Introduction to the UN Human Rights Treaty System

The U.N. treaty system definitively establishes the legitimacy of international interest in the protection of human rights. It is undisputed that sovereignty is limited with respect to human rights. International supervision is valid and states are accountable to international authorities for domestic acts affecting human rights. The treaty standards are the benchmark for assessment and concern.

Over the last decade ratifications in the treaty system and acceptance of communication procedures have risen exponentially. What began as an assertion of a few, is now a global proclamation of entitlements of the victims of human rights abuse. Furthermore, this participation by states has been voluntary. The obligations of the human rights treaties have been freely assumed. It is the legal character of these rights which places them at the core of the international system of human rights protection. For these rights generate corresponding legal duties upon state actors, to protect against, prevent, and remedy human rights violations.

The Goals

The primary aims of the treaty system are to:

The Standards

The human rights treaty system encompasses nine major treaties:

The Treaty Bodies

The nine treaties are associated with nine treaty bodies which have the task of monitoring the implementation of treaty obligations. The treaty bodies meet primarily in Geneva, and are serviced by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). These are:

In addition, there is the CAT Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT), which is mandated to carry out state visits under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Prior to 2008, CEDAW met in New York and was serviced by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women.
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.

The Functions of the Treaty Bodies

Meeting periodically throughout the year, the treaty bodies fulfill their monitoring function through one or more of several different methods.

First, all states parties are required by the treaties to produce state reports on the compliance of domestic standards and practices with treaty rights. These reports are reviewed at various intervals by the treaty bodies, normally in the presence of state representatives. Concluding observations, commenting on the adequacy of state compliance with treaty obligations, are issued by the treaty bodies following the review.

Second, in the case of all nine treaties there are provisions by which individuals may complain of violations of their rights under the treaty.  These complaints are considered by the treaty body which expresses a view as to the presence or absence of a violation.  The Committees are also able to take urgent action in appropriate cases by requesting the State party concerned take "interim measures" pending the final outcome of the communication.  In the case of the Migrant Workers Convention (CMW), the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR OPT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC OPT - Communications), this optional individual complaint mechanism is not yet in force.

Third, in the case of seven of the treaties, a state may declare that it allows the Committee to receive and consider communications to the effect that a State Party claims that another State Party is not fulfilling its obligations under the treaty.  This state-to-state complaint procedure has not been used in practice.  The possibility of using this mechanism is provided in the Racial Discrimination Convention (CERD), the Civil and Political Covenant (CCPR), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), Enforced Disappearance Convention  (CED), Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Covenant (CESCR OPT – not yet in force), Child Rights Convention (CRC OPT - Communications – not yet in force) and the Migrant Workers Convention (CMW – not yet in force).

Fourth, in the case of five treaties, their work can include other special mechanisms, such as an inquiry procedure, whereby the Committee may investigate a state where it has received reliable information indicating grave or systematic violations of rights.  Under the inquiry procedure, a Committee may request missions or visits to states parties.  In addition, two of the treaties have a separate mechanism allowing for state visits independent of this inquiry procedure.  One treaty allows for urgent action to request that a disappeared person be found.  These special mechanisms are found in the following treaties:

Fifth, the treaty bodies also contribute to the development and understanding of international human rights standards through the process of writing General Comments or Recommendations. These are commentaries on the nature of obligations associated with particular treaty rights and freedoms.

The National Level

Significantly, the international system has had implications at the national level. A multitude of domestic legal systems have been affected by the treaties. The treaties form the basis of a significant number of the world's bills of rights. There are also numerous instances of legal reform prompted by the treaties. Non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions have invoked the treaty standards in relation to proposed government legislation and policies. Legislative committees have used treaty standards as reference points. The treaties have sometimes been incorporated into national law, had direct application through constitutional provisions to national law, and been used to interpret domestic law through judicial intervention.