Core International Human Rights Instruments (Treaties) and The Treaty Bodies
There are nine core international human rights treaties. The United Nations human rights treaties are at the core of the international system for the promotion and protection of human rights. Each of these treaties has established a committee of experts (the treaty bodies) to monitor implementation of the treaty provisions by its States parties. Some of the treaties are supplemented by optional protocols dealing with specific concerns. An Optional Protocol to a treaty is an instrument that establishes additional rights and obligations to a treaty.
1. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is a United Nations convention adopted and opened for signature and ratification by United Nations General Assembly resolution 2106 (XX) December 21, 1965, and which entered into force January 4, 1969.
2. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a United Nations treaty based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created in 1966 and entered into force on 23 March 1976. The Covenant contains two Optional Protocols. The first optional protocol creates an individual complaints mechanism whereby individuals in member States can submit complaints, known as communications, to be reviewed by the Human Rights Committee. Its rulings under the first optional protocol have created the most complex jurisprudence in the UN international human rights law system. The second optional protocol abolishes the death penalty.
3. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966, and in force from January 3, 1976. It commits the states parties to work toward the granting of economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) to individuals.
4. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is an international convention adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. Described as an international bill of rights for women, it came into force on 3 September 1981. The Convention defines discrimination against women in the following terms: ‘Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.’ It also establishes an agenda of action for putting an end to sex-based discrimination: States ratifying the Convention are required to enshrine male/female equality into their domestic legislation, repeal all discriminatory provisions in their laws, and enact new provisions to guard against discrimination against women. They must also establish tribunals and public institutions to guarantee women effective protection against discrimination, and take steps to eliminate all forms of discrimination practised against women by individuals, organisations, and enterprises. In 1999, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Optional Protocol of CEDAW. The Protocol includes a procedure through which individual women or groups can denounce national violations of CEDAW directly to CEDAW’s committee of experts.
5. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is an international human rights instrument, under the purview of the United Nations, that aims to prevent torture around the world. The Convention requires states to take effective measures to prevent torture within their borders, and forbids states to return people to their home country if there is reason to believe they will be tortured. The text of the Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1984 and, following ratification by the 20th state party, it came into force on 26 June 1987. The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the General Assembly on 18 December 2002 and in force since 22 June 2006, provides for the establishment of a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
6. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, often referred to as “CRC”, is an international convention setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of children. The United Nations General Assembly agreed to adopt the Convention into international law on November 20, 1989; it came into force on September 2, 1990, after it was ratified by the required number of nations. The Convention generally defines a child as any person under the age of 18, unless an earlier age of majority is recognized by a country’s law. The Convention has two Optional Protocols, adopted by the General Assembly in May 2000 and applicable to those states that have signed and ratified them.
7. International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW)
The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families entered into force on July 1, 2003. The Convention constitutes a comprehensive international treaty regarding the protection of migrant workers’ rights. It emphasizes the connection between migration and human rights. Its existence sets a moral standard, and serves as a guide and stimulus for the promotion of migrant rights in each country.
8. International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED)
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance is an international human rights instrument of the United Nations intended to prevent forced disappearance. The text was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 December 2006 and opened for signature on 6 February 2007. It entered into force on 23rd December 2010.
9. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol was adopted on 13 December 2006 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and was opened for signature on 30 March 2007. It entered into force on 3 May 2008. The Convention is intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension. It adopts a broad categorisation of persons with disabilities and reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced. The Optional Protocol allows the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of individuals or groups of individuals subject to its jurisdiction who claim to be victims of a violation by that State Party of the provisions of the Convention.
The Treaty Bodies
The United Nations human rights treaties are associated with the task of monitoring the implementation of treaty obligations. The treaty bodies are composed of members who are elected by the states parties to each treaty (or through the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in the case of CESCR). In principle, treaty members are elected as experts who are to perform their functions in an independent capacity. Meeting periodically throughout the year, the treaty bodies perform a number of functions in accordance with the provisions of the treaties that created them. These include:
- Consideration of State parties’ reports
- Consideration of individual complaints or communications
They also publish general comments on the treaties and organise discussions on related themes.
Consideration of State parties’ reports
When a country ratifies one of these treaties, it assumes a legal obligation to implement the rights recognised in that treaty. But signing up is only the first step, because recognition of rights on paper is not sufficient to guarantee that they will be enjoyed in practice. So the country incurs an additional obligation to submit regular reports to the monitoring committee set up under that treaty on how the rights are being implemented. This system of human rights monitoring is common to most of the UN human rights treaties. To meet their reporting obligation, States must report submit an initial report usually one year after joining (two years in the case of the CRC) and then periodically in accordance with the provisions of the treaty (usually every four or five years). In addition to the government report, the treaty bodies may receive information on a country’s human rights situation from other sources, including non-governmental organisations, UN agencies, other intergovernmental organisations, academic institutions and the press. In the light of all the information available, the Committee examines the report together with government representatives. Based on this dialogue, the Committee publishes its concerns and recommendations, referred to as “concluding observations”.
Consideration of individual complaints or communications
In addition to the reporting procedure, some of the treaty bodies may perform additional monitoring functions through three other mechanisms: the inquiry procedure, the examination of inter-state complaints and the examination of individual complaints. Four of the Committees (HRC, CERD, CAT and CEDAW) can, under certain conditions, receive petitions from individuals who claim that their rights under the treaties have been violated:
- The HRC may consider individual communications relating to States parties to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR;
- The CEDAW may consider individual communications relating to States parties to the Optional Protocol to CEDAW;
- The CAT may consider individual communications relating to States parties who have made the necessary declaration under article 22 of CAT; and
- The CERD may consider individual communications relating to States parties who have made the necessary declaration under article 14 of ICERD.
- The Convention on Migrant Workers also contains provision for allowing individual communications to be considered by the CMW; these provisions will become operative when 10 states parties have made the necessary declaration under article 77.
Any individual who claims that her or his rights have under the covenant or convention have been violated by a State party to that treaty may bring a communication before the relevant committee, provided that the State has recognised the competence of the committee to receive such complaints. Complaints may also be brought by third parties on behalf of individuals provided they have given their written consent or where they are incapable of giving such consent.
The Committees also publish their interpretation of the content of human rights provisions, known as general comments on thematic issues or methods of work. General comments often seek to clarify the reporting duties of State parties with respect to certain provisions and suggest approaches to implementing treaty provisions. In the case of CEDAW and CERD, general comments are referred to as “general recommendations”.
Meeting of chairpersons and inter-committee meeting
The treaty bodies coordinate their activities through the annual meeting of chairpersons of human rights treaty bodies and through the inter-committee meeting. The treaty bodies are continually seeking ways to enhance their effectiveness through streamlining and harmonisation of working methods and practices.