UN Treaty Bodies

What do they do? How are they relevant to my work?

UN Treaty Bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the seven international human rights treaties. Each human rights treaty creates its own Treaty Body or monitoring committee. Initially, a country might demonstrate consent or political will by signing a treaty. Once a treaty has been incorporated into national laws (or ratified), that country is legally bound by the terms of the treaty and also agrees to be monitored by the committee overseeing that particular treaty. This gives the committee or Treaty Body legal authority to monitor a country’s performance of its treaty-related obligations. Four of the committees can, under certain conditions, receive communications from individuals who claim that their rights under the treaties have been violated. The committees can, if appropriate, also impose penalties on and seek restitution from a violating government.

The OHCHR in Geneva is responsible for supporting the work of the Treaty Bodies.

Core International Human Rights Treaties and their Committees
Treaty Since States*** Monitoring Body
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1976 161 Human Rights Committee**
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) 1976 157 Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) 1969 173 Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination**
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 1981 185 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women**
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) 1987 145 Committee against Torture**
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) 1990 193 Committee on the Rights of the Child
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) 2003 37 Committee on Migrant Workers
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2008 41 To come post entry into force
International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance NIF* 3 To come post entry into force

* Not in force (“NIF”); open for signature and will enter into force after the 20 th ratification.
** Can receive individual complaints/communications. See: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/petitions/index.htm.
*** Ratifications as of April 2008, Source see : http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/ratification/.

You should know that before signing a treaty, countries can enter reservations to particular provisions within the treaty, e.g. a government can exclude certain portions of the treaty if they conflict with that country’s religious law or customs. All reservations must be announced at the time of signing or ratification – a state cannot add a reservation after it has already joined a treaty. However, any reservations entered must not be incompatible with the fundamental object and purpose of the treaty, and the Treaty Body can give its opinion on whether or not it agrees with a specific reservation. For practitioners, it is important to understand what reservations, if any, a country has made and why. In theory, any reservations made should be temporary, and parties to a treaty should work to bring domestic law closer to the treaty’s standards over time. Practitioners can cooperate with governments in ensuring that work is completed to withdraw any reservations that were originally made to a treaty.

How is the Treaty Body System Relevant
to Practitioners & UNCTs?

The core international human rights treaties and the work of the Treaty Bodies have far-reaching implications for many aspects of a government's programmes, policies, planning and goals. Practitioners can gain valuable information from reading existing treaty body material and from direct participation in Treaty Body activities. Three principle areas of engagement are:

1. Knowing the content of human rights treaties;
2. Reading the Treaty Bodies’ recommendations & general comments;
3. Participating directly in Treaty Body reporting process.

1. Human Rights Treaties: what are the benefits of knowing about them?

By signing and ratifying a human rights treaty, States take on a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights contained in that treaty. In-country practitioners and UNCTs should know which treaties their government has signed and ratified. Ratified treaties are legal commitments that the government has undertaken. Once a country has ratified a treaty it also assumes the obligation to submit an initial and periodic reports to that Treaty Body detailing the measures it has taken to ensure the enjoyment by all citizens of the rights provided in that treaty.

Practitioners can easily look up which treaties have been signed and ratified by their country, or by the governments of neighboring countries through the OHCHR website. Information is also available on when countries are scheduled to submit a report or are scheduled to be considered (reviewed) by a treaty body.

How is this information useful for local practitioners and UNCTs?

  1. You will know exactly what legally-binding commitments your government has undertaken and will be able to identify potential areas for cooperation or coordination with government and other stakeholders, including civil society, in order to support government in fulfilling its treaty obligations;
  2. You will know which treaties still need to be ratified by your government and accordingly, where you could focus relevant advocacy efforts;
  3. Depending on the status of international law in your country, you can assist the government in either reviewing existing legislation, or drafting and adopting legislation which conforms with international human rights standards;
  4. You can use the standards enshrined in the treaties as a reference source and tool for programming, including setting priorities in the CCA/UNDAF;
  5. You can help the population understand their rights by raising public awareness on human rights including through:
    • summarising or translating treaties, or the rights contained therein, into local languages;
    • organizing educational and training activities on human rights among different groups of the population, especially the disadvantaged (youth, women, elderly, minorities, etc.);
    • working with the media to disseminate human rights-related information;
    • providing training and education on human rights for public authorities, such as judicial bodies and the police, so that they are better able to respect, protect and fulfill their obligations to all citizens.

2. Treaty Body General Comments: what are the benefits of reading them?

What are the benefits of reading them? Through their General Comments, Treaty Bodies clarify the content of and provide additional information relating to specific rights and the main corresponding State obligations (for example, General Comment 12 on the right to food elaborates on what the State has to do to ensure the right to food. Similarly, General Comment 13 on the right to education details actions the State must take in ensuring education for its people). General Comments provide guidelines for States regarding the interpretation of specific aspects of a right and scope of a treaty. General Comments also may outline actions which would be considered potential violations of rights and offer advice to State Parties on how best to comply with their obligations under the treaties.

It is useful to check the General Comments that have been issued so far by Treaty Bodies (see links in Useful Links). You may find that these emphasise certain areas either not addressed or addressed inadequately in governmental/UN programmes. As a result, there may be specific areas of programming that could be further developed to help ensure that a specific right is realized.

How is this information useful to local practitioners and UNCTs?

  1. You can use a General Comment as an evaluation tool for assessing national governmental programmes and your own programmes. General Comments can also help you define standards and goals for monitoring and measuring implementation (outputs and outcomes);
  2. If aspects of a General Comment match up with your own programming, this is an excellent “stamp of approval”;
  3. There may be aspects of a right that you had not considered, and which you might want to include into your programming in the future; recommendations from General Comments provide useful guidance in this respect;
  4. General Comments can be useful to guide advocacy efforts vis-à-vis your government and to support and promote governmental accountability.

3. Treaty Body Reporting: what are the benefits of participating directly?

What are the benefits of participating directly? Treaty Bodies are looking for gaps between a government's human rights treaty obligations and the actual situation experienced by people in that country's jurisdiction. Sources of information for Treaty Bodies include the government's official report (State party report) and other information or independent reports from non-government stakeholders (civil society, press, NGOs, national human rights institutions, UN Agencies / Programmes / Funds, etc.). Once Treaty Bodies have received the report(s), they begin a dialogue with the State that results in “Concluding Observations,” where the Treaty Body makes recommendations to the State for future action.

Practitioners can access more information on the work of Treaty Bodies as well as country reports, reporting due dates and Concluding Observations (see links in Useful Links).

How is this information useful to local practitioners and UNCTs?

  1. Knowing when your country is due to report is a good starting point for:
    • communicating with the government ministry in charge of reporting and supporting them in the reporting process through training and other means;
    • encouraging the submission of overdue reports;
    • encouraging non-government stakeholders to participate in the Treaty Body reporting process, for example, by building awareness and providing training and guidance on the reporting process, highlighting entry points for civil society input, and providing an opportunity for dialogue between NGOs on the drafting of additional or independent reports;
    • coordinating your UNCT in preparing information that could be useful for the Treaty Bodies when considering your country.
  2. Reading previous Treaty Body reports and Concluding Observations will:
    • tell you what has already been reported by your government in the past;
    • tell you which areas the Treaty Bodies have asked your government to focus on and where the government may need support;
    • be important information for your own programming, setting priorities and identifying new areas for programming;
    • be important background for any discussions with your government.

  3. Following up on official recommendations (Concluding Observations) by Treaty Bodies can also be important given that:
    • you can make sure that they are translated into local languages and distributed widely to increase public awareness of the recommendations;
    • you can make the press aware of the recommendations;
    • the recommendations can be focus points for interaction between you and other national stakeholders (government agencies and ministries, the media, national human rights institutions, NGOs, civil society, and specific groups such as minorities, women, young people, etc.)

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