Introduction to Human Rights | Lesson 18: “Universal and Regional Protection Mechanisms”


The United Nations Charter is a key milestone
in the development of international human rights law. It made it clear that human rights, even those of a State’s own citizens, is a legitimate part of international law. The UN Charter was followed three years later by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
and since then it has developed nine core human rights treaties. The UN has also developed an array of human rights institutions, which have been developed
to promote and protect human rights. Today I’m going to focus on two of these institutions: the UN treaty bodies and the UN Human Rights Council. These are, respectively, the quasi-judicial
wing of human rights institutions, and the inter-governmental, political wing of UN human
rights institutions. So, first, the United Nations treaty bodies,
which are sometimes known as the “United Nations Human Rights Committees”. Each of
the nine core treaties has a human rights treaty body, which is responsible for supervising and monitoring the implementation of the relevant treaty. The members of these treaty bodies
range from about a dozen up to eighteen members. These members serve in their individual expert
capacity, and that’s important. That means they don’t represent their State. They are
there in an independent capacity. They are elected by the State parties to the relevant treaty. Members serve four year terms and half of the committee is elected every two years. These treaty bodies have a number of functions,
and I’m going to focus on two of those functions: the reporting process and the individual complaints
process. First, the reporting process, which is a compulsory
process under each of the treaties. Each State party to a human rights treaty must submit
a periodic report to the relevant treaty body, detailing its implementation of the particular
treaty. It should talk about areas of success with regard to implementation and also areas
where there are problems. Often, a counter-report will also be submitted
by civil society from that country. The reports and the information are then examined in a
public dialogue between the State and the relevant treaty body. The process is concluded by the treaty body issuing what are called “concluding observations”.
These are like a “report card”, detailing good aspects of the State’s implementation,
aspects which are needing more improvement, and recommendations for the future. Turning to the individual complaints process. This is a process where an individual can
submit a complaint to a treaty body alleging violations of his or her rights under the
relevant treaty, that is, violations by a State. This is always an optional process,
that is, a State must opt-in to the process in order to allow individuals to have this
right. The individual complaints process has two
stages: admissibility and merits. First of all, a treaty body must establish if a complaint is admissible, according to particular admissibility criteria. If the complaint is admissible,
then it moves to the merits of the complaint, that is, to decide whether or not a violation
has in fact taken place. If a violation has taken place, it will then make recommendations
to the State as to how to compensate the victim and how to avoid similar violations in the
future. The treaty bodies are not courts. To be clear:
they are quasi-judicial bodies. This means that their findings are not strictly binding
in international law. However, their findings do represent authoritative interpretations
of the relevant treaties, which are legally binding documents. If a State routinely ignores
the findings of these committees, that is evidence of a bad faith attitude towards their
human rights treaty obligations. Turning to that other human rights institution,
the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Council was established in 2006, and it succeeded
and replaced a similar body known as the Commission on Human Rights, which had existed from 1946
to 2006. The Council is made up of 47 State members,
and that’s important. The members of the Council represent their governments. That means the Council is an inter-governmental, political body, and its proceedings are inevitably
politicized. This has led to some criticism of the Council. The 47 members are spread out amongst the five United Nations regions. Each member is
elected by secret ballot and by a majority of the General Assembly. Each member serves
a three year term. No member might serve more than two consecutive three year terms. It is also possible for a member to be suspended by a vote of the General Assembly. This happened in 2011, when Libya was suspended from the Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council has a number of functions. It meets three times a year at the UN human
rights headquarters in Geneva, for a total of ten weeks. This is its regular session
agenda. It makes decisions and passes resolutions under that agenda. A resolution is passed
if more States vote in favor than against. There is also a possibility for an abstaining
vote. By a vote of one third of the members of the
Council there is also the provision for a special one-day sessions on particular human
rights issues or on particular countries. The Human Rights Council also controls a process
known as Universal Periodic Review, or “UPR”. With UPR, the human rights record of every
State member of the United Nations, that is 193 countries, is examined by all of the other
countries. This takes place on a rolling basis over four and a half years. Another function of the Human Rights Council is its special procedures. This is when the
Human Rights Council decides to appoint a special expert, often known as a “Special
Rapporteur”, or sometimes a group, known as a “Working Group”. Sometimes it will
appoint such a body to investigate a particular human rights issue. Those who are appointed to a special procedure serve in an independent, expert capacity,
and they report to the Human Rights Council. One criticism of the Human Rights Council
has been its disproportionate focus on certain States and certain issues, compared to its
lack of focus on other States and other issues. The disproportionate focus on particular States,
and even worse, the lack of focus on States which deserve scrutiny, is the problem with
a political body. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to stop a political body from being political.
Sometimes States would vote in accordance with their political interests rather than
necessarily in the interest of what is good for human rights. Having said that, it is
important that there is a global, inter-governmental human rights body, like the Human Rights Council.
States care what other States think about their human rights record. That is, they care
about what their peers think of them. Like the human rights treaty bodies, the resolutions
of the Human Rights Council are not legally binding. However, they can have great political
value and moral value, and that can be just as important in the field of international relations. I turn now, briefly, to the regional human
rights systems. The oldest human rights system is in Europe, under the auspices of the Council
of Europe. The key instrument is the European Convention on Human Rights. There is a European
Court of Human Rights, which hears cases about alleged violations. There are also other European
treaties dealing with particular human rights issues, such as economic, social and cultural
rights and torture. An Inter-American system exists under the
auspices of the Organization of American States. The key instruments are the American Declaration
of the Human Rights and Duties of Man and an American Convention on Human Rights. There
is an Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which hears cases, and there is a quasi-judicial
body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which hears cases, and which also
has other functions such as reporting on particular human rights issues. Under the Organization of African Unity, there is an African human rights system, with an
African Court of Human Rights and an African Commission on Human Rights. The key instrument
is the African Charter on Human and People´s Rights. There is also a burgeoning Arab system developed by the Arab League, with an Arab Convention
on Human Rights. These regional systems are in some ways stronger
than the global system, because they are regional courts; regional courts which can make binding
international legal decisions. The region which is lagging behind is in Asia, specially
South Asia and South East Asia, where there isn’t yet any advanced human rights machinery. So, that’s an introduction to some of the main human rights mechanisms in the world.
Thanks for listening.

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