The Broken UN Human Rights Treaty Body System

The United Nations human rights treaty body system is broken. It has been hijacked by transnational progressives to promote social and economic policies that undermine fundamental freedoms and national sovereignty. This is evidenced by recent UN committee reviews of the performance of the Holy See, commonly known as the Vatican, under two international human rights treaties.

The cause of the damage is the UN’s refusal to enforce rules requiring the independence and impartiality of committee members. This leads to ideologically driven committee reports or, if an objective report is actually generated, the use of the media by key members of the committee to publicly contradict, modify, or obfuscate the official conclusions of the report.

The Holy See exercises sovereignty over the territory of the small Vatican City State, an ecclesiastical state ruled by the Pope. As a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Holy See is required to submit reports to the committees responsible for monitoring the implementation of the conventions. Typical reports cover how nations treat prisoners and how their soldiers act in conflict areas. In considering the Holy See’s most recent reports, the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee against Torture used the events as opportunities to examine steps taken by the Holy See to investigate, prevent, and compensate the victims of sexual abuse against children conducted by Catholic priests.

In February, in a shocking challenge to the religious freedom of Catholics, the Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the Catholic Church to change her teachings.  The Committee expressed concern that some of the rules of Church Canon Law do not conform to the provisions of the Convention and recommended that the Holy See undertake a comprehensive review of its normative framework to ensure its full compliance with the Convention. The Committee also made concluding observations and recommendations challenging specific Catholic Church teachings and practices in the areas of homosexuality, gender, corporal punishment, family life, and sexual and reproductive health education.

After that baptism by fire, the Holy See was much better prepared to appear before the Committee against Torture, which over the past month conducted its review. During this process, two of the more ideological Committee members made it their mission to cast the Holy See as a state engaging in torture due to the sex abuse scandal and the Church’s pro-life position. During her inquisition of the Holy See, Committee Vice-Chair Felice Gaer argued that the church’s pro-life position against abortion can lead to torture under the Convention.

Despite the ideological, borderline prosecutorial approach by the Committee’s Vice-Chair, what was most telling is what the Committee did not conclude in its final report:

  • The Committee did not conclude that the Holy See had violated the terms of the Convention against Torture.
  • Based on a plain reading of the concluding observations, the Committee did not conclude that the Vatican exercises legal worldwide control over its bishops and priests.
  • The Committee did not classify the Catholic Church’s pro-life teachings and practices as constituting psychological torture.
  • The Committee did not recommend that the Holy See change Church teachings on sexuality, family, sexual orientation, marriage, or childrearing to conform to the norms of the Convention.

Yet, in an apparent effort to contradict or dilute these relatively straightforward outcomes, at the press conference during which the Committee released the Concluding Observations, the chairman and vice-chair of the Committee provided their opinions regarding the “actual” meaning of the report’s findings. Imagine the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States holding a press conference after publishing an important opinion, with the chief justice or authors of the majority and dissenting opinions publicly explaining what the decision really means.

Obviously, the entire exercise in media spin was designed to rehabilitate the vice-chair’s long-term goal of using the committee’s state party reporting process to expand the coverage of the treaty without approval of the member nations through “jurisprudence” that would include rape or sexual violence as torture. This would open up the floodgates to additional legal arguments made by lawyers for the alleged victims of child sexual abuse. Yet, by definition, “jurisprudence” is a system or body of law, including treaties, statutes, and court decisions. Treaty body committees are merely monitoring bodies, not courts of law, in which attorneys and judges collect, examine, and judge evidence to definitively determine whether the law has been violated and the decisions of which are subject to appeal.

By distorting and abusing their power, transnational progressives have broken the UN human rights treaty body system, which, ironically, will lead to the violation, not protection, of human rights.