30 March 2006

Human Rights Committee Continues Discussion on Draft General Comment on Covenant Article Concerning Right to Fair Trial

NEW YORK, 29 March (UN Headquarters) -- The United Nations expert panel monitoring worldwide implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights today continued the work of its eighty-sixth session with a read-through of its draft "general comment" on article 14 of the treaty, which deals with "the right of equality before courts and tribunals and to a fair trial".

Meeting in New York through the end of the month, the 18-member Human Rights Committee is mandated to examine compliance reports submitted by countries that are among the 156 States parties to the Covenant, which was adopted in 1966 by the General Assembly.  The Committee also regularly holds thorough discussions on, and eventually publishes its interpretation of, the content of human rights provisions, in the form of general comments on thematic issues.

Walter Kälin, expert from Switzerland and the Committee's Rapporteur on the consideration of its general comment on article 14 of the Covenant, opened the discussion today with an update of status of the draft since last week, when the Committee began its read-through of the 27-paragraph conference room document (CCPR/C/GC/32/CRP.1).

That text contained the proposed structure of the general comment, which would open with general remarks and then highlight the Committee's observations on such areas as criminal charges; fair public hearings; independent and impartial tribunals; and the presumption of innocence.  Overall, the exercise attempts to systemize the Committee's "case law" on article 14, with a paragraph-by-paragraph description of the article and references to similar tenets within the Covenant.

Much of the discussion focused on measures taken by some countries to fight terrorist activities and the resort to special tribunals of so-called "faceless judges".  While the use of anonymous judges was incompatible with article 14, several of the experts said they understood why some courts needed to use faceless jurists and believed that the general comment should not contain a blanket condemnation of the practice.

One expert said that such faceless tribunals should only be enacted in "states of emergency", perhaps they could be used to deal with specific "terrorist acts", rather than "terrorism", while another added that States must make sure that such courts were not permanent.  Another speaker reminded the Committee, however, that, in some cases, judges might be present in the room, but would adjudicate from behind darkened screens.

Perhaps there were some circumstances that required judicial anonymity, he said, adding that judges must not be scared off certain cases.  Another expert said that, in some instances, particularly in major drug cases, many countries allowed anonymous jurors.  Saying that drafting language on the matter was a "delicate balancing act" -- ensuring the Committee remained consistent in its jurisprudence, while making clear that the comment did not invite the creation or permanence of such tribunals -- Committee Chairperson Christine Chanet, expert from France, asked Mr. Kälin to consider the views of the other experts, and come up with another formula for the Committee's consideration.

The experts next turned to other matters related to the standards of fairness in judicial proceedings, including the need for such trials to be free from threats, particularly internal threats, such as hostile attitudes of the public in the courtroom -- affecting the right to defence -- or racist attitudes of the jury tolerated by the court.  The experts suggested that the comment address "other manifestations of hostility" and "racially biased jury selection".  They also discussed Article 14's guarantee of procedural equality and fairness, as well as matters related to the presumption of innocence.

The Committee will reconvene on Friday, 31 March, to wrap up its eighty-sixth session.

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