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Research Guides

UN Documentation: Human Rights

Introduction

The Organization's work in human rights is carried out by a number of bodies. When researching human rights issues, a distinction must be made between Charter-based and treaty-based human rights bodies.

Treaty-based bodies

  • Derive their existence from provisions contained in a specific legal instrument;
  • Hold more narrow mandates: the set of issues codified in the legal instrument;
  • Address a limited audience: only those countries that have ratified the legal instrument; and
  • Base their decision-making on consensus.

Nine UN human rights conventions have monitoring bodies to oversee the implementation of the treaty provisions. The treaty bodies are composed of independent experts and meet to consider State parties' reports as well as individual complaints or communications. They may also publish general comments on human rights topics related to the treaties they oversee. The treaty-based bodies tend to follow similar patterns of documentation.

Following the completion of the reform of the Charter-based human rights bodies and the establishment of the Human Rights Council, focus shifted to the reform of the treaty-bodies. On 9 April 2014, the General Assembly adopted a resolution on "Strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system" (A/RES/68/268). 

The Secretary-General issues a "Compilation of guidelines on the form and content of reports to be submitted by States parties to the international human rights treaties" (HRI/GEN/2/Rev.6). This document provides details on the reporting requirements, including the core document, and treaty-specific documents.

The Committees may also issue general comments on thematic issues. These have been issued in "International human rights instruments: Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations adopted by human rights treaty bodies" (HRI/GEN/1/Rev.9 Vol.I and Vol.II).

In addition to the Committees composed of experts, there are also Meetings of the States parties for the human rights conventions. 

A note on acronyms
The name of a human rights convention and its monitoring body are often very similar and may have the same acronym. Throughout this guide, the acronyms refer to the treaty-monitoring bodies, not the conventions.

Documents of UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies

The documents of the treaty-based bodies are available in several places.

General UN documents databases, such as the Official Document System (ODS) and the library’s catalogue, UNBISnet, provide access to the full-text.

In addition, specialized human rights document databases have been developed, including the treaty-based body database and the Universal Human Rights Index.

Information about the treaties, including the texts and current status, is available from the UN Treaty Collection and from the OHCHR treaty-body websites. The historic archives section of the Audiovisual Library of International Law provides a growing number of scholarly essays on the human rights conventions, their impact, procedural history, and key documents from the drafting process.

Human Rights Committee

The Human Rights Committee monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its optional protocols.

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

There are three main types of matters considered by the Human Rights Committee: State party reports, general comments on thematic matters related to the Covenant, and individual complaints. It may also consider inter-state complaints

  • States parties reports
    • Initial report is submitted within one year of the Covenant’s entry into force for the State party
    • Periodic reports are requested by the Committee, usually every four years
    • Committee discusses the State's report and issues concluding observations and comments
  • General comments
    • Provide the Committee's interpretation of the content of human rights provisions on thematic issues
    • Issued as individual documents and included in sessional report
  • Individual communications 
    • The Committee may consider individual communications relating to States parties to the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
    • Documents are often restricted
    • Called the case law of the Committee

Document symbol patterns

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

  • CESCR website
  • Established by Economic and Social Council resolution 1985/17 of 28 May 1985, to supervise the implementation of the Covenant and functions like a treaty body
  • Meets in two sessions each year in Geneva
  • First session held in 1987

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

There are two main types of matters considered by the Committee: State party reports and general comments on thematic matters related to the Covenant. The Committee also devotes one day of each session to general discussion.

  • State parties reports
    • Economic and Social Council resolution 1988/4 of 24 May 1988 establishes the pattern for State parties reports
    • Initial report is submitted within two years of the Covenant’s entry into force for the State party concerned
    • Subsequent periodic reports should be submitted every five years
    • Committee discusses the State's report and issues concluding observations and comments
  • General comments
    • Provide the Committee's interpretation of the content of human rights provisions on thematic issues
    • Issued as individual documents and included in sessional report
  • General discussions
    • General discussions focus on a particular right or a particular aspect of the Covenant
    • Meeting records may be issued
    • Meeting summary and outcome may be provided in the sessional report

Document symbol patterns 

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) monitors the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  

  • CERD website
  • Established pursuant to article 8 of the Convention
  • Meets in two sessions each year in Geneva
  • First session held in 1970

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

There are several procedures around which documents are issued by CERD: State party reports, early-warning, inter-state complaints, individual complaints, general comments, and thematic discussions.

  • State parties reports
    • Initial report is submitted within one year of the Covenant’s entry into force for the State party concerned
    • Subsequent periodic reports are required every two years
    • Committee discusses the State's report and issues concluding observations
  • Early-warning
    • Aim to prevent the escalation of conflict
    • CERD may issue a decision, statement, or send a letter to the State
  • Inter-state complaints
    • Articles 11-13 provide for this, but it has never been used
  • Individual complaints
    • CERD may consider complaints relating to States parties who have made the necessary declaration under article 14 of the Convention
    • Considered "jurisprudence"
  • General comments
    • Provide CERD's interpretation of the content of human rights provisions on thematic issues;
    • Issued in the sessional report
  • Thematic discussions
    • CERD holds regular thematic discussions on issues related to racial discrimination and the Convention
    • Informal meeting followed by a plenary meeting
    • Summary record of the plenary meeting issued

Document symbol patterns

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its optional protocol.

  • CEDAW website
  • Established pursuant to Article 17 of the Convention
  • Meets in two sessions each year
    • Beginning in 2008, meetings are held in Geneva
    • Previously meetings were held in New York or Vienna
  • First session held in 1982

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

There are several types of matters considered by the CEDAW: State party reports, individual complaints, inquiries into situations, and general recommendations.

  • State parties reports
    • Initial report within one year after its entry into force for the State Party concerned
    • Subsequent reports required every four years
    • CEDAW discusses the State's report and issues concluding observations
  • Individual complaints
    • CEDAW may consider communications from individuals or groups of individuals submitting claims of violations of rights protected under the Convention
    • Considered "jurisprudence"
  • Inquiries into situations
    • CEDAW may inquire into situations of grave or systematic violations, if the State concerned agrees
    • The procedure is confidential and the cooperation of the State party must be sought throughout
  • General recommendations
    • Provide CEDAW's recommendation on issues affecting women to which it believes the States parties should devote more attention
    • Issued in the sessional report for the session at which the recommendation was adopted

Document symbol patterns

Committee against Torture

The Committee against Torture (CAT) monitors the implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) monitors the optional protocol.

  • CAT website
  • Established in accordance with Article 17 of the Convention
  • Meets in two sessions each year in Geneva
  • First session held in 1988

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

There are several types of matters considered by CAT: State party reports, individual complaints, inquiries into situations, and general comments. It may also consider inter-state complaints. 

  • State parties reports
    • Initial report within one year after its entry into force for the State Party concerned
    • Subsequent reports required every four years
    • CAT discusses the State's report and issues concluding observations
  • Individual complaints
    • CAT may consider individual communications regarding the violation of rights under the Convention
    • Considered "jurisprudence"
  • Inquiries into situations
    • Procedure is confidential and the cooperation of the State party must be sought throughout
  • General comments
    • CAT issues general comments on topics related to the Convention

Document symbol patterns

Committee on the Rights of the Child

The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) monitors the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols.

  • CRC website
  • Established pursuant to Article 43 of the Convention;
  • Meets in three sessions each year in Geneva;
  • First session held in 1991.

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

The CRC considers State party reports, issues general comments, and holds general discussions. An Optional Protocol opened for signature in 2012 will allow the CRC to hear individual complaints.

  • State parties reports
    • Initial report within two years of the convention's entry into force for the State party concerned
    • Subsequent reports required every 5 years
    • CRC discusses the State's report and issues concluding observations
  • General comments
    • Provide CRC's interpretation of the content of human rights provisions on thematic issues
    • Issued in the sessional report
  • General discussions
    • CRC organizes a day of general discussion for a variety of stakeholders
    • Usually held each year on a particular theme
    • Meeting outcome not reported in sessional report, only available on website

Document symbol patterns

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

The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW) monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

  • CMW website
  • Established pursuant to Article 72 of the Convention
  • Meets in two sessions each year in Geneva
  • First session held in 2004

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

The CMW considers State party reports, issues general comments, and can hold general discussions.  When 10 State parties have made the necessary declaration under article 77, the CMW may consider individual complaints.

  • State parties reports
    • Initial report within one year of its entry into force for the State Party concerned
    • Subsequent reports every five years
    • CMW discusses the State's report and issued concluding observations
  • General comments
    • CMW issues general comments on topics related to the Convention
    • Available on the website, not issued in the sessional report
  • General discussions
    • CMW may organize a day of general discussion on a particular theme
    • Meeting report may be included in the sessional report

Document symbol patterns

Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its optional protocol.

  • CRPD website
  • Established pursuant to Article 34 of the Convention
  • Meets in two sessions each year in Geneva
  • First session held in 2009

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

The CRPD considers State party reports, and holds general discussions. The CRPD may consider individual complaints in accordance with the optional protocol. 

  • State parties reports
    • Initial report within two years of the Convention's entry into force for the State party concerned
    • Subsequent reports every four years
    • CRPD discusses the State's report and issues concluding observations
  • General comments
    • CRPD issues general comments on topics related to the Convention
    • Available on the website, not issued in the sessional report
  • General discussions
    • CRPD may organize a day of general discussion on a theme
    • A summary of the day may be included in the sessional report

Document symbol patterns

Committee on Enforced Disappearances

The Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) monitors the implementation of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. 

  • CED website
  • Established by article 26 of the Convention
  • Meets in two sessions each year in Geneva
  • First session held in 2011

Main types of documents considered or issued by the Committee

The CED considers State party reports and individual complaints. 

  • State parties reports
    • Initial report within 2 years of the Convention's entry into force for the State party
  • Individual complaints
    • CED may consider individual communications regarding the violation of rights under the Convention
    • Considered "jurisprudence"

Document symbol patterns