Human Rights Treaty Bodies - Glossary of technical terms related to the treaty bodies
How to use this glossary
The ten human rights treaty bodies have developed working methods and practices which are broadly similar but which differ in certain important aspects. Terminology adopted by the committees also varies in certain respects. This glossary is intended to explain some of the important elements of the treaty body system and highlight some of the most significant differences in terminology.
Click on a word to see its definition:
Despite the problems of late and non-reporting by State parties, some treaty bodies have found it difficult to keep up with the high number of reports that they have to consider each year. The resulting backlog means up to two years may go by between the submission of a report by a State party and its examination by the committee. The need to request updated information is one reason for the practice of issuing lists of questions (see below). More efficient working methods can reduce the backlog, and some committees have proposed innovative approaches. The Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, for example, occasionally meet in two parallel chambers.
The bureau usually consists of the chair, the vice-chairs, the rapporteur or any other designated member of a committee, and meets to decide procedural and administrative matters related to that committee’s work.
Each treaty body elects one of its members to act as chair for a term of two years. He or she chairs each meeting in accordance with the agreed rules of procedure. The chairs of all the treaty bodies meet once a year to coordinate the activities of the treaty bodies.
Common core document
A document submitted by a State party to the Secretary-General containing information of a general nature about the country which is relevant to all the treaties, such as information on land and population, on the political structure, on the general legal framework within which human rights are protected in the State, and on non-discrimination, equality and effective remedies. It constitutes the common initial part of all the State reports to the treaty bodies. The core document was introduced in 1991 by the meeting of chairpersons as a way of reducing some of the repetition in the reports. The guidelines for this document were reviewed in 2006 (HRI/GEN/2/ Rev.6).
See “concluding observations”.
The observations and recommendations issued by a treaty body after it has considered a State party’s report. Concluding observations refer both to the positive aspects of a State’s implementation of the treaty and to areas of concern, where the treaty body recommends that further action needs to be taken by the State. The treaty bodies are committed to issuing concluding observations that are concrete, focused and implementable, and are paying increasing attention to measures to ensure effective follow-up to their concluding observations.
Consideration of a country situation in the absence of a report
See “review procedure”.
The practice, adopted by all treaty bodies, of inviting State parties to send a delegation to the session at which their report will be considered in order to enable them to respond to members’ questions and provide additional information on their efforts to implement the provisions of the relevant treaty. The notion of constructive dialogue emphasizes the fact that the treaty bodies are not judicial bodies (even if some of their functions are quasi-judicial), but are created to review the implementation of the treaties.
Most committees appoint one or two members as country rapporteurs for each State party report under consideration. The country rapporteur usually takes the lead in drafting the list of issues, in putting questions to the delegation during the session, and in drafting concluding observations to be discussed and adopted by the committee.
Country task force
The Human Rights Committee has assigned the preparatory work for the consideration of reports, previously done in its pre-sessional working group, to country report task forces, which meet during the plenary session. The country report task force consists of four to six members, nominated by the chair and one of whom is the country rapporteur with overall responsibility for drafting the list of issues.
A State may choose, or be required, to make a declaration concerning a treaty to which it has become a party. There are several types of declarations:
- Interpretative declarations
A State may make a declaration about its understanding of a matter contained in, or the interpretation of, a particular provision in a treaty. Unlike reservations, such declarations do not purport to exclude or modify the legal effects of a treaty. The purpose is merely to clarify the State’s position as to the meaning of certain provisions or of the entire treaty.
- Optional and mandatory declarations
Treaties may provide for States to make optional and/or mandatory declarations. These declarations are legally binding on the declarants. Thus, for example, under article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, States may make an optional declaration that they accepts the Human Rights Committee’s competence to consider inter-State complaints. Similarly, State parties to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict are required, under its article 3 (2), to make a binding declaration setting out the minimum age at which they will permit voluntary recruitment into their national armed forces and a description of the safeguards that they have adopted to ensure that such recruitment is not forced or coerced.
A derogation is a measure adopted by a State party to partially suspend the application of one or more provisions of a treaty, at least temporarily. Some human rights treaties allow State parties, in a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation, to derogate exceptionally and temporarily from a number of rights to the extent strictly required by the situation. The State party, however, may not derogate from certain specific rights and may not take discriminatory measures. States are generally obliged to inform other State parties of such derogations and give reasons for the derogations, and to set a date on which the derogation will expire. (See the Human Rights Committee’s general comment No. 29 (2001).)
The procedures put in place to ensure that State parties act on the recommendations contained in the concluding observations of the treaty bodies or their decisions on cases brought under the complaints procedures. The Committee against Torture, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have adopted formal follow-up procedures, and all committees require States to address follow-up in their periodic reports. Parliaments, the judiciary, NHRIs, NGOs and civil society, all have an important role to play in follow-up.
A treaty body’s interpretation of human rights treaty provisions, thematic issues or its methods of work. General comments often seek to clarify the reporting duties of State parties with respect to certain provisions and suggest approaches to implementing treaty provisions. Also called "general recommendation" (Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women).
See “general comment”.
Human Rights Treaties Division
Within OHCHR, the Human Rights Treaties Division provides secretariat support to all the treaty bodies and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. It is based in Palais Wilson, Geneva.
See “individual complaint”.
A formal complaint, from an individual who claims that her or his rights under one of the treaties have been violated by a State party, which most of the treaty bodies are competent to consider. The right of the treaty bodies to consider individual complaints must be expressly conceded by the State party concerned in one of three ways:
(a) By making a declaration under the relevant article of the treaty (this procedure applies to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention against Torture and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families);
(b) By ratifying or acceding to the treaty itself (this procedure applies to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; or
(c) By ratifying or acceding to the relevant optional protocol to a treaty providing for a right of individual complaint (this procedure applies to the two International Covenants, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).
Each treaty envisages regular submission of reports by its State parties; in practice, many States find it difficult to keep up with their reporting obligations in strict conformity with the periodicity foreseen in the treaties to which they are parties. Late reporting has been identified as one of the main challenges facing the treaty reporting system and the treaty bodies have been seeking ways to make it easier for States to report, for instance through streamlining the reporting process.
Information on the reporting status of the State parties to each treaty is available.
List of issues and/or questions
A list of issues or questions, formulated by a treaty body on the basis of a State party report and other information available to it (information from United Nations specialized agencies, NHRIs, NGOs, etc.), which is transmitted to the State party in advance of the session at which the treaty body will consider the report. The list of issues provides the framework for a constructive dialogue with the State party’s delegation. Some committees encourage State parties to submit written responses beforehand, allowing the dialogue to move more quickly to specificities. The list of issues provides a source of up-to-date information for a committee with regard to a State whose report may have been awaiting consideration for as much as two years.
List of issues prior to reporting
See “Simplified Reporting Procedure”
List of themes
A list of themes or topics for which no responses are required, intended to guide and focus the dialogue between a State party’s delegation and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination during the consideration of the State party’s report
National human rights institutions
Many countries have created national human rights institutions (NHRIs) to promote and protect human rights. Such institutions are increasingly recognized as an important part of any national human rights protection system, provided their independence from government control can be assured. A set of international standards, known as the Paris Principles, has been agreed by which to gauge the independence and integrity of NHRIs. For more information on NHRIs, see National Human Rights Institutions: History, Principles, Roles and Responsibilities, Professional Training Series No. 4/Rev.1 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.09.XIV.4).
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may be involved in promoting human rights, either generally or with a focus on a specific issue. A framework exists for the participation of NGOs in many United Nations human rights mechanisms, such as the granting of consultative status with the Economic and Social Council, which allows them to participate in the Human Rights Council. Both international and national NGOs follow the work of the treaty bodies closely and most treaty bodies provide them with an opportunity to contribute to the reporting process through the submission, for example, of additional information relating to the implementation of the treaties in a particular country (sometimes referred to as “alternative” or “parallel” reports). There are differences in the way the treaty bodies treat this information.
International and national NGOs also have an important role in following up the implementation of the treaty bodies’ recommendations contained in their concluding observations at the national level and in fostering national public debate on human rights implementation when the report is drafted and afterwards. NGOs have also made an important contribution to promoting the ratification of the human rights treaties worldwide.
Despite having freely assumed the legal obligations attached to the human rights treaties that they have ratified, some States fail to submit their reports to the treaty bodies. There may be many reasons why States fail to report, ranging from war and civil strife to limited resources. Technical assistance is available from OHCHR to assist States in meeting their reporting obligations. The treaty bodies have also adopted procedures to ensure that the implementation of the treaties by non-reporting States parties is reviewed, if the latter have not responded to a treaty body’s requests for information. In particular, committees are prepared to consider the situation in a country in the absence of a report. Information on the reporting status of the State parties to each treaty is available. The website also provides information on the technical assistance available to State parties.
The term ‘protocol’ is used for an additional legal instrument that complements and add to a treaty. A protocol may be on any topic relevant to the original treaty and is used either to further address something in the original treaty (Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), address a new or emerging concern (the first two optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child), or add a procedure for the operation and enforcement of the treaty—such as adding an individual complaints procedure (first Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, optional protocols to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to the Convention against Torture, to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a communications procedure). A protocol is ‘optional’ because it is not automatically binding on States that have already ratified the original treaty; States must independently ratify or accede to a protocol.
The timetable for the submission of initial and periodic reports by State parties to the treaty bodies is set out in each treaty or decided by the individual committees in accordance with the terms of the treaty. An initial report is required within a fixed period after the treaty enters into force for the State concerned; periodic reports are then required at regular intervals. The periodicity differs from treaty to treaty.
A collective term embracing the various procedures for bringing complaints before treaty bodies. Petitions may consist of complaints from individuals alleging violations of a treaty by a State party or from State parties alleging violations of a treaty by another State party (inter-State complaints).
Pre-sessional working group
A working group convened by some treaty bodies before or after each plenary session in order to plan their work for future sessions. The work of the pre-sessional working groups differs from committee to committee: some draft lists of issues and questions to be submitted to each State party before its report is considered; some committees with competence to consider individual complaints use their working groups to make initial recommendations on cases and other matters related to the complaints procedures. Pre-sessional working groups usually meet in closed session.
A formal recommendation or decision issued by a treaty body. The term has been used inconsistently to describe formal decisions on specific matters or resolutions of a more general nature, such as those resulting from a day of general discussion. Concluding observations contain specific recommendations and the term “treaty body recommendation” is sometimes used synonymously with “concluding observation”. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also refer to their general comments as “general recommendations”.
Reporting guidelines for State parties
Written guidelines produced for State parties by each treaty body on the form and content of the reports that States are obliged to submit under the relevant treaty. Some committees provide detailed guidance article by article; whereas others give more general guidance (see HRI/GEN/2/Rev.6).
A reservation is a statement, however phrased or named, made by a State by which it purports to exclude or alter the legal effect of certain provisions of a treaty in their application to that State. A reservation may enable a State to participate in a multilateral treaty in which it would otherwise be unable or unwilling to do so. States can make reservations to a treaty when they sign, ratify, accept, approve or accede to it. When a State makes a reservation upon signing, it must confirm the reservation upon ratification, acceptance or approval.
Reservations are governed by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and cannot be contrary to the object and purpose of the treaty. Consequently, when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving or acceding to a treaty, States may make a reservation unless (a) the reservation is prohibited by the treaty; or (b) the treaty provides that only certain reservations may be made and these do not include the reservation in question. Other State parties may lodge objections to a State party’s reservations. Reservations may be withdrawn completely or partially by the State party at any time.
A procedure by which a treaty body will consider the situation in a country in the absence of a report from the State party. The procedure is used if a report is long overdue and the State party has not responded to the treaty body’s reminders. In many cases, State parties submit their reports to avoid the review procedure; in others, they send a delegation to the treaty body’s session and answer questions from the treaty body even though they have not been able to submit a report. The review procedure was first adopted by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1991. Other committees use the expression “consideration of country situation in the absence of a State report”. Some committees forward a list of issues to the State party, even though there is no report. Most committees produce concluding observations at the end of the process, although these may be kept confidential temporarily should the State party wish to submit its report.
Rules of procedure
The formal rules adopted by a treaty body to govern the way in which it undertakes its business. With the exception of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, committees are empowered by their respective treaties to adopt their own rules of procedure. These usually cover such matters as the election of officers and the procedures for adopting decisions especially if no consensus can be reached. Rules of procedure are related to, but distinct from, working methods.
Each treaty requires the Secretary-General of the United Nations to provide secretariat support to its treaty body. Every treaty body has a secretariat, consisting of a secretary and other international civil servants, based within the United Nations Secretariat, who manage the agenda of the committee and coordinate its programme of work. The secretariats of all treaty bodies are based in Geneva at OHCHR.
Simplified Reporting Procedure
This new optional reporting procedure adopted by the Committee against Torture, the Human Rights Committee, and the Committee on Migrant Workers consists in the preparation of lists of issues to be transmitted to States parties prior to the submission of their respective periodic report so as to facilitate the reporting process. The State party’s response to this list of issues constitutes its report to one of these three treaty bodies.
Specialized agencies, funds and programmes
The various specialized agencies, funds and programmes of the United Nations system that carry out much of the work of the United Nations, including promoting and protecting human rights. All treaty bodies permit United Nations agencies to provide additional country information in the context of the consideration of a particular State report. Some specialized agencies also provide technical assistance to States, both in the implementation of treaty obligations and in the writing of reports for the treaty bodies. Some of the United Nations specialized agencies, funds and programmes involved in the human rights treaty system are: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Labour Organization, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, and the World Health Organization. United Nations country teams also participate increasingly in the work of human rights treaty bodies.
State party report
The report that each State party to a human rights treaty is required, under the provisions of that treaty, to submit regularly to the treaty body, indicating the measures it has adopted to implement the treaty and the difficulties it has encountered. All treaties require a comprehensive initial report within a fixed time after ratification and, with the exception of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, also subsequent periodic reports at regular intervals.
Targeted or focused report
See “treaty-specific report”.
Treaty, convention, covenant or instrument
Legally, there is no difference between a treaty, a convention or a covenant. All are international legal instruments which, in international law, legally bind those States that choose to accept the obligations contained in them by becoming a party in accordance with the final clauses of these instruments.
Treaty body or committee
A committee of independent experts appointed to review the implementation by State parties of an international human rights treaty. The treaties use the term “committee” throughout, but the committees are widely known as “treaty bodies” because they are created in accordance with the provisions of the treaty which they oversee. In many important respects, they are independent of the United Nations system, although they receive support from the United Nations Secretariat and report to the General Assembly. Sometimes also called "treaty-monitoring body".
The common core document is submitted to a treaty body in tandem with a targeted treaty-specific document, focusing on issues related specifically to the treaty concerned. Although often referred to as a “treaty-specific report”, the report to each treaty body in fact consist of a common document, which is the same for all committees, and a treaty-specific document for each specific treaty body. The two documents, read together, constitute the State party’s report.
The procedures and practices developed by each treaty body to facilitate its work. Such practices are not always formally adopted in the rules of procedure. Each treaty body’s working methods change in response to the workload and other factors. In recent years, there has been a move, through the annual meeting of chairpersons, to streamline and harmonize working methods, especially if the different approaches of the committees cause confusion and inconsistency.
Written response/replies to list of issues
A State party’s written replies to a treaty body’s list of issues and questions submitted before the session at which its report will be considered. Written responses to a list of issues supplement the State party report or bring it up to date.