Cocktails or Quorum

The 22nd meeting of the State Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, UN , New York

By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

4 February 2003

I’m at the UN in New York, sitting in on the 22nd meeting of the State Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), held to fill a vacancy in the Human Rights Committee – the Maltese member having resigned with immediate effect in October 2002.

I note firstly the four months that it has taken to re-elect a replacement – thinking it probably a short interlude for anything done by a committee. Then I want to know why; why did he resign?

Personal reasons? Disillusionment with international human rights monitoring? A fall-out with a fellow committee member? I ask a delegate but they don’t know.

I do a search on the internet and there it is on, gosh! “Justice Patrick Vella is facing charges of bribery that led to a reduction in a sentence to Mario Camilleri, a convicted drug trafficker, at an appeals stage in July 2002.” Well, well, well. I marvel at how such a dry meeting could provide the gateway to tabloid outrage.

“Note” the UN Daily Journal marked sternly that morning “… the necessary quorum for the meeting is two-third of the States Parties. As there are 148 State Parties to the Covenant, the quorum is 99 States Parties. In the past, meetings have been substantially delayed or called off due to the lack of quorum… it is imperative for the States Parties to be present at the scheduled time of the meeting.” Lesson in maths, as well as punctuality, duly noted.

So what happens?

10am: Meeting is due to start, conference room is barely inhabited. Those that are there stand around enthusiastically chattering, reminiscent of cocktails before an evening function.

10.15am: Delegates begin milling in, and greet each other with two-cheeked kisses, the impression is one of working friendships and reunion.

10.30am: A gentleman at the ‘top table’ starts pointing his finger erratically at the party-goers, trying to ascertain if the necessary 99 have arrived. Gradually delegates sit in their allocated places, marked by country name, resigned that the meeting-and-greeting has come to a close.

10.40am: Delegates are formally counted – “93! We have 93 delegates!”. The tension is palpable. Will six arrive, will the meeting be delayed much more, will it be called off altogether? The representative of the Syrian Republic offers to call colleagues in other Middle Eastern delegations to rally them to the meeting. Meanwhile a few stragglers arrive, embarrassed that their late entry is noted by all present, but relieved that it is also welcome.

10.45am: “99! We have 99 delegates!”

Five minutes later I notice a delegate leave – I wonder if this voids the meeting or if he was perhaps a plant, designed to allow the meeting to proceed and now sneaking quietly away, his job done.

With only one candidate put forward for the vacancy in the Human Rights Committee, the meeting is over in minutes – a new Maltese member is voted in unanimously.

The delegates disperse … many to the coffee shop for more cocktail chatter. Excitedly discussing Vella’s fate.



Liberty & Humanity