Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Appendix iii
Overview of UN Human Rights Tools
by Niamh Reilly

The Limits of the System. Formal processes for filing complaints of human rights violations are constrained on a number of levels. Documentation submitted for consideration to UN international human rights bodies must name the state or states responsible for the violations. Where violations or patterns of human rights abuse do not result from direct state action, but from the state’s failure to take preventative action or to actively ensure justice, it can be difficult to establish state accountability and to clarify who is the violator. A complaint is more readily processed and a ruling of human rights given when the violations are carried out by individuals acting as state agents, as in cases of arbitrary arrest or torture in police or military custody. This focus fails to address many of the violations women experience at the hands of non-state actors and/or in private settings.

A further limitation to securing legal redress on the basis of a particular covenant or treaty is that the mechanisms of accountability are entirely voluntary. The state must have signed up to the treaty and it must also agree to cooperate with the treaty body overseeing the state’s compliance before the state can be held formally and publicly accountable. Also, when individuals are submitting complaints in reference to specific covenants, they must show that all domestic remedies have been exhausted before appealing internationally. Nevertheless, where a situation exists that is recognised as involving gross violations of human rights, then the international community can take action on the grounds that the conditions in question undermine the tenets of the Universal Declaration which every state is morally bound to uphold.

The Optional Protocol or Individual Complaints Procedures. The most well-known "Optional Protocol" is a companion mechanism to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and affords the highest degree of public accountability and effectiveness. It allows individuals to make formal complaints to the Human Rights Committee, the body overseeing the treaty. However, the Human Rights Committee can only process non-anonymous complaints concerning those states that have signed and ratified the ICPCR and its optional protocol. Once a case satisfies the committee’s criteria, the person making the complaint will be informed of, and may respond to, developments along the way including responses made by the state in question. However, the entire process may take up to three years to produce a ruling. While the final ruling is not legally binding, it does send a strong political and moral message to the offending state, and if remedial action is not taken pressure will be escalated when the state is next up for review.

The fact that the civil and political covenant has an optional protocol, while other human rights instruments like the economic, social, and cultural covenant (ICESCR) and the Women’s Convention do not, underscores the hierarchy built into human rights practice. Further, the rights delineated in the ICESCR are qualified as aspirations to be achieved over time so that violations – even when life-threatening – are not treated as urgent. This represents a particular obstacle for women who wish to remedy violations that are perpetrated in the name of culture or religion, or are the result of gender-based economic exploitation. However, in response to women’s lobbying in recent years, the 1997 meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women convened a working group to draft an optional protocol to the Women’s Convention which is expected to be adopted in 1998.

In addition, the committees overseeing the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the UN Convention against Torture (CAT) do receive individual communications regarding human rights abuses. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) also prepares two lists each year of human rights violations affecting women, one of which is public and the other confidential. Two of the UN specialized agencies, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), have also created international legislation in defense of human rights within their mandated areas and supervise its implementation.

Government Reports under UN Treaties. Whether or not a treaty or convention has an optional protocol, all states are required to submit regular reports to the treaty-monitoring committees detailing the steps they are taking to implement the treaty provisions. The treaty bodies also welcome alternative reports from non-governmental groups which they will consider when reviewing states’ compliance with the treaty. Not only can non-governmental submissions influence the policy recommendations and official statements of international bodies, but they may be used to shame the government involved into taking action on a particular case or issue.

"1503" Procedure. Another major avenue to register complaints of human rights abuse is the "1503" procedure that allows the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to receive reports of any "consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms …affecting a large number of people over a protracted period of time." Under this procedure, an individual or group can submit a report. The Sub-Commission may then enter into dialogue with the state or states in question, undertake an investigation based on the complaint, establish a thematic working group, and/or appoint a special rapporteur. However the process is completely confidential and the person or group making the submission will not receive an official response and may never know the impact of their complaint.

Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups. There are dozens of thematic and/or regional special rapporteurs, representatives, and working groups within the UN human rights machinery which depend upon non-governmental sources to carry out their investigations into human rights abuse. These special procedures cover topics such as discrimination against AIDS/HIV infected individuals, violations relating to extreme poverty, indigenous peoples’ rights, human rights abuse in occupied territories, and several with gender specific mandates such as the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, the Special Rapporteur on Traditional Practices Affecting Women and Children, and now the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. More recently the Special Procedures Branch of the UN Centre for Human Rights has established a Human Rights Hotline for victims of human rights violations, relatives of victims, and non-governmental groups.

Niamh Reilly is an activist and academic in the field of human rights.


An earlier version of this overview was published in Niamh Reilly, State Accountability for Women’s Human Rights in Ireland (WERRC, 1997).

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