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UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies

Photo: © Scott Wallace/World Bank

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

International human rights law lays down obligations which States are bound to respect. By becoming parties to international treaties, States assume obligations and duties under international human rights law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights.

Each of the treaties has specific provisions that state what a country must do to become legally bound to that treaty. Initially, a country might demonstrate consent or political will by signing a treaty. In order for a State to become legally bound by the treaty, however, the signature has to be followed by a formal act of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. Once a country is legally bound by the terms of a particular treaty it agrees to be monitored by the committee overseeing that treaty. This gives the Treaty Body or committee legal authority to monitor a country’s performance of its treaty-related obligations.

The Treaty Bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor the implementation by States parties of their obligations under these international human rights treaties (see below for the list of treaties and their corresponding treaty body). All treaty bodies, with the exception of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, are mandated to receive and consider reports submitted periodically by State parties detail­ing how they are applying the treaty provisions nationally. Most treaty bodies may also consider com­plaints or communications from individuals alleging that their rights have been violated by a State party, provided that State has opted into this procedure[1]. Some may also conduct inquiries and consider inter-State complaints.

The OHCHR in Geneva supports the work of the Treaty Bodies.

To learn more about International Human Rights Treaties and Protocols and their respective Committees click here.

All treaty bodies have developed the practice of inviting State parties to send a delegation to attend the session at which the committee will consider their report in order to allow them to respond to members’ ques­tions and provide additional information on their efforts to implement the provisions of the relevant treaty. The examination of a report culminates in the adoption of “Concluding Observations”, the observations and recommendations issued by a treaty body after consideration of a State party’s report, and intended to give the reporting State practical advice on further steps to implement the rights contained in the treaty.

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and non-state actors, such as civil society organizations also have the possibility, in the context of the periodic reporting cycle, to submit reports, often referred to as ‘alternative’ or ‘shadow reports’. These can be written by individual organizations or jointly by an alliance of organizations. They provide an opportunity to present additional perspectives, issues of concern or information which they consider has been omitted from the State party’s report[1].

United Nations agencies, funds and programmes and UNCTs are also encouraged to actively engage with the Human Rights Treaty Bodies as appropriate and pursuant to their individual mandates. This could include participating in the sessions and submitting information of relevance to Treaty Bodies. Upon request, information  shared with the Treaty Bodies will remain confidential. Since 2005, an inter-agency group on CEDAW reporting has facilitated UNCT reporting to CEDAW regularly alongside other treaty bodies.

In March 2017, only 18 percent of States were fully compliant with their reporting obligations under the relevant international human rights treaties and protocols.

Strengthening the Human Rights Treaty Body System

In April 2014, after two years of negotiations among Member  States, the General Assembly adopted resolution 68/268 on strengthening the human rights treaty body system.

For UNCTs, it is important to note that:

The treaty bodies now meet for almost 100 weeks per year (an additional 20 weeks of meeting time per year). The General Assembly called upon the Treaty Body Chairpersons to take a leadership role in harmonizing working methods and generalizing good practices across the treaty body system.

The resolution introduced the Simplified Reporting Procedure. Instead of submitting periodic reports, States parties can opt to receive questions from the treaty bodies (which are based on the Concluding Observations from the previous review as well as new developments). States’ replies to those questions will constitute the State party report. Hence the reporting process is reduced from two steps (State party report and replies to the list of issues) to one step. Treaty bodies are progressively introducing this new reporting procedure.

Finally, the resolution established the Treaty Body Capacity Building Programme in OHCHR to support States parties in building their capacity to implement their treaty obligations. The Programme aims at transforming reporting from a perceived burden to a concrete benefit for States and ultimately rights holders. The team organizes at least two regional “train the trainers” events for State officials with experience in Treaty Body reporting annually, establishes a roster of trainers from among those trained State officials, and provides trainings and advisory services at the national level. The team is identifying and sharing good reporting practices, and developing a  training methodology for each treaty accompanied by tools that can be used by States, non-governmental organisations and the UN in all regions. The Programme consists of a dedicated team in Geneva as well as capacity-building officers based in OHCHR’s regional presences in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Bishkek, Dakar, Panama, Pretoria, Santiago de Chile, Suva and Yaoundé.

The resolution called for a full review of the Treaty Body System in 2020.

To know more on the Treaty Body Strengthening Process click here.

How is the Treaty Body System Relevant to UNCTs?

The  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. UNCTs can gain valuable information from reading existing Treaty Body material. They can also benefit from engaging with the Treaty Bodies throughout the reporting process. Principal areas of engagement are the following:

  1. Knowing the content of human rights treaties
  2. Knowing the Treaty Bodies’ jurisprudence (‘General Comments’)
  3. Supporting the Treaty Body reporting process and follow up to concluding observations

Each area of engagement is elaborated upon further below including how this information is useful for UNCTs.

Human Rights Treaties: What are the benefits of knowing about them? By becoming a party to a human rights treaty, States take on a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights contained in that treaty. In-country staff and UNCTs should know which treaties a country is a party to as this also entails certain legal obligations.

Information is readily available as to which treaties have been signed and ratified by a specific country and whether any reservations have been entered. Information is also available on when countries are scheduled to submit a report or are scheduled to be considered (reviewed) by a Treaty Body. See the useful resources and links section.

How is this information useful for UNCTs?

Using human rights standards in programming – Knowing which legally binding commitments each respective state has undertaken, read in conjunction with general comments and with concluding observations addressed to the State party, can help identify potential areas for cooperation or coordination with the state and other stakeholders, including civil society, in order to support the state in fulfilling its treaty obligations

  • Allowing you to review the level of harmonization of national law with international standards in the country so that you could offer assistance to the Government to either review existing legislation, or draft and adopt legislation which conforms with international human rights standards
  • Checking the standards enshrined in the treaties and the concluding observations addressed to the State party can be a useful reference source and tool for programming, including setting priorities in the Common Country Assessment and UN Development Assistance Framework (CCA/UNDAF) or other national level programming documents
  • Advancing advocacy efforts – Identifying which treaties still need to be ratified by the state to focus relevant advocacy efforts
  • Awareness raising – Developing human rights educational and awareness raising material that supports local outreach, through:
  • summarizing 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, including often excluded populations (children, youth, women, persons with disabilities, elderly, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, etc)
  • working with the media to disseminate accessible and clear 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

Treaty Bodies’ jurisprudence: What are the benefits of knowing about it? Treaty Bodies regularly produce General Comments that provide guidance for States regarding the scope of a treaty and interpretation of specific human rights issues and the methods of work. General comments may also outline actions which would be considered potential violations of rights and offer advice to States on how best to comply with their obligations under the treaties.

Through their General Comments, Treaty Bodies clarify the content of and provide additional information and guidance relating to specific rights and the main corresponding state obligations. For example, General Comment 12 on the right to food from the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights  elaborates on what the state has to do to ensure the right to food and General Comment 13 on the right to education details actions the state must take to ensure education for its people and provides guidance on the content and key features of this right to take into account in programming.

How is this information useful for UNCTs?

  • General Comments can be used as a guidance and evaluation tool for national government programmes and UN programmes
  • General Comments can help to define standards and goals for monitoring and measuring implementation (outputs and outcomes)

General Comments can provide useful guidance in respect to aspects of a right that had not been considered previously, and which could be included into future programming.

The Treaty Body reporting process and follow-up to concluding observations: what are the benefits of supporting it? Human Rights Treaty Bodies note gaps between a States’ human rights treaty obligations and the actual situation experienced by people under their jurisdiction. Sources of information for Treaty Bodies include the State party’s official report and other information or independent reports (’alternative’ or ‘shadow’ reports) from UNCTs, UN agencies, funds and programmes, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) as well as civil society. Information and reports provided by UNCTs will be treated as confidential upon request. These inputs enhance the understanding of the human rights situation in the State, resulting in more relevant, focused and implementable recommendations.

All partners who have submitted a report to the Treaty Bodies can brief members during the session, just before the dialogue with the State party. These meetings are public or private depending on the treaty body. The process includes a dialogue with the State and results in the adoption of concluding observations, where the Treaty Body makes recommendations to the state for future action. As each cycle builds upon the previous one, the next State party report should focus on the progress made towards the implementation of the previous recommendations.

UNCTs can access more information on the work of Treaty Bodies as well as country reports, reporting due dates and concluding observations using various tools in the Useful Resources and Links section.

How is this information useful for UNCTs?

Knowing when a country is due to report is a good starting point for:

  • Communicating with the government ministry in charge of reporting and information collection and supporting them in the process through capacity building and other means
  • If appropriate, advocating for the establishment of adequate mechanisms to facilitate reporting and follow-up on the implementation of treaty body recommendations, for instance through setting up standing national mechanisms for reporting and follow-up (NMRFs) and encouraging the submission of overdue reports
  • UNCTs can provide coordinated input to the consideration of reports of States parties under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator or a designated lead agency, including progress achieved regarding implementation of previous recommendations
  • In addition, UN agencies, funds and programmes can submit thematic or specialized information and guidance and the UN can play a convening role to support the participation of civil society in the State reporting
  • Encouraging non-government stakeholders to participate in the Treaty Body reporting process to ensure the drafting process is inclusive, for example, highlighting entry points for civil society input, providing an opportunity for dialogue between NGOs and civil society on the drafting of additional or independent reports and by building awareness and providing training and guidance on the reporting process
  • Hosting civil society at UN in-country premises for the live web-casting of the treaty body dialogue with the State party
  • Enhancing the capacity of the State’s delegation in preparation of the dialogue with the Treaty Body, through the organization of preparatory workshops or ‘mock sessions’ and making use of webcasting as a training tool 

Reading previous Treaty Body concluding observations can be useful for:

  • Finding out which areas the Treaty Bodies have asked the government to focus on and where the government may need support
  • Understanding what has already been reported on by the government previously
  • Contributing important information for programming, setting priorities and identifying new areas for programming
  • Providing important background for discussions with the government and authoritative input for advocacy with the Government

Following up on concluding observations by Treaty Bodies can be helpful for:

  • Ensuring the recommendations act as focus areas for interaction between the UNCT and national stakeholders including government agencies and ministries, NHRIs, NGOs, civil society, the media, and specific groups such as minorities and / or excluded individuals and groups, women and young people
  • Increasing public awareness of the recommendations to ensure information is widely disseminated and public scrutiny is more effective

UNCT Checklist for engaging with Treaty Bodies

Access the print-friendly version of the UNCT Checklist by clicking here.

  1. Know which human rights treaties are in force in the country and any reservations that exist. Check the list of treaties ratified by your country on the UN Treaty Body Database and view the Treaty ratification interactive dashboard to see the world map ratification.
  2. Check the country's reporting status on World maps on reporting. And, check if your country has overdue reports to the treaty bodies on the UN Treaty Body Database
  3. Know the timelines for submitting reports under the treaties to which your country is a party by viewing the following; Calendar of country review by Treaty BodiesDeadlines for the submission of documentation and Reporting status to human rights treaty bodies
  4. Know which government ministry and/or branch and which individuals are responsible for considering the signing of treaties and ratifying the treaties that have been signed
  5. Know which Government ministry and which individuals are responsible for the preparation of the State report
  6. Read the State reports submitted to the different Treaty Bodies
  7. Read the information reports submitted to Treaty Bodies by civil society, NGOs, NHRIs and others. Check out the State reports and other additional reports on the respective Treaty Body's page
  8. Watch the country's review/dialogue by the respective Treaty Body now available online on UN Web TV. Consider hosting civil society representatives to watch the dialogue at UN premises.
  9. Read the concluding observations of the Treaty Bodies to State reports and know if the State has established any formal or systematic procedure or body to follow-up on recommendations. Check the Universal Human Rights Index.
  10. Use Treaty Body recommendations for country programming [Compare your UNDAF and country programmes with the latest Treaty Body recommendations and look to see where it is possible to utilize the recommendations to inform programming].
  11. Read any General Comments related to your programming priorities.
  12. Know if there have been any individual decisions issued by the Treaty Bodies in relation to the State. Check the Jurisprudence Database.
  13. Know which individuals, from the country, if any are members of a Treaty Body or are national experts that could be helpful in training and/or awareness-building. The list of committee members can be found on the respective Treaty Body pages: Human Rights Bodies and Elections of Treaty Bodies Members
  14. Know who at OHCHR can provide contact information for Treaty Bodies by visiting the Human Rights Bodies.

Case Studies

Cambodia Case Study: Harnessing CEDAW to strengthen women’s human rights

The Convention on the Elimination on the Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) can be a powerful tool to deliver real change for women. Since ratification in 1992, the Cambodian government and civil society have actively engaged with CEDAW at the local, national and international level. UN Women Cambodia and the UNCT have progressively built on this momentum through strengthening ownership and understanding of CEDAW.

In late 2012, the Cambodian UN Theme Group on Gender (UNTGG) began compiling a joint UN Country Team (UNCT) confidential report to submit to the CEDAW Committee. This process was led by UN Women collaboratively with gender focal points from UN agencies. The resulting report was presented at the pre-sessional working group of the CEDAW Committee in February 2013.

The submission of this report was an important opportunity for the UNCT to highlight issues facing Cambodian women and influence the implementation of CEDAW in the years to come. Many key issues raised such as sexual and gender-based violence during the Khmer Rouge, women’s labor and land rights and violence against women made it into the list of questions sent to the Cambodian government by the CEDAW Committee.

UN Women and OHCHR have also supported the Cambodian Government in preparing for the constructive dialogue between the Government and CEDAW, assisting in the facilitation of a mock session, and supporting stronger reporting and implementation. This has included training on CEDAW for diverse ministries and government officials at the local, district and provincial level and for the Cambodian National Council for Women.

The investment in capacity development and engagement with the CEDAW reporting mechanisms has resulted in the empowerment of both civil society and government to be strong leaders pushing for better protection of women’s human rights. True engagement from diverse stakeholders with the CEDAW process presents a real opportunity to address the key challenges facing Cambodian women, as well as to model dialogue to strengthen democratic governance and track change.

Republic of Moldova Case Study: Translating Economic, Social and Cultural Rights into Action

In the period since 2008, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Country Team have supported engagement by Government, civil society, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and the UNCT in the Republic of Moldova with the international human rights treaty body system, with the goal to strengthen the effective realization of human rights in the national system.

One example has been OHCHR work in the context of the 2011 review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). CESCR reviewed Moldova’s action to implement the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in October 2011. At the review, Government, civil society and the NHRI participated, with UNCT Moldova playing a supporting role in the formulation of key issues relevant for the Moldovan context. As a result of OHCHR expertise on the ground, all parties were able to frame current issues and challenges in terms which facilitated the ability of CESCR to bring the best possible guidance and recommendations to the Government for action.

During 2012, the Government took comprehensive action to create an administrative framework for implementation of CESCR recommendations. The Ministry of Labour, Social Protection and Family led a process of developing an action plan, ultimately adopted by Government regulation, to distribute and supervise tasks related to the various recommendations by CESCR. UNCT Moldova has acted to support improvement of data on particular groups as identified by CESCR, in particular as concerns Roma, persons with disabilities and persons living with HIV/AIDS. UNCT Moldova has also extensively engaged to support various aspects of legal and policy reform identified by CESCR, in areas including strengthening privacy and confidentiality guarantees for persons living with HIV/AIDS, improving the policy framework for Roma inclusion, transforming modes of engagement with persons with mental disabilities by working to reform Moldova’s guardianship system, to name only several.

Resources and training material: 

Training purposes

[1] Those human rights treaty bodies which can, under certain conditions, receive and consider individual complaints or communications from individuals are: HRC,  CERD, CAT, CEDAW, CRPD, CED.

[1] As of 20 February 2017. For specific States parties to each treaty see the Status of Treaties

[1] Information notes with guidance on the specific reporting processes and requirements can be found in the Useful Resources section