Note on the different procedures within the UN system dealing with women’s human rights violations

There exist several avenues for bringing individual complaints relating to discrimination against women to the United Nations bodies. One can send a complaint to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women or another treaty body, such as the Human Rights Committee, the special procedures of the Human Rights Council or the Commission on the Status of Women..  Generally, complaints should include a detailed factual account of the violation and all supporting documentation.  They should not be politically motivated nor have abusive language.  Each complaint system has its own advantages, but some mechanisms will not accept a complaint if another is already dealing with the issue, so it is important to understand how each mechanism works.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW Committee consists of 23 experts on women’s rights from around the world.

Victims of an alleged violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) may submit a complaint to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  The procedure under the Optional Protocol is quasi-judicial and if successful, the Committee will request the State party concerned to provide redress to the victim.

The complaint will only be admissible if:

  • The State party responsible for the violation has ratified or acceded to an instrument called the Optional Protocol to CEDAW (OP-CEDAW) before the violation took place or, in the case the violation took place before such ratification or accession, it can be successfully argued that the violation has continuing effects, i.e. it continues to deploy its effects after the entry into force of OP-CEDAW
  • The victim has “exhausted domestic remedies,” meaning that the victim has tried to remedy the violation in her country first.  This requirement can be waived if the domestic remedy will be ineffective or take too long to realize.

The same complaint has not already been examined by the CEDAW Committee or another procedure of international investigation or settlement. It is important to note that previous submission of the same complaint under either procedure referred to below in this note does not preclude admissibility under OP-CEDAW and vice-versa.   If the complaint is declared admissible, the State will be given six months to respond to the allegations, after which the complainant has a chance to reply.  The Committee will then evaluate the written submissions and make a decision on the merits of the case.  If the Committee concludes there is a violation of CEDAW, it can request a range of remedies, including that the State stop the violating practice and/or pay reparations. The Committee’s decision will also be widely publicized. The whole process takes an average of over two years, though if the victim is in danger of experiencing irreparable harm, the Committee can issue a request for interim measures of protection.

For more information regarding the Committee’s case law and for a guidance note on how to submitting a case, please click here.

Special Procedures

The special procedures of the Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. The system of Special Procedures covers all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political, and social. As of 1st October 2013, there are 37 thematic and 14 country mandates. Among these, two thematic mandates are solely devoted to women’s rights, namely the mandates of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, and the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice, whereas one mandate has an explicit specific focus on women’s rights, namely that of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking, especially women and children. Most of the special procedures can intervene directly with Governments on specific allegations of violations of human rights that fall within their mandates. The intervention can relate to a human rights violation that has already occurred, is ongoing, or which has a high risk of occurring. The process, in general, involves sending a letter to the concerned State requesting information and comments on the allegation and, where necessary, asking that preventive, investigatory and remedial action be taken. Communications may deal with individual cases, general trends and patterns of human rights violations occurring in a particular country, cases affecting a particular group or community, or the content of draft or existing legislation considered to be not fully compatible with international human rights standards.

The thematic mandate on discrimination against women in law and in practice, is overseen by a Working Group of five independent experts.  Individual or anyone on their behalf, including lawyers, NGOs and others (e.g. UN agencies, funds and programmes, trade unions) can submit information to the Working Group related to individual cases or situations of alleged discrimination against women in law and in practice. For a guidance note on how to submit information to the Working Group, please click here. The submission should as much as possible make the linkages between the human rights violations which are alleged and the mandate of the Working Group on discrimination against women. Based on the information received, the Working Group can send a letter to the Government requesting comments on allegations made, seeking clarification on steps being taken by the authorities to redress the alleged discrimination in accordance with the State’s international legal obligations. The letter sent remains confidential until its publication, in the Communications Report of Special Procedures submitted three times a year to the Human Rights Council. The text of the communications sent and responses received are accessible through hyperlinks. The victim(s) can specify if they prefer that their full name or just initials appear in the public report.

  • The complaint can be about any country, and it does not matter whether another international body is dealing with the matter or whether domestic remedies have been exhausted. In appropriate situation and under specific conditions, communications sent by mandate holders can be followed up by a public statement.

Commission on the Status of Women

Any individual, non-governmental organization, group or network may submit communications (complaints/appeals/petitions) to the Commission on the Status of Women  (CSW) containing information relating to alleged violations of human rights that affect the status of women in any country in the world. The CSW is a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It is a global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. The Commission consists of one representative from each of the 45 Member States which compose it and which are elected by the Council on the basis of equitable geographical distribution.

The CSW considers such communications as part of its annual programme of work in order to identify emerging trends and patterns of injustice and discriminatory practices against women for purposes of policy formulation and development of strategies for the promotion of gender equality, but does not take decisions on the merit of communications that are submitted to it. Therefore, the communications procedure does not provide an avenue for the redress of individual grievances. Communications should contain accurate and detailed information relating to the promotion of women's rights in political, economic, civil, social and educational fields in any country anywhere in the world. Communications are sent to the Governments concerned and these Governments are invited to reply. The author's identity is not made known to the Government concerned unless she/he agrees to the disclosure. A working group on communications of CSW considers the communications and replies and prepares a report which identifies general trends and patterns of injustice, which is discussed and usually taken note of by the CSW and included in its annual report to the Economic and Social Council.  Typically, submissions are requested by August and the information is being considered at the CSW session in February/March the following year. For more information about the CSW communication procedure, click here.