the importance of promoting universal respect for human rights and capacity-building, asking the Chair how to enhance engagement with States parties regarding General Comments.

The representative of the Russian Federation meanwhile expressed a grave concern over the high level of political influence being exerted on the Human Rights Committee’s decisions.  Objecting to aggressive lobbying calling for the Committee to merge with the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, he recommended that the Committee shift its focus from the political to the legal sphere, and not disregard the principles of international law.

Also participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of the United States, the Maldives, Morocco, Ireland and Costa Rica.

Mr. FATHALLA, responding to questions on joint assessments and alignment with other Committees, said the only joint assessment is done at the Chair’s meeting once a year.  The Committees meet on different dates, so it is often difficult to schedule a joint assessment.

On the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, he said the Human Rights Committee issues recommendations in the application of its Article 40.  General Comments are needed, he said, noting that in June the Committee discussed the environment – an issue that was not discussed 50 years ago — so the Committee adapted to that reality.  Describing the process, he said that following a presentation by the Rapporteur, the Committee requests the opinion of all States parties to the Covenant and explores the views of civil society.  Then, a comprehensive view can be achieved.

On political influence, he said the Human Rights Committee is a legal entity and States parties are responsible for electing each expert to it.  The States parties have an obligation to assess the candidates.  More broadly, he said the Human Rights Committee is affected by budgetary problems and its October meeting could have been cancelled.  However, at the June meeting, the issue was resolved in order to have a meeting in October in Geneva.  The budget is the responsibility of States who pay the contributions.

RENATO ZERBINI RIBEIRO LEÃO, Chair of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said the Committee has adopted 147 final decisions since its 123rd session in July 2018, compared to 113 cases in 2016 and 131 in 2017.  Nonetheless, this productivity has been outstripped by the pace of registered cases, leading to a growing backlog of individual communications, he said, noting that there were 746 pending cases as of the end of 2018, compared to 635 in 2017 and 599 in 2016.  He underscored the need for more resources to enhance capacity and address the backlog, which undermines the Committee’s credibility “as a forum which can provide timely remedies to victims of human rights violations”.

Turning to General Comments, he said the General Comment on the right to life was adopted in October 2018, and the right of peaceful assembly is currently being deliberated in Geneva.  On the financial situation and consequent budget cuts, which might have postponed the Committee’s third session if a stop-gap solution had not been found, he underlined that any delays would have been “dire”, as they would have led to a delay in the consideration of more than 40 individual complaints alleging often serious violations of civil and political rights.  He urged Member States to fulfil their responsibilities arising from human-rights treaties they have ratified.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of the European Union asked what is being done to deal with those who practice intimidation and reprisals against human-rights defenders.  Eritrea’s representative asked how the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights can cooperate to help States meet their human-rights obligations.  Meanwhile, Spain’s delegate asked how the Committee plans to ensure access to clean water, and Brazil’s representative asked what can be done to ensure more equitable access to the resources generated by the digital revolution.

Also speaking were the representatives of China, Costa Rica, Algeria, Portugal and the Maldives.

Mr. RIBEIRO LEÃO responded that his is the only Committee that has a declaration on the defence of human-rights defenders on its website, and which explains what States can do to better protect them.  Reprisals and intimidation against them will be the focus of discussions in Geneva.  On coordination between the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, he said that they will continue to meet to discuss how to improve their work.  A previous meeting to exchange experiences touched on some successes, such as the Human Rights Committee’s measures taken towards simplified reporting.  On access to water, which he affirmed is reflected in Articles 11 (adequate standard of living) and 12 (highest standard of health) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, he said he engaged in constructive dialogue with States to improve understanding on the importance of the issues.  Turning to the digital age, which will contribute to fighting corruption, he underscored the obligation of Member States to provide access to digital information.

JENS MODVIG, Chair of the Committee Against Torture, presented that body’s latest report and stated that 169 States have now become parties to the Convention against Torture.  Spotlighting the work of the Convention against Torture Initiative — a unique, State-driven collaboration aiming to achieve the treaty’s universal ratification and full implementation — he said the Committee considered reports submitted by 16 States over the past year.  Unfortunately, 25 States that ratified the Convention have never submitted a report, preventing the Committee from fulfilling its monitoring mandate and initiating a dialogue.  Other States have submitted a report but failed to provide periodic updates every four years.  In order to alleviate the reporting burden on States, the Committee is pioneering a simplified procedure enabling countries to submit more focused reports — a process that has been adopted by 100 States parties to date.

Meanwhile, he said, the individual complaints procedure assists States in implementing the Convention with a view to addressing the plight of victims.  The Committee’s workload remains significant, with numerous complaints registered.  In efforts to render its methods more effective, the Committee established an inter-sessional working group on individual complaints, which is endeavouring to rationalize the workload by considering draft discontinuances and inadmissibility decisions prior to the Committee’s sessions.  Regrettably, individuals from only 68 States parties may submit complaints, as 101 States have not yet recognized the Committee’s competence in that area.  Urging those countries to do so, he outlined the Committee’s engagement with other anti-torture mandate holders in the United Nations system — namely the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture and the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture — drawing attention to various joint activities and statements.

“Torture is still practiced in many countries, and the international community needs to substantially step up efforts to fight this horrendous crime,” he stressed.  States have repeatedly asked the Committee what can be done to improve reporting compliance, noting that only those States parties that report to the Committee are scheduled for review.  “This means that a State party who does not submit a report escapes the review and thereby the regular scrutiny foreseen by the Convention,” he said, describing that as a “serious problem”.  One possible solution — which could be introduced gradually — is the proposal to implement a calendar through which all States parties to the Convention would be scheduled for review every 4 to 5 years.  This would replace the current situation, in which some States have not been reviewed for 10 or 20 years and some have never been reviewed at all, he said.

When the floor was opened for interactive dialogue, Mexico’s delegate asked how the Committee intends to encourage States to ratify the Convention.  The United States’ representative asked what effect the system of reprisals has on the Committee’s daily work, while the representative of Liechtenstein requested further analysis on the separation of migrant children from their parents.  The Russian Federation’s representative objected to double standards.  Providing the example of Guantanamo and raising an alarm regarding the United Kingdom’s handling of the Julian Assange case, he expressed dissatisfaction with the Committee’s work.

The representative of France, associating with the European Union, called on parties to respect the Convention against Torture.  China’s delegate meanwhile said the Convention does not mandate the treaty bodies to make general comments of an interpretive character; their comments should be faithful to the original meaning of the Convention and not change its scope.

Mr. MODVIG replied to Mexico’s representative by describing initiatives whose primary objective is to increase ratification, including regular meetings with representatives of non-State parties.  More broadly, he said reprisals against civil society can be avoided by holding low‑profile meetings with these groups.  He also recalled close collaborations with the Assistant Secretary‑General in New York, who has a special mandate to deal with reprisals.  To Liechtenstein’s representative, he said the separation of migrant children from their parents can amount to ill‑treatment.

Also participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of South Africa, Denmark and the European Union.

MALCOLM EVANS, Chair, Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, said the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture has been ratified by 90 countries, and 65 National Preventive Mechanisms have been established as a result.  Unfortunately, not all States parties have fulfilled their obligation to establish such a mechanism, with 22 States not in compliance and with significant regional variations.  Moreover, the Subcommittee compiles a list of countries more than three years overdue in this regard, with Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Liberia and Nigeria egregiously overdue at more than 10 years.  These States seem to lack the will to comply with their Protocol obligations, he observed, violating the letter and spirit of the Convention.  The obligation to establish a Preventive Mechanism is a central element of the Convention, but it is clear that few of these countries appear to attach any urgency to the prevention of torture and ill-treatment, he noted, adding: “That a State should be disinterested in fulfilling its international obligations — freely assumed — to prevent torture is quite outrageous.”

He went on to detail the challenges of country visits, noting that the Protocol system allows Subcommittee members access to places of detention to better understand the realities and offer advice on improving protections.  However, States are collectively refusing to provide the minimum means necessary to allow such visits.  “People are not statistics, and speaking with honesty about what is really happening in places where people find themselves detained is absolutely essential if there is to be real change,” he emphasized.  As such, there can never be any excuse for the cruelties sometimes encountered, such as the chaining of people with disabilities lying in their own excrement, routine beatings and humiliations, and the use of barbed electric batons to maintain order.  Budget cuts and inadequate support do not really hurt the Subcommittee; it hurts the detainees.  Turning to positive reports, he noted that increasing numbers of States are making the Subcommittee’s reports public, and there is greater recognition in many States of the breadth of the Preventive Mechanism mandate.  Moreover, at least 20 countries have benefited from assistance by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) towards establishing or strengthening mechanisms.

Given the floor for questions, the representative of the European Union expressed concern about challenges faced by the Subcommittee, which had led to its diminished visiting programme, and asked what States can do to support its work.  Along similar lines, Denmark’s delegate expressed concern about the growing backlog of States that have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture but do not fulfil their obligations, and asked how the Subcommittee’s needs could be better addressed in the 2020 review.  Meanwhile, the representative of Chile said that his country has fulfilled a commitment that dates back a decade by publishing a law designating its own National Preventive Mechanism, which State bodies will implement.

Mr. EVANS, in reply, said that the decrease in visits and other systemic issues are a problem.  “It seems trite to say, but the obvious way of addressing it is more resources,” he said. “But even that has finite limitations.”  There is a need for “innovative thinking” to develop different forms of engagement with States over Convention obligations.  Moving on to the lack of compliance and the “negative moves” some States are taking in relation to the National Preventive Mechanisms, he underlined the need for more intensive contact within and outside sessions, although the visiting mandate cannot be replaced.  On the 2020 review, he noted that present reporting processes seem to be failing to engage with the needs of the Subcommittee, and hoped they would be properly recognized and assessed in due course.  Responding to Chile’s delegate, he said he is “delighted” at the progress made and looks forward to receiving the information formally.

NILS MELZER, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said that every day his mandate is overwhelmed with requests for urgent interventions, but due to a lack of resources and capacity, only a fraction can be adequately considered.  Referring to his official visit to Comoros, he expressed regret that it had to be terminated early as he was unable to obtain full access to all places of detention.  Regarding his visit to Julian Assange in Belmarsh prison in London, he said that although Mr. Assange showed a pattern of symptoms typical for long term exposure to psychological torture, he expressed regret that none of the concerned States have agreed to investigate their alleged involvement in his abuse, as required under human-rights law.

He said domestic violence is perpetrated daily against millions of people through a wide variety of abusive conduct, including excessively controlling behavior, mental abuse, sexual and physical violence and even murder.  Although most instances of domestic violence occur in the private sphere, Governments have obligations to prevent and prosecute such abuse and to provide victims with redress and rehabilitation.  His resulting recommendations focus on strengthening the capacity of States to prevent and respond to torture and other degrading treatment in the context of domestic violence.  States should ratify, without reservations, all international legal instruments giving effect to the prohibition of torture and ill treatment.  They should refrain from promoting violent, discriminatory or dehumanizing narratives and instead criminalize domestic violence, and should also establish accessible help lines, provide legal assistance to victims and ensure their legal systems provide redress.  Like war, he said, domestic violence is a menace that traumatizes countless individuals, particularly women and children.

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