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To mark International Women’s Day 2022 and Women’s History Month 2022, the Academy focuses on the pressing issues of human rights, climate change, gender equality, and the role played by women lawyers. Barbara Faedda, executive director of the Academy, interviewed Photini Pazartzis, professor of international law and director of the Athens Public International Law Center at the Faculty of Law of the National & Kapodistrian University of Athens. Professor Pazartzis is currently the chair of the UN Human Rights Committee (ICCPR).

Read the interview below:

BF

Professor Pazartzis, I would like to start by asking you to briefly explain what the United Nations Human Rights Committee is, what its mission is, and what the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is.

PP

A few years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted in December 1966 two important international treaties that would further shape international human rights: the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR). These are known as the twin covenants and, together with the Universal Declaration, form the International Bill of Human Rights.

The Human Rights Committee is a body of eighteen independent experts and is the supervisory mechanism of the ICCPR. The committee has a dual function: first, it regularly monitors the implementation by states parties of the civil and political rights under the covenant; all states parties are obliged to submit regular reports to the committee detailing how these rights are being implemented in the domestic sphere. The committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the state party in the form of “concluding observations.” Second, the committee has a quasi-judicial function, namely, the competence to examine individual complaints, whereby individuals bring cases before the committee regarding alleged violations of their rights under the covenant. The committee examines these claims and issues “views,” where it determines whether there has been a violation of an individual’s rights and proposes remedies.

BF

Through the years, the work of the committee has led to major changes in laws, practices, and policies, both at the national and individual levels. What do you think are the committee’s most important changes and accomplishments in recent years?

PP

Under the ICCPR, like other human rights treaties, states assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. The committee’s mandate aims to ensure that international obligations are respected, implemented, and enforced at the domestic level. Among the many issues that the committee has dealt with in recent years, one can note, for example, the core right to life, liberty, and physical security of individuals; freedom of movement and arbitrary deprivation of liberty; the prohibition of torture, including unauthorized medical experimentation; the right to privacy and the limitations on data collection and surveillance; the prohibition of hate speech, including online; the right to peaceful assembly and civic space freedom; and ensuring guarantees of fair trial.

BF

Your committee has to monitor the implementation of the covenant obligations by the nations that are party to it. According to article 3: “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Convention.” While the covenant dates back to 1966, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted in 1979. I’m wondering how often you are involved in issues of discrimination against women. I would also like to ask you how the 1979 convention relates to the committee’s work.

PP

Gender-based discrimination is prohibited under most human rights instruments, including the ICCPR. The CEDAW Convention adopted in 1979 focuses on women’s rights in particular. Despite the progress made under human rights law in securing women’s rights globally, millions of women and girls continue to experience discrimination and violence, as well as denial of their equality, dignity, and autonomy. The ICCPR regularly addresses such issues within its purview of nondiscrimination: violence against women and girls, sexual and reproductive rights, and gender equality and participation in decision making are a few examples.

BF

Too often, still today, women minimally participate in decision making and experience marginalization, discrimination, and invisibility. Many analyses confirm that countries with greater participation and leadership by women in society and politics tend to be more inclusive, receptive, egalitarian, and democratic. How do institutions like the committee contribute to this?

PP

Through monitoring the implementation by states parties of their obligations, institutions like the committee also advocate for women and girls’ equal enjoyment of all human rights, by regularly recommending to states reforms of discriminatory laws and practices, eradication of gender stereotypes and violence against women and girls, as well as equal participation of women in all aspects of civil, political, economic, and social life.

BF

In 2018, in its General Comment No. 36, the committee stated that “climate change is one of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life.” Shortly after, in 2019, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated: “Climate change is a reality that now affects every region of the world. We are burning up our future—literally.” I imagine the issue of climate change has been on your agenda for many years now, but has it become even more pressing lately? What are the issues you are dealing with?

PP

Although the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not include a specific right to a healthy environment that could be compromised by climate change, the Human Rights Committee in its 2018 General Comment No. 36 on the right to life (article 6 ICCPR) has recognized the intrinsic link between the environment and the realization of a range of human rights. Issues of climate change in relation to the right to life are increasingly coming before the committee. It has recently determined that people who flee the effects of climate change should not be returned to their country of origin if essential human rights would be at risk on return. Also, the committee has recently held that a state has protection and due diligence obligations to prevent the harmful consequences of pollution by illegal toxic substances, like pesticides, that lead to harm to life and to the environment. These recent cases, which will certainly be followed by more, underscore the implications of environmental degradation for the realization of human rights and the importance for states to take action to prevent or mitigate harm associated with the environment.

BF

Climate change is a threat not just to the fundamental right to life, but to many other human rights as well. States have an obligation to prevent the negative consequences of climate change—which, we know now, are often foreseeable—and to ensure, especially for the most vulnerable people, the remedies and measures necessary for a life in dignity. Many experts and observers say that the negative consequences of climate change are greater for women. Do you also notice that in your work at the committee?

PP

Climate change and environmental degradation affect all individuals in the enjoyment of their human rights. It is true that negative consequences are more acutely felt by individuals belonging to groups that are already vulnerable, including women. But climate change is a pressing issue for the international community as a whole.

BF

Especially in light of the present situation in Ukraine—but also in relation to other geographical areas that have been affected by the same issue for years—I can’t help but ask you a question about refugees. How is the commission involved in issues related to refugees and asylum seekers?

PP

The Human Rights Committee has long been addressing issues relating to refugees and asylum seekers, but even more so in recent years, as we have witnessed migratory movements in Europe, Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. The basic principle is that an individual cannot be deported, extradited, or otherwise removed to a country where he or she faces a serious risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The committee considers that the principle of nonrefoulement is an integral component of the protection against torture or other forms of degrading treatment, or arbitrary deprivation of life, as protected under both article 7 and article 6 of the ICCPR. Protection of migrants or asylum seekers remains a major human rights challenge: hostile policies toward migrants, perceived security threats, often result in attempts to limit existing protection under human rights law. Furthermore, all too often, effective safeguards or remedies, including interim protection and legal guarantees, are inaccessible or ineffective. The HRC, on the basis of states’ obligations to respect and ensure rights of individuals, has consistently adopted the position that a state party would be in violation of its human rights obligations if its actions would expose an individual to a real risk of irreparable harm, such as that contemplated by articles 6 and 7 of the covenant.

BF

The Universal Declaration for Human Rights was adopted in 1948, after the horrors of World War II. In light of the current situation, of the many conflicts in the world, of the lack of respect for the basic rights of many individuals and communities in several areas of the planet, it is easy to have a pessimistic view of the lack of progress of humanity. I would like to ask you a question that I often ask in my interviews: Where have we failed—as citizens or, simply, as human beings—since the end of World War II? What could have been done that has not been done?

PP

There are two ways of looking at a glass: half-filled or half-empty. I would not tend to be overly pessimistic, mainly because we should keep in mind the impressive development of human rights instruments and standards in the post–World War II era, on a universal, regional, and domestic level. In fact, the field of human rights has been one of the areas of international law where we have witnessed immense progress in the consolidation and widening of protected rights, look at the three generations of human rights. So, much has been accomplished, and it is up to each and every one of us and all together to keep this acquis and continue efforts for a better future.  

BF

Do you have a specific message for young women from all over the world who intend to pursue a legal career in human rights?

PP

My message is only one of encouragement. Women have achieved important accomplishments in all areas, and, while many young women across the world continue to face barriers, especially in the area of work, their voices are heard. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #Break the Bias. Let’s do it!

Source: https://italianacademy.columbia.edu/events/womens-history-month-2022-interview-photini-pazartzis-chair-un-human-rights-committee

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