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Human Rights Law Research Guide: International Human Rights - the UN System

Complaints of International Human Rights violations

Complaints of human rights violations may be made in the following ways at the international level:

  • Complaints to the human rights treaty bodies of violations of the provisions of the human rights treaties; and
  • ​Complaints outside the treaty body system - through the Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure and the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. 

COMPLAINTS TO HUMAN RIGHTS TREATY BODIES

There are three main procedures for bringing complaints of  before the human rights treaty bodies:

  1. individual complaints (called 'communications')
  2. state-to-state complaints (these procedures have never been used) More information
  3. inquiries

Individual Communications

Of the nine core human rights treaties, eight of the their monitoring treaty bodies currently receive and consider individual complaints or communications. These are CCPRCERDCATCEDAWCRPDCEDCESCR and CRC. The individual complaint mechanism for the Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) has not yet entered into force.

Complaints may be made to a Committee by individuals, and third parties on behalf of individuals against a State.

As matters of admissibility, those lodging complaints must generally have exhausted all domestic remedies, and must not have submitted the complaint to another UN treaty body or regional mechanism such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, or the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. More on admissibility.

Complaints can only be made against a State that:

  • is a party to the treaty in question providing for the rights which have allegedly been violated; and
  • has accepted the Committee’s competence to examine individual complaints, either through ratification or accession to an Optional Protocol (in the case of ICCPR, CEDAW, CRPD, ICESCR and CRC) or by making a declaration to that effect under a specific article of the Convention (in the case of CERD (Article 14), CAT (Article 22), CED (Article 31) and CMW (Article 77) - note that the individual complaint mechanisms for CMW is not yet operative - it will become operative when 10 states parties have made the necessary declaration under Article 77. For status of ratifications, click here.  

More on the acceptance of the Committees' competence, including links to the specific Convention Articles and Optional Protocols.

To see which States have accepted the Committee's competence for a particular Convention, go to the UN Treaty Collection Status of Treaties Chapter IV Human Rights > scroll to the relevant Optional Protocol (ICCPR, CEDAW, CRPD, ICESCR and CRC) or Convention (CERD, CAT, CED and CMW). In the case of the CERD, CAT, CED and CMW Conventions, a list of States that have accepted the Committee's competence is at the bottom of the individual Convention information page.

Alternatively, to see the competence of all the Committees a particular State has accepted, use the Ratification Status by Country database, select a country and scroll to the Acceptance of individual complaints procedures heading.

Each treaty body has its own complaint procedure. Click on the individual treaty body link under the Procedures of the individual Committees heading on the Individual Communications webpage.

More on on the individual complaint process.

For information on finding Committee decisions, see the Decisions box on this page.

Inquiries

Upon receipt of reliable information containing well-founded indications on serious, grave or systematic violations by a State party of the conventions they monitor, CAT (article 20), CEDAW (article 8 of the Optional Protocol to CEDAW),  CRPD (article 6 Optional Protocol to CRPD), CED (article 33), ICESCR (article 11 of the Optional Protocol to ICESCR), and CRC (article 13 of the Optional Protocol to CRC) may, on their own initiative, initiate inquiries.

Inquiries may only be conducted with respect to State parties that have accepted the competence of the relevant Committee in this regard. State parties may opt out from the inquiry procedure, at the time of signature, ratification or accession. To see the competence of all the Committees a particular State has recognised, use the Ratification Status by Country database, select a country and scroll to the Acceptance of the inquiry procedure heading.

The Inquiry procedure is confidential and the results are not published.

More on the Inquiry procedure.

COMPLAINTS TO THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL

The Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure was established in 2007 to address consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of all human rights and all fundamental freedoms occurring in any part of the world and under any circumstances. The complaint procedure addresses communications submitted by individuals, groups, or NGOs that claim to be victims of human rights violations or that have direct, reliable knowledge of such violations.

The procedure is confidential - all material provided by governments and individuals, and all documentation related to decisions made by the Human Rights Council are examined in closed meetings of the Council, and not made publicly available.  

SPECIAL PROCEDURES OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL 

Special procedures mechanisms can intervene directly with Governments on allegations of violations of human rights that come within their mandates by means of letters which include urgent appeals and other communications. Special procedures submit publicly available Communications Reports to the Human Rights Council containing summaries of the communications sent since the last reporting period . The text of all communications sent and replies received can be accessed through these periodic reports. 

More on Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council communications.

Guides to Researching International Human Rights Law

International Human Rights Research Guide by James Hart (from NYU Law's Globalex)

International Justice Resource Centre: Researching International Human Rights Law 

UN Human Rights System

The UN human rights system comprises  Charter-based bodies established under the UN Charter (1945) and Treaty bodies (Committees) created by international human rights treaties. Charter-based bodies seek to uphold international human rights in general, while treaty bodies address and monitor State compliance with human rights obligations in the particular treaty under which they were established.  

For an excellent summary of the roles of these bodies, see Levine, Kate, An Overview of the United Nations Human Rights System (Advocates for International Development, 2012)

More information on the UN Human Rights bodies from the OHCHR website.

The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System Fact Sheet, prepared in 2012 by the OHCHR, provides an excellent introduction to the core international human rights treaties and treaty bodies.

More information on International Human Rights Law from the OHCHR website.

UN Human Rights Charter Bodies

The UN Charter-based bodies database contains all the human rights reports, resolutions, decisions and materials by all the charter based bodies created within the United Nations since 1994. The database can be searched by body and document type, and narrowed by country and subject.

The charter bodies created under the UN Charter that are responsible for enforcing and monitoring compliance with international human rights are:

  1. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) 
  2. Human Rights Council (formerly the Commission on Human Rights 1946-2006). See The Human Rights Council: A Practical Guide for detailed information on the Council's operations.

UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies

The UN Treaty Bodies Database allows you to search for documents by country / region, document type, committee and date / symbol.

The role of monitoring implementation of and compliance with the international human rights treaties by states parties is tasked to committees established by the treaties. There are currently ten UN treaty bodies governing international human rights:   

Decisions on Individual Complaints - Committee Jurisprudence

The United Nations Treaty Body Jurisprudence database (open access) contains all jurisprudence (communications) from the 8 UN Treaty Bodies which receive and consider complaints from individuals. Use the Detailed Search function to search the database by eg: State, region, communication (complaint) number, issue, keyword, UN treaty body, Convention Article etc.

In general, admissibility and merits are decided in the same hearing.

The Committees’ decisions may close the case if it decides that there has been no violation of the treaty or that the complaint is inadmissible. If it considers there has been a violation by the State party of the complainant’s rights under the treaty, it may make recommendations to the State party, but they are not legally binding upon the States. All Committees have developed follow up procedures to monitor whether States parties have implemented their recommendations. More on what happens after a Committee decides a case.

Appeals

There is no appeal against Committee decisions. In general, decisions are final. 

Image source: Wikipedia Commons

Other International Human Rights Instruments

In addition to the core human rights documents, there are many other international instruments relating to human rights. A non-exhaustive list and links to the treaties are provided by the OHCHR. These are grouped by subject.

UN Core Human Rights Instruments

There are 9 core international human rights instruments.

1. The Charter of the United Nations

2. The so-called International Bill of Human Rights, which comprises:

a) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948

  • History, commentary and preparatory documents on the UN's Audiovisual Library of International Law
  • The Universal Declaration sets a general common standard for the achievement of human rights, but is not a legally binding instrument. The rights set out in the Universal Declaration have been subsequently transformed into a legally binding framework of international human rights through treaties. 

b) The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, 993 UNTS 3 (entered into force 3 January 1976) (ICESCR)

and the ICESCR's Optional Protocol (2008)

c) The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rightsopened for signature 16 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171 and  1057 UNTS 407 (entered into force 23 March 1976) (ICCPR)

and the ICCPR's two Optional Protocols:

The other core treaties are:

3. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discriminationopened for signature 21 December 1965, 660 UNTS 195 (entered into force 4 January 1969) (ICERD)

4. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, opened for signature 18 Dec 1979,  1249 UNTS 13 (entered into force 3 September 1981) (CEDAW)   

5. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, opened for signature 
10 Dec 1984, 1465 UNTS 85 (entered into force 26 June 1987(CAT)

6. Convention on the Rights of the Child, opened for signature 20 Nov 1989, 1577 UNTS 3 (entered into force 2 September 1990) (CRC) 

7. International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Familiesopened for signature 18 Dec 1990, 2220 UNTS 3 (entered into force 1 July 2003) (ICMW)

8. International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, opened for signature 20 Dec 2006, 2716 UNTS 3 (entered into force 23 December 2010) (CPED)

9. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilitiesopened for signature 13 December 2006, 2515 UNTS 3 (entered into force 3 May 2008) (CRPD)

Use the Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard to see at a glance maps of the ratification status of 18 human rights treaties, or the status of a country or region with regard to all 18 treaties. 

Drafting History of human rights treaties - Travaux Préparatoires

The University of Virginia School of Law has compiled an open access database of Travaux Préparatoires of the nine core human rights treaties: 

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), 1965
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966
  • International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 1966
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, 1999
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006
  • International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, 2006

The database is searchable, browsable and has a subject index.

The UN Audiovisual Library of International Law Human Rights treaties database contains the full text of treaties, travaux and related documents, information about the procedural history, photos, videos and authoritative introductory summaries.

Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard

Use the Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard to see at a glance maps of the ratification status of 18 human rights treaties, or the status of a country or region with regard to all 18 treaties.