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Using human rights mechanisms

Treaties and enforcement mechanisms

One of the main ways to advocate for health and human rights is to lodge complaints or file reports with regional or international human rights mechanisms.  These mechanisms were established to enforce governments' compliance with the regional and international human rights treaties they have ratified.  These treaties make up the so-called "hard law" of international human rights, while the interpretations of the treaty mechanisms make up "soft law" that is not directly binding on governments.  There are two main types of enforcement mechanisms:    

  • Courts, which act in a judicial capacity and issue rulings that are binding on governments in the traditional sense;
  • Committees, which examine reports submitted by governments on their compliance with human rights treaties, and in some cases examine individual complaints of human rights violations.

The main treaties and corresponding enforcement mechanisms discussed in this Guide are shown below.

Using the mechanisms

One of the greatest advantages of regional and international human rights mechanisms is that they allow individuals and NGOs to lodge complaints or file reports of human rights abuses.

The best way to learn about how to use a particular mechanism is to visit its website or contact its Secretariat. The contact information for each enforcement mechanism discussed in the Guide, as well as some introductory information about its mandate and procedures is provided on the next pages.

Advocacy using these regional and international mechanisms go hand-in-hand with country advocacy as regional and international recommendations mean little without enforcement at the national level.  Additionally, domestic remedies generally have to be exhausted (including the raising of regional and international claims) before complaints can be taken to regional or international bodies.

Treaties and corresponding enforcement mechanisms
Treaty Enforcement Mechanism
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Human Rights Committee (HRC)
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
(CERD)
Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (ILO Convention) International Labour Organization (ILO)
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee)
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC Committee)
African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) & Protocols African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR Commission)
[European] Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)
European Social Charter (ESC) European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR)
Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe & Advisory Committee (AC)

Note: The above is only a fraction of the treaties and enforcement mechanisms that can be used to advocate for health and human rights. Some of the resources listed at the end of this Introduction contain more detailed information about the regional and international human rights systems.

Human Rights Committee

  • Mandate
    The Human Rights Committee (HRC) oversees government compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The HRC has two mandates: to monitor country progress on the ICCPR by examining periodic reports submitted by governments; and to examine individual complaints of human rights violations under the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.
  • Civil society participation
    NGOs can submit “shadow reports” to the HRC on any aspect of a government’s compliance with the ICCPR. Shadow reports should be submitted through the HRC Secretariat based at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, which also keeps a calendar of when governments come before the Committee. The HRC meets three times a year. Individuals and NGOs can also submit complaints to the HRC under the Optional Protocol.
Contact
Patrice Gillibert
HRC Secretary, UNOG-OHCHR, CH 1211 Geneva 10,
Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 917 9249 
Fax: +41 22 917 9006
Email: pgillibert@ohchr.org
Web: www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/6/hrc.htm

Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights

  • Mandate
    The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) oversees government compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The CESCR monitors country progress on the ICESCR by examining periodic reports submitted by governments.
  • Civil society participation
    NGOs can submit “shadow reports” to the CESCR on any aspect of a government’s compliance with the ICESCR. Shadow reports should be submitted through the CESCR Secretariat based at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, which also keeps a calendar of when governments come before the Committee. The CESCR meets twice a year.
Contact
Wan-Hea Lee
CESCR Secretary, Office 1-025, Palais Wilson,
Palais des Nations, 8-14 Avenue de la Paix, 1211 Geneva 10
Tel: +41 22 917 9321
Fax: +41 22 917 9046
Email: wlee@ohchr.org
Web: www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/6/cescr.htm

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

  • Mandate
    The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) by states. It monitors country progress on ICERD by examining periodic reports submitted by governments. The Committee then addresses its concerns and recommendations to the country in the form of “concluding observations.” Besides commenting on country reports, CERD monitors state compliance through an early-warning procedure and the examination of inter-state complaints and individual complaints.
  • Civil society participation
    NGOs can submit “shadow reports” to the CERD  on any aspect of a government’s compliance with the ICERD. Shadow reports should be submitted through the CERD Secretariat based at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, which also keeps a calendar of when governments come before the committee.  CERD meets twice a year.
Contact
Nathalie Prouvez
Secretary of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Treaties and Commission Branch
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais Wilson - 52, rue des Pâquis, CH-1201
Geneva, Switzerland
Mailing address: UNOG-OHCHR, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland     
Tel: +41.22.917.93.09,
Fax: +41.22.917.90.22
Email: nprouvez@ohchr.org
Web: www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cerd/index.htm

International Labour Organization

  • Mandate
    The International Labour Organization (ILO), located within the United Nations, is primarily concerned with respect for human rights in the field of labour.  In 1989, they adopted the Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.  States must provide periodic reports on their compliance with the Convention to the ILO and to national employers and workers associations.  National employers and workers associations may submit comments on these reports to the ILO.  The ILO Committee of Experts (CE) evaluates the reports and may send “Direct Requests” to governments for additional information.  The CE then publishes its “Observations” in a report, presented at the International Labour Conference.  On the basis of this report, the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards may decide to more carefully analyze certain individual cases and publishes its conclusions.  Additionally, an association of workers or employers may submit a representation to the ILO alleging that a member state has failed to comply with the Convention and a member state may file a complaint against another.
  • Civil society participation
    The Convention encourages governments to consult indigenous peoples in preparing their reports.  Indigenous peoples may also affiliate with a worker association or form their own worker association in order to more directly communicate with ILO.  The CE meets in November and December of each year, and the International Labour Conference is in June.
Contact
Office Relations Branch
4, rue des Morilons
CH-1211, Geneva 22, Switzerland 
Tel. +41.22.799.7732
Fax: +41.22.799.8944
Email: RELOFF@ilo.org
Web: www.ilo.org/public/english/index.htm

Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

  • Mandate
    The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) oversees government compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The CEDAW Committee has three mandates: to monitor country progress on CEDAW by examining periodic reports submitted by governments; to examine individual complaints of violations of women’s rights under the Optional Protocol to CEDAW; and to conduct missions to state parties in the context of concerns about systematic or grave violations of treaty rights.
  • Civil society participation
    NGOs can submit “shadow reports” to the CEDAW Committee on any aspect of a government’s compliance with CEDAW. Shadow reports should be submitted through the Division for the Advancement of Women in New York, which also keeps a calendar of when governments come before the Committee. The CEDAW Committee meets twice a year. Individuals and NGOs can also submit complaints to the Committee under the Optional Protocol, or encourage the Committee to undertake country missions as part of its inquiry procedure.
Contact
Tsu-Wei Chang, Coordination and Outreach Unit, Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Two UN Plaza,
Room DC2 12th Floor,
New York, NY, 10017
Tel: +1 (212) 963-8070, Fax: +1 (212) 963-3463
Email: changt@un.org
Web: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw38/NGOnote.pdf

Committee on the Rights of the Child

  • Mandate
    The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC Committee) oversees government compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It monitors country progress on the CRC by examining periodic reports submitted by governments.
  • Civil society participation
    NGOs can submit “shadow reports” to the CRC Committee on any aspect of a government’s compliance with the Convention. Shadow reports should be submitted through the CRC Secretariat based at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, which also keeps a calendar of when governments come before the CRC Committee. It meets three times a year.
Contact
Maja Andrijasevic-Boko
CRC Secretary
8-14 Avenue de la Paix, CH 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland,     
Tel: +41 22 917 9000
Fax: +41 22 917 9022
Email: mandrijasevic@ohchr.org
Web: www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/index.htm

African Commission on Human and People’s Rights

  • Mandate
    The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, a body of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), has a broad mandate to protect and promote human rights in Africa, as well as to interpret the provisions of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and People’s Rights. The Commission monitors country progress on the Convention by: examining periodic reports submitted by governments; examining complaints of violations of the Convention's provisions brought by individuals, NGOs, and governments; and undertaking a range of promotional activities related to human rights in Africa.
  • Civil society participation
    Individuals or organizations may submit complaints to the Commission, provided all local remedies have been exhausted and other admissibility criteria have been met. (The requirement of exhausting domestic remedies may be waived if it is obvious to the Commission that this procedure has been unduly prolonged.)  Individual or organizational complaints are only considered by the Commission at the request of a majority of its members. Detailed information about the submission procedure can be found on the Commissions website: www.achpr.org/english/information_sheets/ACHPR%20inf.%20sheet%20no.3.doc .

    NGOs with observer status with the Commission may attend the Commission’s public sittings.

    Additional treaties
    : Additional important treaties overseen by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights include the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/24.9/49 (1990) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, Adopted by the 2nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Union, Maputo, CAB/LEG/66.6 (Sept. 13, 2000), reprinted in 1 Afr. Hum. Rts. L.J. 40.  

    Note on the African Human Rights Court
    : To complement the mandate of the African Commission, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights contains a Protocol calling for the establishment of an African Court on Human and People’s Rights.  As of April 2007, judges for the African Court had been sworn in, however the Court was not yet operational.  Once operational, the Court will have jurisdiction over the African Charter and its Protocols and any other “relevant human rights instrument” ratified by the concerned parties.  The Court will accept complaints from the Commission, States Parties, and African Intergovernmental Organizations.
Contact
African Commission on Human and People’s Rights,
48 Kairaba Avenue, P.O. Box 673 Banjul, The Gambia Tel: +220 4392 962, 4372 070, 4377 721-23
Fax: +220 4390 764
Email: achpr@achpr.org  
Web: www.achpr.org

European Court of Human Rights

  • Mandate
    The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), a body of the Council of Europe (COE), enforces the provisions of the [European] Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ECtHR adjudicates both disputes between states and complaints of individual human rights violations. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is responsible for monitoring the implementation of judgments made by the ECtHR. (See note on Committee of Ministers below.)
  • Civil society participation
    Any individual or government can lodge a complaint directly with the ECtHR alleging a violation of one of the rights guaranteed under the Convention, provided they have exercised all other options available to them domestically. An application form may be obtained from the ECtHR website (www.echr.coe.int/echr/).

    The Council of Europe has established a legal aid scheme for complainants who cannot afford legal representation. NGOs can file briefs on particular cases either at the invitation of the President of the Court, or as “Amici Curia” (Friends of the Court) if they can show that they have an interest in the case or special knowledge of the subject matter, and that their intervention would serve the administration of justice. Hearings of the ECtHR are generally public.
Contact
European Court of Human Rights,
Council of Europe, 67075 Strasbourg-Cedex, France,
Tel: +33 3 88 41 20 18
Fax: + 33 3 88 41 27 30
Web: www.echr.coe.int

European Committee of Social Rights

  • Mandate
    The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR), also a body of the Council of Europe (COE), conducts regular legal assessments of government compliance with provisions of the European Social Charter. These assessments are based on reports submitted by governments at regular two-to-four-year intervals known as “supervision cycles.”  The Governmental Committee and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe also evaluate government reports under the ECSR. (See note on Committee of Ministers below.)
  • Civil society participation
    Reports submitted by governments under the European Social Charter are public and may be commented upon by individuals or NGOs. International NGOs with consultative status with the COE, as well as national NGOs authorized by their government, may also submit “collective complaints” to the COE alleging violations of the Charter.

Advisory Committee

  • Mandate
    The Advisory Committee (AC) assists the Committee of Ministers in monitoring compliance with the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM). It monitors country progress on the FCNM by examining periodic reports submitted by governments.  Besides examining these reports, the AC may hold meetings with governments and request additional information from other sources.  The AC then prepares an opinion, which is submitted to the Committee of Ministers.  Based on this opinion, the Committee of Ministers issues conclusions concerning the adequacy of measures taken by each state party.  The AC may be involved by the Committee of Ministers in the monitoring of the follow-up to the conclusions and recommendations.
  • Civil society participation
    NGOs can submit “shadow reports” to the AC on any aspect of a government’s compliance with the FCNM. Shadow reports should be submitted through the FCNM Secretariat.
Contact
Directorate General of Human Rights (DGII)
Secretariat of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
F – 67075 STRASBOURG CEDEX
France  
Tel: +33/(0)3.90.21.44.33
Fax: +33/(0)3.90.21.49.18
Email: minorities.fcnm@coe.int
Web: www.coe.int/minorities

UN Charter bodies

In addition to the treaty bodies listed above, there are a number of bodies created under the Charter of the United Nations for the protection and promotion of human rights.

The principal charter body is the Human Rights Council (HRC), which replaced the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in 2006.  The HRC is a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly with a mandate “to address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations.”

The responsibilities of the Human Rights Council include: the Universal Periodic Review (UPR); the Special Procedures; the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (formerly the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights); and the Complaints Procedure.  These responsibilities are summarized at: http://www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/FACTSHEET_OUTCOMES_FINAL.pdf

  • Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
    Beginning in 2008, the HRC will periodically review the human rights obligations and commitments of all countries.  All UN Member States will be reviewed for the first time within four years.  A working group will meet three times per year for two weeks to carry out the review.  The review will take into account a report from the State concerned, as well as recommendations from the Special Procedures (see below) and Treaty Bodies (see above) and information from non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions.
  • Special Procedures
    “Special Procedures” is the general term given to individuals (known as “Special Rapporteurs,” “Special Representatives,” or “Independent Experts”) or groups (known as “Working Groups”) mandated by the HRC to address specific country situations or thematic issues throughout the world.  The HRC currently includes twenty-eight thematic and ten country Special Procedures.

    Activities undertaken by the Special Procedures include responding to individual complaints, conducting studies, providing advice on technical cooperation at the country level, and engaging in general promotional activities.  The Special Procedures are considered “the most effective, flexible, and responsive mechanisms within the UN system.”1

    Special Procedures cited in this Resource Guide include:
    • Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
    • Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions
    • Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health
    • Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences
    For more information about the Special Procedures, see: http://www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/special/index.htm
  • Human Rights Council Advisory Committee
    The HRC Advisory Committee functions like a “think tank,” providing expertise and advice and conducting substantive research and studies on issues of thematic interest to the HRC at its request.  The Committee is made up of eighteen experts serving in their personal capacity for a period of three years.
  • Complaints Procedure
    This confidential complaints procedure allows individuals or organizations to bring complaints about “gross and reliably attested violations of human rights” to the attention of the HRC.  The procedure is intended to be “victims-oriented” and to conduct investigations in a timely manner.  Complaints are reviewed by two working groups that meet at least twice a year for five days during each period.

Other committees and groups

  • Committee of Ministers
    The Committee of Ministers (www.coe.int/cm) is the decision-making body of the Council of Europe, and is comprised of the foreign ministers (or their permanent representatives) of all COE member states.

    In addition to supervising judgments of the ECtHR and evaluating reports under the ECSR (see above), the Committee of Ministers also makes separate Recommendations to member states on matters for which the Committee has agreed to a “common policy”—including matters related to health and human rights.

    Some of these Recommendations are provided by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (assembly.coe.int), which is a consultative body composed of representatives of the Parliaments of member states.
  • European Union
    The European Union ( www.europa.eu/europa.ed.int/eur-lex/) has twenty-seven member states and is a separate system from the Council of Europe (www.coe.int), which has forty-seven member states. Mechanisms for advocating for health and human rights within the European Union (such as EU Directives and the European Court of Justice) are not discussed in this Guide. It should be noted, however, that all member states of the European Union are bound by the institutions and instruments under the Council of Europe.
  • Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
    The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) coordinates the work of fourteen UN specialized agencies, functional commissions, and regional commissions working on various international economic, social, cultural, educational, and health matters.  ECOSOC holds several short sessions per year as well as an annual substantive session for four weeks every July. 

    ECOSOC consults regularly with civil society, with close to 3,000 non-governmental organizations enjoying consultative status.   ECOSOC-accredited NGOs are permitted to participate, present written contributions, and make statements to the Council and its subsidiary bodies.  Information about NGOs with consultative status can be found at: http://www.un.org/esa/coordination/ngo/.

    ECOSOC agencies and commissions that may be cited in or relevant to this Resource Guide include:
    • Commission on the Status of Women
    • Commission on Narcotic Drugs
    • Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice
    • Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
    • International Narcotics Control Board
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