International Human Rights Law


As made clear by the UN Charter, the protection and promotion of human rights is one of the main purposes of the United Nations (UN).1 The human rights treaty bodies help fulfil that purpose. These bodies are ‘committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties’,2 the most CRSV-pertinent of which are discussed in this chapter.

The committees carry out their important mandate in a variety of ways.

First, through the examination of reports submitted by State Parties and interactive dialogues, the committees examine the progress made by States Parties in the implementation of the relevant treaty guarantees. States are required to regularly write reports on the measures they have adopted to realise the core international human rights treaties. The committees consider these reports and adopt “concluding observations”, which identify ‘progress in implementation since the last report and remaining concerns’. Each concern is matched by a specific recommendation or practical advice designed to give the State non-binding ‘suggestions on further steps to improve implementation’.3 While concluding observations are often specific to a State’s individual circumstances and cultural particularities, they can offer similarly-situated States useful advice on how to fulfil their human rights obligations and, accordingly, have been included in the Guidebook.

Second, all committees mentioned in this chapter issue “general comments” (or recommendations), which provide authoritative guidance on the general treaty obligations of States Parties ‘or set out how the treaty body interprets the scope of the substantive provisions of their treaty’. In this sense, committees provide valuable interpretative guidance to States and other stakeholders. While their legal status is disputed, both general comments and concluding observations are frequently invoked by States and complainants in reporting and complaints procedures and, ‘increasingly, by international, regional, and national courts in their judgments’.4

Third, some committees may initiate inquiries after receiving reliable information alleging that a State Party is gravely or systematically violating the rights contained in the relevant treaty. Inquiries may include in-country visits. At the end of an inquiry, the committee provides the State concerned with its findings and recommendations. Committees may undertake inquiries only with the consent of a State Party.

Lastly, the core treaties and/or their protocols analysed in this chapter allow their respective committees to receive and consider complaints, so long as States Parties have recognised the committees’ ‘competence’ to do so. ‘Competence’ means in this context that the State accepts the committee’s authority to carry out complaints procedures in relation to it. If that has occurred, there are two different potential avenues of complaints procedures, the individual complaint procedure and the inter-State dispute procedure.

Under the individual complaint procedure, committees may receive complaints from individuals alleging that a State Party ‘has violated its obligations under the relevant treaty or substantive protocols to that treaty’. While the legal nature of final merits decisions is disputed, the Committees consider that they ‘exhibit some important characteristics of a judicial decision’5 and constitute authoritative interpretations of the core treaties. As a result, the principle of good faith to treaty obligations requires that States party to a complaint cooperate with these decisions. To foster implementation of the decisions’ recommendations, the treaty bodies also have Special Rapporteurs mandated to consider State follow-up, whose reports provide States with useful advice.6

Under inter-State procedures, some committees may consider complaints brought by a State Party alleging that another State Party is not giving effect to the provision of the relevant treaty. While rarely used, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently examined two communications submitted by Qatar against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and a communication submitted by Palestine against Israel.7

Note to reader
This is a general summary. For example, the rules for inquiries may vary from one treaty body to another, as well as the admissibility criteria for individual complaints. For more detail, readers should consult the relevant legal provisions cited in the footnotes to the “Ratification and Enforcement of Treaties” chapter, “Human Rights Treaty Bodies” subsection.

The Genocide Convention is a peculiarity: unlike other international human rights treaties, it does not have a formal monitoring mechanism such as a treaty body.8 Instead, its implementation can be, in certain circumstances, overseen by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Article IX requires States to refer disputes relating ‘to the interpretation, application or fulfilment’ of the Genocide Convention, ‘including those relating to the responsibility of a State for genocide’, to the ICJ. In such disputes, ‘the judgment is final, binding on the parties to a case and without appeal’.9 The ICJ, as the principal judicial organ of the UN, has also handed down advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by the authorised UN organs and specialised agencies. Such opinions are advisory, meaning that they are not binding. Nevertheless, the ICJ’s advisory opinions have helped clarify ‘the interpretation of provisions of international human rights instruments, or spell out the legal obligations of [S]tates under those instruments’.10

Regional human rights systems, while generally considered a subset of international human rights law, employ different standards as regards their binding power on States Parties to the relevant conventions and, as such, require their own introduction.

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