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Strengthening international human rights mechanisms


Relevance of the issue

Since the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) over 20 years ago, the United Nations human rights system has significantly evolved towards meeting its objective: ensuring universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. The work of the United Nations human rights mechanisms in monitoring human rights globally and translating universal norms into guidance and practical measures to achieve social justice impacts upon all stakeholders – from rights-holders and victims of human rights violations to States as duty-bearers and other actors, including the private sector. The expansion of UN human rights mechanisms bears testimony to the global recognition of their primary importance. At the same time, this rapid growth has put significant strains on the system and created challenges for their work.

Mandate-holders of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council meeting in Vienna in June 2013 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. In 2013, these experts carried out 79 visits to 66 countries and territories and issued 528 communications to Governments on alleged violations of human rights. © OHCHR Photo
Mandate-holders of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council meeting in Vienna in June 2013 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. In 2013, these experts carried out 79 visits to 66 countries and territories and issued 528 communications to Governments on alleged violations of human rights.
© OHCHR Photo

The core international human rights treaties form the cornerstone of all efforts to promote and protect human rights at the national and international levels. The increased ratification of these treaties provides a firm ground for human rights protection. Furthermore, the entry into force of individual complaints procedures related to the treaties has opened new avenues for individuals to pursue remedies and justice for violations of their rights. Nevertheless, ratification rates remain relatively low in regions such as Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific or in relation to some treaties, such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMW) in Europe. The acceptance rate of the individual communication and inquiry procedures of several treaties remains modest. Moreover, the full implementation of treaties continues to be hindered by reservations made by States Parties regarding key articles, in particular under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Human rights treaty bodies play an important role in guiding States and other stakeholders towards the full implementation of the treaties through the monitoring process. Following the growth in the treaty body system over the past several years, there are now 10 human rights treaty bodies. Nine of these treaty bodies monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties while the tenth treaty body, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, established under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, monitors places of detention in States Parties to the Optional Protocol. In the past biennium, these treaty bodies reviewed an average of 120 State Party reports each year and adopted a similar number of decisions under the individual complaints procedures. Also during this period, the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture conducted 11 country visits, including follow-up and advisory visits. The chronic deficiency of resources faced by the treaty body system and OHCHR as its Secretariat has exacerbated the already unacceptable backlog of reports awaiting consideration and resulted in an excessive waiting time for individuals submitting complaints. Without a coherent, sustainable and periodically reassessed financing system, the work of the treaty bodies and the level of protection they offer will be significantly undermined.

Four years after the High Commissioner launched a consultative process of reflection on strengthening the treaty body system, in April 2014, the General Assembly concluded its intergovernmental process in this regard and adopted a substantial outcome which significantly improves the system.

The establishment of the Human Rights Council in 2006 was a milestone in the reform of the UN human rights system. As the main intergovernmental body dedicated to human rights, the Council addresses crises, country situations and thematic issues and is responsible for the mainstreaming of human rights in the UN system. The Council has continued to improve its practices and find innovative ways to respond to human rights challenges, including by establishing new mandates on commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions, exchanging views and strengthening institutional links with its subsidiary bodies and mechanisms and ensuring the increased participation of all stakeholders, including civil society and national human rights institutions (NHRIs).

The successful completion of the first four-year cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which all 193 Member States participated, firmly entrenched the notion of the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights. The UPR, now in its second cycle, is examining new developments and measures taken at the national level with a strong focus on the implementation of commitments undertaken by States during the first cycle. Significantly, the UPR process has opened new entry points for all national stakeholders to engage in dialogue, review progress and challenges and chart the way forward in the promotion and protection of human rights.

The continuing expansion of the Council’s special procedures, which as of December 2013 stands at 51 mandates, including 13 country mandates, is another key element of the strengthened UN human rights framework. In 2013, these mandates carried out 79 visits to 66 countries and territories and issued 528 communications to 117 States and other entities on alleged violations of human rights, 84 per cent of which were issued jointly by two or more mandate-holders. Their thematic work covers a wide range of issues and contributes to the further development of international human rights standards. They also engage in advocacy and provide advice on legislative reform and technical cooperation. The independence and objectivity of special procedures mandate-holders is critical to their credibility and effectiveness. To this end, the selection process has been strengthened to ensure the professionalism of appointees.

Human rights treaty bodies and special procedures provide guidance on implementation and serve as early warning mechanisms for States and the international community. They also constitute an advocacy platform for engagement by national human rights institutions and civil society and provide a strong substantive grounding for the UPR and themainstreaming of human rights in the work of the United Nations system. The work of the human rights mechanisms demonstrates that the primary challenge for the realization of human rights continues to be closing the implementation gap. More systematic and creative ways are needed to further enhance the quality and coherence of recommendations issued by the UN human rights mechanisms and to ensure their dissemination and implementation in all countries.

OHCHR expected contribution


Strengthening international human rights mechanisms
RIGHTS-HOLDERS CLAIM THEIR RIGHTS DUTY-BEARERS COMPLY WITH THEIR OBLIGATIONS
  [EA2]
  • Increased ratification of international human rights instruments and review of reservations, with a focus on instruments and regions with low ratification rates, including Optional Protocols

[EA7]

  • Increased number and diversity of rights-holders, and of national human rights institutions and civil society actors acting on their behalf, making use of United Nations and regional human rights mechanisms and bodies

[EA6]

  • Establishment of participatory standing national coordinating bodies on reporting/replying to individual communications and enquiries; and integrated follow-up to recommendations of all human rights mechanisms

  • Increased compliance and engagement of Member States with international human rights mechanisms

[EA8]

  • Advances in the progressive development of international and regional human rights law in areas relevant to the thematic priorities

[EA9]

  • Enhanced synergies, complementarity and coherence within and between human rights mechanisms

[EA10]

  • Early warning functions of human rights mechanisms are enhanced
  • Increased interventions of the international community to promote and protect civil society actors, including against reprisals

[EA11]

  • Enhanced systematic engagement by UNCTs with international human rights mechanisms

By 2017, OHCHR expects to have contributed to the achievement of the results outlined on the table above. OHCHR will pursue these behavioral, institutional and legislative changes in cooperation with relevant partners and using the different strategic tools at its disposal (see Chapter 1 on OHCHR’s Theory of Change). It is expected that if achieved, these results will contribute to strengthening the international human rights mechanisms. To illustrate the interrelated nature of the Thematic Strategies, the table shows all the results to which OHCHR is planning to contribute in this area, including relevant results from other strategies, which can be identified as follows: Democracy Strategy.

OHCHR added value


Focus areas

  • Improved visibility of and accessibility to the mechanisms
  • Coherence and synergies among the mechanisms

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is mandated to support and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the United Nations machinery in the field of human rights. As the guardian of the international human rights norms, and as a result of its expertise on human rights issues and experience at the national level, OHCHR is well placed to provide support to the human rights mechanisms. In its work with the Human Rights Council, its UPR and special procedures mechanisms, and also the treaty bodies, OHCHR fosters the notion of the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights and therefore implements its mandate to promote and protect the full and effective enjoyment by everyone of all of their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

Due to its expertise, OHCHR is in a privileged position to identify the challenges faced by the human rights mechanisms and propose potential solutions. For instance, OHCHR assists the Council to address emerging issues, such as freedom of expression on the internet, human rights and the environment and human rights and corruption. In its work with the Chairs of the human rights treaty bodies and the Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures, the Office shares its accumulated experience to encourage cross-fertilization and cooperation within and between the different human rights mechanisms to improve their working methods, strengthen their coherence and effectiveness and promote comprehensive approaches to the implementation of their recommendations. Furthermore, the Office supported the ongoing intergovernmental process on treaty body strengthening that was launched by the General Assembly and followed the June 2012 report of the High Commissioner which outlined the outcome of three years of extensive consultations.


Theresia Degener, expert member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, during a session of the Committee. © OHCHR Photo
Theresia Degener, expert member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons
with Disabilities, during a session of the Committee.
© OHCHR Photo

Through its substantive support to the human rights mechanisms, OHCHR identifies and documents best practices that in turn enable the Office to help States and other stakeholders to better engage with the mechanisms. Information gathered on standing national reporting and coordination mechanisms will, for instance, enable OHCHR to assist States to meet their reporting requirements and follow up on recommendations in a more effective and efficient way. OHCHR is also well situated to ensure the dissemination and implementation of recommendations issued by the UN human rights mechanisms in all countries. The Office facilitates dialogue and engagement of the UN human rights mechanisms with States, UN entities, national institutions and civil society, including at the Security Council and other intergovernmental fora. Through its New York Office and field presences, OHCHR actively promotes a human rights-based approach and provides States with policy guidance and support for the implementation of the recommendations of the mechanisms. This experience at the national level enables the Office to expertly assist the mechanisms in their normative work through the identification of gaps and best practices. As the second cycle of the UPR has a strong focus on implementation, OHCHR will intensify coordinated efforts to support holistic approaches to the implementation of recommendations emanating from the UPR and other human rights mechanisms.

The Office manages the Council’s two Voluntary Funds aimed at facilitating the participation of developing countries in the work of the Council and the UPR. These are the Voluntary Fund for Participation of Developing Countries in the Universal Periodic Review and the Voluntary Trust Fund to Support the Participation of Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States in the Work of the Human Rights Council.

 OHCHR also manages the Voluntary Fund for Financial and Technical Assistance for the Implementation of the Universal Periodic Review, which was established by the Council to provide, in conjunction with multilateral funding mechanisms, a source of financial and technical assistance to help countries implement recommendations emanating from the UPR. While States have the primary responsibility for implementing the recommendations from UN human rights mechanisms, other stakeholders can play an important role in this process. For example, national human rights institutions and civil society actors should be encouraged to monitor and follow up on the conclusions and recommendations.

In addition, challenges remain in ensuring the systematic engagement of UN entities and United Nations Country Teams (UNCTs) with the mechanisms and the integration of recommendations into their strategies and programmes. Strengthening partnerships with relevant UN entities, as well as research and academic institutions from both developed and developing countries, is also critical to providing effective and system-wide support to the work of these mechanisms.

The use of new technologies has gradually been promoted in several areas to increase the visibility and accessibility of the UN human rights mechanisms. The Human Rights Council and a number of treaty bodies have introduced webcasting to reach wider audiences at the national level and other measures to provide improved accessibility for persons with disabilities. OHCHR intends to further enhance this approach through a comprehensive social media and public information strategy.


For more information about how OHCHR intends to contribute to the changes outlined in this page, please see the complete text, which is contained in the OHCHR Management Plan 2014-2017.