How it works
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlined for the first time the range of fundamental rights and freedoms that belong to each individual. It sets out a general prohibition on discrimination but then details the specific rights each of us is entitled to. It was envisaged at the time of its adoption by the General Assembly in 1948, that the rights described in the Universal Declaration should be given legal status as treaties. Since then, nine treaties have been concluded. States which become signatories to a treaty accept they are then bound by its terms.
Each of the treaties has its own committee of independent experts which monitors its implementation. These committees are known as the human rights treaty bodies. The treaty bodies consider the regular reports signatory States are obliged to submit, then publish their assessment of the human rights situation and recommendations to the State for improvements. Some of the Committees also hold enquiries and may consider complaints from individuals.
The first of the treaties agreed upon was the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, ratified by the General Assembly in 1965.
Other treaties and treaty bodies:
The Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council is the main United Nations body dealing with human rights. Established in 2006, the Human Rights Council replaced and assumed most mandates, mechanisms, functions and responsibilities previously entrusted to the Commission on Human Rights which was created in 1946. The Human Rights Council meets in Geneva, Switzerland for a minimum of 10 weeks a year. It has a geographically diverse and rotating membership of 47 States. Members are elected for a term of 3 years by the General Assembly in New York.
In 2007, a year after it first met, the Council agreed on an operational blueprint that set out its procedures, mechanisms and structures. Most importantly it established the forms and operational structure of the Council’s new Universal Periodic Review mechanism, under which the human rights situations in all Member States of the UN are regularly examined. It also set up a process to review and rationalize all Special Procedures mandates (see below). A new Advisory Committee was created as a think tank for the Council, focusing on studies and research-based advice.
Special Procedures is the name given to the independent expert mechanisms of the Human Rights Council – they address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures mandates are either an individual, a special rapporteur, representative or independent expert, or a working group composed of five members, each representing one of the five United Nations regions. Special Procedures mandate-holders are prominent experts working on a voluntary basis and in an independent capacity. As of October 2009, there are 31 thematic mandates and 8 country mandates.
Discrimination lies at the heart of many of the issues and situations covered by all mandates of the Special procedures. One of the experts specifically examines racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. At the same time discrimination broadly intersects with most of the other thematic areas – minority issues, torture, human trafficking, violence against women, the human rights of migrants and indigenous peoples, the right to education and right to health, to name but a few. For instance, the Special Rapporteur on the right to housing has dealt with the issue of gender discrimination in housing and land rights, and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has monitored the situation of minorities affected by intolerance and discrimination towards their religion and belief. All experts with a country mandate work at many different levels to overcome discrimination.