Human Rights Treaties

The main UN human rights treaties

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

As discussed in Part 1, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was the first universal and fundamental statement of human rights. It forms the basis of over 60 international treaties and is the global standard for human rights. But it is not a treaty; it is a statement of principles and therefore is not legally binding.

The International Bill of Rights

After the adoption of the UDHR in 1948, the Commission on Human Rights turned its attention to drafting agreements on specific political and civil rights, and social and economic rights. They drafted two treaties:

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The treaties were approved in 1966, 18 years after the adoption of the UDHR. It took another 10 years before these two treaties were signed by enough states to ratify them, and they finally came into force in 1976.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the two conventions – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights– form the International Bill of Rights.

Confusion alert!

Treaties and conventions are legally binding to States Parties- that is, states that have agreed to them. The UDHR is not legally binding because it is not a treaty, but a declaration of principles.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The ICCPR commits states to respect the civil and political rights of all people, including the right to self-determination, to life, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to a fair trial. As a covenant (treaty), the ICCPR is legally binding in international law.

These are mainly first generation rights.

The treaty is monitored by the Human Rights Committee.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The ICSECR commits states to work toward achieving economic, social and cultural rights for individuals. These rights include labor rights and the right to health, the right to education, and the right to an adequate standard of living.

These are mainly second generation rights.

The treaty is monitored by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)

The CAT and its Optional Protocol outlaw torture and cruelty throughout the world. As a convention, the CAT is legally binding in international law.

The treaty is monitored by the Committee Against Torture.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)

The CRPD protects the rights and dignity of people living with disabilities. It is legally binding and commits states to ensure that people with disabilities have full human rights and equality under the law.

The treaty is monitored by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

The CRC is the most widely signed treaty in the world. It is supported by all member states of the UN General Assembly, except the US and Somalia. The CRC draws on other treaties and brings together children’s rights expressed in the other treaties. It guides the way in which all people and states should view children. The principles in the CRC apply to children and adults. Children are defined as young people up to the age of 18, and the CRC pays special attention to children belonging to minority ethnic groups. The CRC recognizes the family as the primary site of care and responsibility for children. It says states, and those who care for children, must always act in the child’s best interests. As a convention, the CRC is legally binding in international law.

The treaty is monitored by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

The ICERD defines and condemns racial discrimination. It calls for states to act to ensure the advancement of specific racial or ethnic groups. It outlaws dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or inspiring racial hatred, and makes them punishable by law. As a convention, it is legally binding in international law.

The treaty is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

The CEDAW promotes women’s equality and sets out steps that states must take to ensure women’s equality in private and public life. As a convention, CEDAW is legally binding in international law.

The treaty is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families

This convention is also referred to as the International Migration Convention or the Convention on Migrant Workers (CMW). It protects migrant workers; promotes respect for migrants’ human rights; aims to guarantee that migrants receive equal treatment to citizens under the labor laws of the state where they are working. As a convention, it is legally binding in international law.

The treaty is monitored by the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

The CED provides a legally binding instrument to protect individuals against enforced disappearance. It defines enforced disappearance and requires criminalization of the act and prevention and protection of victims. It entered into force on December 10, 2010.

The treaty is monitored by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances.

Non-UN treaties

There are also several international human rights treaties which did not originate with the UN. The most important are:

The Rome Statute

The Rome Statute defines the four most serious crimes against humanity and sets up the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try people who are accused of these crimes. The Rome Statute is binding in international law.

The Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions set standards in international law for humanitarian treatment of civilians during war and conflict. They also recognize the human rights of journalists during war and conflict. The Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols are binding in international law.

Regional human rights systems

The Organisation of African Unity, the Council of Europe and the Organization of American States have all adopted treaties to further human rights in their regions. Countries that have signed these regional treaties are all bound by them.

There is currently no regional human rights convention in Asia. The three main regional human rights treaties are:

The American Convention on Human Rights

The Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969. It entered into force on July 18, 1978.

The system includes the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Commission is a permanent body which meets several times a year and monitors observance of the rights contained in the American Convention on Human Rights.

The Court’s job is to interpret the Convention and to adjudicate on cases where violations are claimed. Individuals may not petition the Court directly, as with the European Court, but must first take their cases to the Commission, which decides whether their cases should be heard by the Court.

The US is a signatory of the Convention, but is not a party to the Court. Most Latin American countries are party to the Court. The Court has succeeded in ordering Latin American governments to pay compensation to families that have lost members through human rights violations. It has also persuaded governments to release the victims of unjust trials and prison sentences.

The OAS has also adopted several other treaties related to human rights, including torture, economic, social and cultural rights, the death penalty, violence against women, forced disappearances, disabilities and a declaration on principles concerning freedom of expression.

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

In 1953, the Council of Europe adopted the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The European Convention on Human Rights provides for the European Court of Human Rights. The Court is in Strasbourg and adjudicates individual cases and issues between states.

All 47 member states of the Council of Europe have signed the Convention and are under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

Individuals who believe their rights are being violated, and who have failed to solve the problem through national courts, may submit their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. If they succeed through the European Court of Human Rights, the national rulings are usually set aside and the European Court’s ruling has the force of law.

The Council of Europe has also adopted other human rights treaties involving economic, social and cultural rights, torture, national minorities, violence against women, trafficking in human beings and racism and intolerance.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The Charter was adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, now the African Union -- AU) in 1981 and entered into force on October 21, 1986. October 21 was declared “African Human Rights Day” to celebrate the occasion. The Charter has 53 signatories.

The Charter lists rights and duties covering all walks of life, from family security to African unity. It stresses that civil and political rights cannot be separated from economic, social and cultural rights.

Many clauses refer to national law, and are subsidiary to national law. The Charter has been criticized for this, because in many countries oppressive laws that limit human rights still exist.

The OAU also established the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. The Commission’s function is to promote the rights outlined in the Charter, ensure their protection and to interpret the Charter.

There previously was no court to hear cases of either states or individuals, and the Commission was criticized for being toothless.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights began operations in 2006 and has recently begun to hear cases regarding violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The AU has also adopted conventions on the rights of children and the rights of women.

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