Human rights on paper

Conventions, covenants and treaties

Human rights norms are set out in international conventions, covenants or treaties. These are the formal agreements between states that set standards for the behavior of states (countries represented by governments) and individuals.

The organization responsible for adopting most international human rights treaties is the UN General Assembly. Once a treaty has been drafted, states have the option of agreeing to it. States are not obliged to sign any treaty, but when a state does sign the treaty, it is legally binding on that state.

International treaties, regional treaties

Conventions and treaties can be global; for example, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty. Or they can be regional; for example, the African Charteron Human and Peoples' Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) is a treaty that promotes and protects human rights and freedoms on the African continent.

Rights, duties and responsibilities for individuals and states

Human rights entail duties and obligations for both states and individuals.

States (governments) – must not interfere with human rights, either of their own citizens or the citizens of other states. They must protect citizens against human rights abuses by other states, or by any other person or people.

Duties of states

  • “to respect’”- to refrain from any measure that may deprive individuals of the enjoyment of human rights.
  • “to protect” - to prevent violations of human rights by third parties.
  • “to fulfill” - to take steps to ensure that citizens have opportunities to obtain satisfaction of the basic needs recognized in human rights conventions.

Very importantly, human rights treaties say that states are obliged to take positive steps to ensure that all citizens enjoy human rights. This means that, if necessary, they must change their national legal systems to comply with international human rights standards.

Individuals – either on their own or in organizations or groups — have obligations to respect the human rights of others, and must not interfere with or violate the rights of others.

Human rights in international law

International human rights law is the body of law that protects and promotes human rights. It sets out the obligations of states in regard to human rights. By signing a treaty, the state agrees to be bound by the treaty; that is, the state is legally obliged to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights set forth in the treaty.

Human rights in national law

Once a state has signed an international treaty, the government is obliged to take steps to ensure that the national legal system complies with the standards set out in the treaty. That means states should set limits on their own power in relation to the rights of their citizens.

Many states have included international human rights standards in their national constitutions and laws, or have changed their constitutions and laws so that they are more compliant with international human rights standards.

How to read a treaty

Most human rights covenants, conventions or treaties are laid out in the same way. They usually have:

A preamble that explains why the treaty was created and describes its main intentions and points.

A set of articles, which is the list of the rights agreed to in the treaty. Articles are mostly divided into three groups: (i) the list of rights; (ii) a description of how they will be implemented and monitored, and (iii) an explanation of how the treaty will be signed and can be amended.

Signatories – each treaty is adopted by the governing body, and then opened for signature. Once enough states have signed, the treaty enters into force.

Signing up: becoming a State Party

States can sign, ratify or accede to treaties. States that have signed, ratified or acceded to a treaty are referred to as “States Parties,” meaning they are “party” to the treaty. In other words, they have agreed to be legally bound by its articles.

Positive action!

    Human rights standards and conventions require that states take positive measures to create an environment in which all can enjoy their human rights. That means states should set limits on their own power in relation to the rights of their citizens.

How states agree

The most usual way for states to become party to a treaty is by signing it.

Most human rights treaties are multilateral treaties (agreements between three or more states) and are open for signature indefinitely. However, some are only open for signature until a certain date. Once the deadline has passed, signature is not possible, and a state may only become a party to it through accession or ratification.

Simple signature: Simple signature means that the state intends to agree to be bound by the treaty at a later date. The aim of simple signature is to give the state time to seek approval at the national level, through parliamentary processes or a referendum of citizens, and to pass any laws needed to ensure it is in compliance with the treaty.

Ratification, acceptance, approval or accession

These terms allmean more or less the same thing. They are processes of confirmation and final agreement. The processes follow “simple signature.” Once a state has ratified, accepted or approved the treaty, or informed the UN Secretary-General that it is acceding to the treaty, the treaty is legally binding on that state.

Optional protocols

These are additional legal articles that add to and are relevant to the original treaty and are not automatically binding on states that have already ratified the original treaty. Optional protocols usually address something that is missing in the treaty, or a new concern.


Treaties or their subsequent protocols generally establish bodies and procedures to monitor the implementation of and compliance with the treaties and receive and investigate complaints regarding violations. These treaty-based committees are subsidiary organs of the UN General Assembly.

In other cases, complaints may be lodged with a regional or international tribunal, which have jurisdiction over States Parties.

The first recourse for addressing human rights issues is the state’s national legal system. International human rights bodies offer an important avenue to pursue remedies for human rights violations in cases where the national response is inadequate and redress impossible.