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Prof. Ruth Wedgwood Named to U.N. Human Rights Committee

On September 9, 2002, Professor of Law Ruth Wedgwood was elected by 143 state members of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to serve on the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The committee was established to monitor the implementation of the ICCPR, which Wedgwood describes as "the major international instrument of civil liberties and civil rights--rights to speech and free association and locomotion--and political rights, as well--the right to take part in elections, the right to express a political opinion."

The committee's primary duties are to review the reports submitted by nations on their implementation of the ICCPR; to hear complaints levied by one state against another; to hear complaints brought by individuals against states, under an optional protocol; and to make interpretive declarations about the ICCPR. Wedgwood points out that while each committee member is nominated by his or her home state, the members serve as independent experts. Most of the committee is made up of law professors.

Reviewing the reports of the treaty's 143 state parties is an enormous portion of the committee's work. Countries don't always report on time, and one of the challenges for the committee is to make its judgments register. "The committee doesn't have the binding authority of a court," says Wedgwood. It has no police force to follow through on its rulings. "It's a combination of trying to inveigle people and play upon their desire for a good national reputation. If you're going to be an entrant on the international capital market, you do care what other countries think."

The committee also plays an important role in interpreting the ICCPR in light of current events. Wedgwood points to a committee statement on the question of how much a nation can suspend or amend its human rights policies in a time of emergency. "The covenant recognizes that occasionally states will be in dire circumstances and feel the need to pass emergency legislation.... But it has to be proportional and necessary," says Wedgwood.

Another issue on which the committee has taken a stand is the extent of a member nation's ability to exempt itself from portions of the treaty. Wedgwood points out that allowing a limited number of reservations from the ICCPR permits local practices to persist within the standards of fundamental human decency set by the treaty. "As human rights law becomes more and more rarified there may be cases where there are two fair ways of doing something."

The U.N. Human Rights Committee meets three times a year, in New York and Geneva, and Wedgwood begins her four-year term on the eighteen-person committee in 2003. Wedgwood joined candidates from India, Japan, Switzerland, France, Tunisia, Argentina, Poland, and Panama who were elected this year at an ad hoc meeting of states who are parties to the ICCPR.

For Wedgwood, this meant spending about three and a half weeks sitting in the Indonesian Lounge at the U.N., meeting one by one with the representatives of different nations. "It was an interesting introduction to the politics of the U.N.," she says. Just while being considered for a seat on the committee, Wedgwood learned a lot. She noted how the U.N. functions partly on personal relationships and partly on national politics; how much influence the continent of Africa has, with sixty votes; how nations vote for their regional interest; and how some delegations don't get instruction from their home countries.

Wedgwood brings a broad background in U.N. politics to the committee, as well as experience as a federal prosecutor. The latter will be helpful, she believes, as the committee primarily confronts "bread and butter problems of implementation--questions of fairness in poor countries or in institutionally underdeveloped states."

One area that Wedgwood intends to give particular attention is women's rights. She notes that only two of the committee members will be women when she starts. And while the UN has a Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, "one doesn't want women's rights to only be heard in a single venue," says Wedgwood. "I am interested in making sure that women's issues are given adequate attention by the sixteen out of eighteen who are males on the committee."