NEW YORK, April 6, 2012 (C-FAM.org) - The UN treaty body system may be on the verge of collapse due to a huge backlog of government reports and insufficient resources.  In additional to backlog problems, the committees have been criticized for going beyond the mandate of the treaties they monitor and imposing their own interpretations, which include unrestricted abortion and homosexual rights.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) held a meeting this week to hash out disagreements. On the one hand, treaty body members want more staff and time to deal with voluminous reports from governments. On the other hand, governments are annoyed at the overreach of most of the treaty bodies that take it upon themselves to reinterpret the content of treaties and to hector governments over issues not present in them in the first place!

During this week’s meeting a truly bleak picture emerged. The treaty bodies appear to be simply unable to keep up with their work. Each year, they should address 320 reports, but in the end, only 120 reports are actually reviewed. The problem is compounded by delays in governments reporting to the bodies.

Of the cumulative initial reports due, 307 have never been submitted. Only 33% of reports are presented to the treaty bodies on time. Part of the problem is the massive number of reports governments are supposed to submit. Small governments tend to have serious problems meeting the reporting requirements.

Treaty body experts who spoke during the meeting insisted on more funding and on reform that would not compromise their independence. They view the backlog as a testament to the success of the treaty body system.

Governments proposed a code of conduct for the treaty body members. The treaties that establish these committees do not flesh out how the treaty bodies should conduct their dialogue with states. Treaty bodies have used this latitude to ask countries to change their laws on issues that are not recognized in any UN treaty, like abortion and homosexuality.

Pakistan stated: “State parties need the treaty bodies to be accountable, reliable and predictable, their independence notwithstanding.” The Pakistani delegate was especially concerned that any reform must be consistent with the treaties: “Treaties are serious legal documents that are the result of years of negotiations.”

Controversial proposals included strict page limits on countries’ submissions, follow-up procedures to treaty bodies’ recommendations, optional reporting mechanisms like country visits and criteria for selecting candidates to sit on the treaty bodies.

Many of these proposals come from the Dublin Outcome Document. Released last November and signed by several treaty body members, it sets forth a number of proposals for reform. Numerous governments believe many of these proposals would require a new international treaty before they could be adopted.

China’s delegation, reflecting concerns shared by small and impoverished countries, stated: “Follow up procedure should not add to the reporting burden of states.” China also expressed concern with the view put forward by treaty body members that their opinions are authoritative: “The conclusions (of the treaty bodies) have no legal validity.”

Russia’s delegation is leading the inter-governmental process that will culminate in the UN General Assembly. They have sought to steer the conversation away from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the treaty bodies themselves to ensure that sovereign states decide how treaty body reform takes place.