UN Human Rights Treaties

UN Human Rights Treaties

In this article, we shall discuss the various UN human rights treaties. We will discuss the various UN human rights treaties, and the related UN human rights treaty bodies related to these pieces of international law. The role of the UN and the treaty bodies is very important not only to human rights specifically, but international relations as a whole.

In later articles, we will go into more detailed analysis of the history of the UN human rights treaties, discussions on what the UN treaties address, as well as ways to enforce the various UN human rights standards. As we shall discuss, there are many United Nations treaties established within the history of the international organization (follow the UN link above for a list of the entire set of treaties within the organization).

What are UN Human Rights Treaties?

United Nations human rights treaties are a various legal documents put forward through the United Nations on different human rights issues. A treaty is an official legal agreement by countries on a particular human rights and/or international relations issue.

A UN human rights treaty is often a long process, beginning with the recognition of the need to push forward a document specifying the types of human rights that will be addressed in that legal agreement. Over time, states work together writing a UN human rights treaty on an issue. Then, following multiple discussions and revisions, the UN human rights treaty can reach a point where it is completed by representatives and others who were working on the creation of the document. Then, the potential UN human rights treaty can be introduced, and if so, can be discussed at the United Nations General Assembly. Then, if there is a motion to do so, the UN human rights treaty document can be brought to a vote. If enough states vote in the affirmative, the UN human rights treaty is passed. Then, enough individual countries will need to ratify the document in order for it to enter into force.

How Many UN Treaty Bodies Are There?

There are ten United Nations Human Rights Treaty Bodies (up until 2010, there were nine primary UN human rights treaty bodies, but the Committee on Enforced Disappearances was set up in 2010) (OHCHR, 2016). These ten UN Treaty Bodies are:

All of these UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies are under the United Nations Commission for Human Rights. With regards to these human rights treaty bodies, “Nine of these treaty bodies monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties while the tenth treaty body, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, established under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, monitors places of detention in States parties to the Optional Protocol. The treaty bodies are created in accordance with the provisions of the treaty that they monitor. OHCHR supports the work of treaty bodies and assists them in harmonizing their working methods and reporting requirements through their secretariats” (OHCHR.org, 2016).

As Mechlem (2009) points out, the United Nations human rights treaty bodies serve key functions within the UN organization, and for the topic of human rights in general. For example, among other things, the “United Nations human rights treaty bodies play an important role in establishing the normative content of human rights and in giving concrete meaning to individual rights and state obligations” (905).

What Happens After a UN Human Rights Treaty Is Passed?

Following the passage of a UN human rights treaty document, there will be a UN body that will be responsible for monitoring the implementation of the new human rights document. It is important to note that “The treaty bodies are composed of independent experts and meet to consider State parties’ reports as well as individual complaints or communications. They may also publish general comments on human rights topics related to the treaties they oversee. The treaty-based bodies tend to follow similar patterns of documentation” (UN, 2016).

These human rights experts will discuss with countries what states need to do to ensure that they are actually living up to what the specific UN treaty is calling for. Regarding how a human rights expert is selected to serve on a particular UN human rights treaty body, “who are nominated and elected for fixed renewable terms of four years by State parties” (OHCHR, 2016).

Depending on the specific UN human rights treaty body, countries will update their work regarding the said treaty. It is also important to note that it is with regards to the UN human rights treaty bodies that actors such as non-governmental organizations have an important role.  The reason is that there have been many cases where human rights activists have questioned the credibility of state reports on human rights progress. Thus, non-governmental organizations can publish and present their own “shadow reports” to the UN human rights treaty body, detailing their findings on human rights conditions based on the treaty obligations.

As Broecker (2014) argues, “The treaty bodies are a foundational component of the international human rights system, enhancing protection through their independent assessment of States’ compliance with their human rights obligations. They interact with government representatives during the public review of States’ periodic reports on their implementation of the treaties and publish conclusions and recommendations evaluating their progress; reach decisions on individual cases of alleged violations; and issue general comments interpreting the scope of the human rights that they monitor, among other functions.”

He goes on to add that “Their findings are important to governments but also to human rights defenders, national human rights institutions (NHRIs), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide information to the treaty bodies and reference their findings in their work. The treaty bodies also inform the work of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review and Special Procedures; academics; intergovernmental bodies like the UN Human Rights Council; and national, regional, and international courts.”

Now, this is not to say that there are no problems with the way that UN human rights treaty bodies operate. Some of the most noted challenges continue to be ensuring that states comply with the obligations set out in the UN human rights treaty bodies. In addition, given the rising number of UN human rights treaty bodies, additional resources are needed to ensure that these entities operate at the most efficient levels (Broecker, 2014). Because of the critiques regarding the operations and problems surrounding the UN human rights treaty system, UN leaders have called for reforms.

For example, “In 2009, recognizing these challenges, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay initiated a series of multi-stakeholder consultations aimed at “strengthening” the treaty bodies that became known as the Dublin Process. This effort provoked substantial reflection by current and former treaty body experts, NGOs, NHRIs, the UN Secretariat, academics, and Member States.”

Then, “In late 2011, as the Dublin Process neared its anticipated conclusion, a group of States objected that the process had not sufficiently privileged the views of States above those of other stakeholders. Led by the Russian Federation, the group successfully pressed the UN General Assembly to initiate the intergovernmental process as a State-led successor to the High Commissioner’s efforts.” However, another larger group of states passed a resolution in February of 2012 at the UNGA which set up the process (Broecker, 2014).

Then, “Negotiations among States began in July 2012, after the High Commissioner had published her report on the Dublin Process. Other stakeholders—NGOs, NHRIs, and the treaty body experts and their chairpersons—primarily provided input through “separate, informal arrangements” with the two Permanent Representatives to the UN appointed as co-facilitators of the process. States reached agreement on a compromise outcome in February 2014, which the General Assembly formally adopted by consensus on April 9, 2014” (Broecker, 2014).

While attempts to mandate states agree to a “master calendar” regarding UN human rights treaty reporting were not accepted, the times these human rights treaty bodies were to meet increased by as much as 20 percent (Broecker, 2014).

Furthermore, the resolution also attempted to address the financial costs of UN human rights treaty system. Part of the problem was that even with additional meetings, the budget for this work did not increase. So, they had to find ways to reduce the overall costs of UN human rights treaty body work. They were able to do this by cutting costs on they way they did worked through conferences, with attention to things such as processing of documents, translations costs, as well as interpretation services. In addition, they also set word limits to reports written by states, and also by the specific UN human rights treaty body, and also set restrictions on the working languages used. Interestingly, because these measures taken by the UN, “the resolution creates $19.2 million in cost savings. The majority of these savings are re-invested into the treaty body system to provide the new meeting time” (Broecker, 2014).

Along with these noted cost-cutting strategies, “The resolution also reallocates $4.5 million per year to create a capacity-building program in which OHCHR will provide assistance to States upon their request to aid them in preparing their reports.[14] Although this reduces the resources dedicated to direct support for the treaty bodies, it was a key priority for States that argued that low procedural compliance with their treaty bodies was more a product of their limited capacity than of insufficient political will” (Brocker, 2014).


The United Nations human rights treaties and the UN treaty bodies are crucial to the establishment and development of human rights norms within the UN and the international system as a whole. The hope is that by setting up such human rights treaty bodies, that not only will this help create a human rights culture, but also that it creates expected human rights standards, as well as human rights obligations that states are expected to meet (Bayefsky, ND).

UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies References

Bayefsky (ND). Introduction to the UN Human Rights Treaty System. Available Online: http://www.bayefsky.com/introduction.php

Broecker, C. (2014). The Reform of the United Nations’ Human Rights Treaty Bodies. ASIL, Vol. 18, No. 6. Available Online: https://www.asil.org/insights/volume/18/issue/16/reform-united-nations’-human-rights-treaty-bodies

Mechlem, K. (2009). Treaty Bodies and the Interpretation of Human Rights. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law. Vol. 42, pages 905-947.

OHCHR (2016). Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Human Rights Bodies. Available Online: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/Pages/HumanRightsBodies.aspx

United Nations (2016). Treaty-based Bodies: UN Documentation. Human Rights. United Nations. Available Online: http://research.un.org/en/docs/humanrights/treaties

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