S.D. Human Development, Research & Training Center | Introduction to the UN Human Rights Treaty System Introduction to the UN Human Rights Treaty System | S.D. Human Development, Research & Training Center
सनातन धर्म मानव विकास शोध एवम् प्रशिक्षण केन्द्र
Sanatan Dharma Human Development, Research & Training Center

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:

  • encourage a culture of human rights
  • focus the human rights system on standards and obligations
  • engage all states in the treaty system
  • interpret the treaties through reporting and communications
  • identify benchmarks through general comments and recommendations
  • provide an accurate, pragmatic, quality end product in the form of
  • concluding observations for each state
  • provide a remedial forum for individual complaints
  • encourage a serious national process of review and reform through
  • partnerships at the national level
  • operationalize standards
  • mainstream human rights in the UN system and mobilize the UN community to assist with implementation and the dissemination of the message of rights and obligations

The Standards

The human rights treaty system encompasses eight major treaties:

the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (in force 4 January 1969)

the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) (in force 23 March 1976)

the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (in force 23 March 1976)

the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (in force 3 September 1981)

the Convention Against Torture, and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (in force 26 June 1987)

the Convention on the Rights of the Child (in force 2 September 1990)

the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (in force 1 July 2003)

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (in force 3 May 2008).

The Treaty Bodies

The seven treaties are associated with seven 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:

  • the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  • the Human Rights Committee (HRC)
  • the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
  • the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
  • the Committee Against Torture (CAT)
  • the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • the Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW).

Prior to 2008, CEDAW met in New York and was serviced by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women.

In May 2008, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force.
The Committee has not yet been established.

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 monitoringfunction through one or more of three 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 five treaties individuals may complain of violations of their rights under the treaty (the Civil and Political Covenant, the Racial Discrimination Convention, the Convention Against Torture, the Women’s Discrimination Convention and the Disability Convention). These complaints are considered by the treaty body which expresses a view as to the presence or absence of a violation.

Third, in the case of CAT and CEDAW, their work includes another procedure. This is an inquiry procedure which provides for missions to states parties in the context of concerns about systematic or grave violations of treaty rights.

In addition, the treaty bodies 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