IN THE UNITED NATIONS
When a nation ratifies a
treaty it undertakes both negative obligations (to refrain from actions that
violate human rights) and positive obligations (to take affirmative actions
to guarantee that human rights are protected). In order to ensure that governments
are fulfilling both negative and positive obligations, the United Nations
system includes a variety of enforcement mechanisms.
Enforcement mechanisms are
usually categorized by the type of UN body that receives communications or
carries out the monitoring process. There are three broad categories of enforcement
mechanisms: (1) charter-based mechanisms, such as the UN Commission on the
Status of Women; (2) convention or treaty-based mechanisms, such as the Committee
on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; and (3) mechanisms contained
in UN specialized agencies, such as the International Labor Organization or
the World Health Organization. Each of these bodies monitors either a specific
human rights issue or particular treaties.
The classification of enforcement
mechanisms into these categories clarifies the workings of the UN structure.
For women’s rights advocates, however, it is generally more useful to understand
the type of procedure available under each of the UN enforcement bodies,
rather than the structural aspects of the mechanism.
Individuals or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can bring information
about human rights violations, or non-compliance with human rights
obligations, to the UN bodies mentioned above through two procedures:
complaint mechanisms and reporting/
monitoring mechanisms. Each procedure has its own requirements,
limitations and outcomes. In choosing to seek enforcement of
human rights obligations, advocates should carefully evaluate,
first, the mechanisms available to them based on the treaty ratification
of their national government, and, second, the desired remedy
or outcome for the victims of human rights violations. There
are also specific differences between the procedures, such as
whether the communication remains confidential, that must also
Advocates should consider
the remedies available at the international level, under the UN, as part of
a larger strategy to combat violence against women. For many reasons, the
international enforcement mechanisms should only be addressed after attempting
to obtain redress through the national legal system.
First, the UN enforcement bodies that accept direct complaints
require exhaustion of domestic remedies
before a case can be considered admissible. Secondly, and perhaps
more importantly, the remedies available under international law
may not always be advantageous to the individual victim. The
UN mechanisms are often very slow and time-consuming and confidentiality
of the complainant cannot always be ensured. Victims of violence
may have limited resources in which to invest in a lengthy procedure.
Furthermore, safety for the victim should be a paramount concern,
and the UN is limited in its ability to intervene and protect
individual victims of human rights violations.
Some UN bodies accept complaints
(usually referred to as “communications”) directly from private individuals
or from NGOs on behalf of individuals. Depending on the body to which the
complaint is submitted, advocates can chose between two types of complaints,
each of which serves a different purpose:
(1) The complaint-recourse procedure should be used when the
victim is seeking redress for a specific human rights violation.
The general purpose for submitting this type of complaint is to
address individual grievances and advocate on behalf of the victim.
The complaint procedure also serves to bring publicity to a specific
case. The UN bodies that receive such complaints (for example
the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women,
under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Discrimination) review the submission and can
ask the state government concerned to take measures to protect
the victim and to provide redress for the violation. Unlike judgments
under regional systems, such as the European
human rights system, however, the decisions reached by the
UN in such circumstances are not binding on national governments.
UN bodies do, however, continue to monitor State compliance.
(2) The complaint-information procedure functions in a way similar
to the reporting mechanisms. The purpose
for submitting this type of complaint is to inform the appropriate
UN body about broad human rights violations that affect large
segments of the population. The Commission on the Status of Women
is an example of a UN body that receives such communications about
the status of women’s rights. Advocates or victims cannot
ask for a remedy when using this complaint mechanism, and the
communication itself is only one piece of information that the
UN body considers in making a report.
In order for a communication, a complaint, to be found
admissible under a UN enforcement body, it is necessary to follow
standard rules of procedure. Each monitoring body may have specific
requirements for the form of communications, many of which can
be accessed through the UN website on Communications
and Complaints Procedures. In addition, there are some general
guidelines that are common to all enforcement bodies that
may provide useful information for submitting a complaint.
Reporting/ Monitoring Mechanisms
Each of the three types
of UN bodies, charter-based mechanisms, treaty-based mechanisms and specialized
agencies, carry out human rights monitoring. In order to enforce the provisions
of international treaties, the UN does not rely solely on information about
violations of human rights brought by individuals or NGOs. The UN human rights
bodies themselves regularly monitor compliance with treaty obligations.
Monitoring and reporting procedures differ from complaint
mechanisms in that monitoring does not result in a legally binding
decision, nor does it depend on information communicated by individuals
or groups. When UN bodies undertake monitoring, they create a
report on State noncompliance which includes specific authoritative,
but non-binding, recommendations.
There are two ways that
the reporting and monitoring procedure can be initiated:
(1) Required State reporting:
The six core human rights treaties (the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Eliminations of All Forms
of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of the Child) establish
committees that monitor their implementation. Once a national government
has ratified one of these treaties, it is required to report on a regular
basis to the treaty-monitoring body. States are under an obligation to report
on their own compliance with the treaty, but the committees have no power
to enforce this requirement. Thus, it is not unusual for national governments
to miss reporting deadlines or to fail to submit a report at all.
NGOs have successfully
used the State reporting period as a tool for advocacy. Most commonly, NGOs
may submit alternative or “shadow” reports which offer an alternate view of
State compliance with treaty obligations. Typically, shadow reports elaborate on information contained
in State party reports and provide an alternative analysis. Accredited NGOs
can also monitor many of the Committee’s proceeding as observers.
More information on both
the process of writing shadow reports as well as strategies to effectively
use this mechanism can be found in the Human Rights Investigation and
Documentation section of this website.
(2) Committee or NGO-
Initiated reporting: Some UN monitoring bodies initiate a report on government
action outside of the reporting schedule required by a treaty. In the case
of the UN Special Rapporteurs, such as the Special Rapporteur on violence
against women, the office initiates analyses of specific issues or developments,
which is published in a report. Alternatively, information from advocates
and NGOs may bring a specific issue to the attention of a UN body, such as
the Commission on the Status of Women, which will then carry out a study and
The role of advocates in the monitoring process is distinct from that in
the complaint process. While there is no circumscribed procedure for communications,
NGOs have effectively addressed various UN committees during reporting periods
to raise awareness of women’s rights. A number of UN committees have indicated
that, despite the lack of explicit provisions about NGO participation, committee
members rely on NGO information to determine whether State parties are fulfilling
obligations under specific treaties. NGOs can meet with committee member
working groups during pre-sessional periods and also may make statements to
the committees during sessions.
Major United Nations Enforcement Bodies
There are several UN bodies that are concerned with the
enforcement of women’s human rights, through both complaint and reporting
mechanisms. Additionally, other enforcement bodies monitor human rights broadly,
but will address women’s rights when applicable. The major UN enforcement
bodies and the mechanisms available under each one are summarized below.
More information is available by clicking on the specific body or mechanism.
Procedurally, many of the committees will not consider
complaints if they have been submitted under another mechanism. The term
“multiple applications” refers to complaints based on the same facts that
have been submitted to several mechanisms at close to the same time. NGOs
and advocates should consider all available options carefully before submitting
Unlike the complaint mechanisms, however, NGOs are not limited in the number
of UN bodies to which they can submit reports. In fact, NGOs should
submit relevant information to any and all special rapporteurs, working
groups or committees that are reviewing a specific country or rights