United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms

September 18, 2009

The mechanisms, established by the United Nations, for the monitoring of the observance of human rights international instruments by State parties fall into two groups, namely the conventional and the extra-conventional mechanisms. The conventional mechanisms are the committees, or treaty bodies, established under the human rights treaties and their purpose is to monitor the implementation of the individual conventions by State parties. The extra-conventional mechanisms are the Special Procedures of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). This is an independent and ad-hoc system of fact-finding and operates outside the treaty framework. Under this system independent experts are designated mandates as Special Rapporteur, Independent Expert, Representative or members of a Working Group. The object of this essay is to give an account of these mechanisms and their effectiveness in monitoring the implementation and observance of international instruments.

The treaty bodies, or conventional mechanisms, have been established to monitor the implementation of the provisions of the six main human rights treaties. The six conventional mechanisms are the Human Rights Committee (HRC), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Committee Against Torture (CAT), and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). All the Committees consider periodic reports by State parties and four Committees are authorized to consider complaints from individuals. “In the case of many States these procedures provide the only avenues of international redress for individuals.”[1]

The HRC has been set up to monitor the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, when the Covenant entered into force in 1976. It is composed of 18 independent experts and under the First Optional Protocol, which entered into force together with the Covenant, it is able to consider individual complaints with reference to violations of their civil and political rights. The State parties are under obligation to submit to the HRC periodic reports, which “should indicate measures adopted to give effect to rights in the Covenant and on the progress made in the enjoyment of those rights.”[2]

The CESCR deals with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and was established by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1985. It consists of 18 independent members which are elected by and report to the ECOSOC, unlike the other Committees. “The obvious benefit of being a subsidiary organ of ECOSOC is that the Committee maintains a significant degree of autonomy from the State parties.”[3] However, the Committee was primarily intended to assist ECOSOC in the consideration of reports and as such is itself subject to the changes within ECOSOC.[4]

The CERD monitors the implementation of the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and is also composed of 18 independent experts. Under article 14 of the Convention, the Committee has the capacity to consider communications from individuals. The CEDAW consists of 23 independent experts and monitors the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It also accepts communications from individuals under the Optional Protocol to the Convention. The CAT has been established to monitor the observance of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. There are 10 members in the Committee. Under article 22 it considers communications from individuals. The CRC monitors the implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is also composed of 10 members. It, like the CESCR, is not authorized to consider complaints from individuals, but its activities include thematic examinations on specific issues and regional and subregional missions by its members.[5]

The Special Procedures of the CHR, or extra-conventional mechanisms, in which individual experts operate as Special Rapporteur, Independent Expert, Representative or members of a Working Group, provide for a more flexible response to human rights violations than the Committees, due to the ad-hoc nature of this system.[6] Under this system, the individual experts examine and report to the Commission either the human rights situation in a specific country or territory or on a specific theme that is seen as a threat to human rights globally. Thus, they are divided into country mechanisms and thematic mechanisms. Nearly 50 of these country and thematic mechanisms have been established and function as an important system, although not initially intended as one, for human rights protection worldwide. This importance may be depicted by the fact that the reports of the independent experts sometimes “bring to the attention of the international community issues that are not adequately on the international agenda.”[7]

So far there have been 20 country mechanisms set up which monitor the human rights situations in specific countries, as well as a Special Committee which investigates the Occupied Territories. Some of the thematic mechanisms that have so far been established deal with issues such as arbitrary detention, the right to development, disappearances, religious intolerance, etc.


[1] Michael O’Flaherty. Human Rights and the UN: Practice Before the Treaty Bodies. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2002, ix.
[2] Ibid., 30-31.
[3] Matthew Craven. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. A Perspective on its Development. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, 50.
[4] Ibid., 56.
[5] O’Flaherty. Human Rights and the UN: Practice Before the Treaty Bodies, 162.
[6] http://www.un.org/rights/HRToday/hrmm.htm
[7] United Nations. Fact Sheet No. 27, Seventeen Frequently Asked Questions about United Nations Special Rapporteurs, 12.

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