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Background information

Procedures and mechanisms

The Commission on Human Rights procedures and mechanisms was mandated to examine, monitor and publicly report either on human rights situations in specific countries or territories (known as country mechanisms or mandates) or on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide (known as thematic mechanisms or mandates). These procedures and mechanisms were collectively referred to as the Special Procedures of the Commission on Human Rights.

Main themes

The main themes addressed by the Commission were: the right to self-determination; racism; the right to development; the question of the violation of human rights in the occupied Arab territories, including Palestine; the question of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in any part of the world; economic, social and cultural rights; civil and political rights, including the questions of torture and detention, disappearances and summary executions, freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, impunity and religious intolerance; the human rights of women, children, migrant workers, minorities and displaced persons; indigenous issues; the promotion and protection of human rights, including the work of the Sub-Commission, treaty bodies and national institutions; and advisory services and technical cooperation in the field of human rights.

Working groups

From time to time the Commission identified areas in which existing standards needed to be further developed to confront new and growing concerns. It was for instance working to reinforce safeguards against torture and other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment in custody through preventive visits to places of detention, and to promote the rights of indigenous populations.

Other subjects that were under consideration by working groups of the Commission were the right to development, and structural adjustment programmes and human rights.

When complaints from individuals or organizations received by the Sub-Commission's Working Group on Communications revealed a pattern of serious human rights violations in a country, the matter could be brought to the attention of the Commission's Working Group on Situations and of the Commission itself.

Standard-setting and implementation

One of the most important tasks entrusted to the Commission has been the elaboration of human rights standards. In 1948 it concluded work on the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thereafter it developed standards relating, inter alia, to the right to development, civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, the elimination of racial discrimination, torture, the rights of the child and the rights of human rights defenders.

All States that accepted these standards were obliged to implement the rights they entail and to report regularly to international bodies set up to monitor their compliance.

Human rights standards have little value if they are not implemented. Consequently, the Commission devoted much of its time to examining issues of implementation. Some of its work was particularly sensitive, generating extensive debate and often disagreement. Its network of mechanisms - experts, representatives and rapporteurs - played an important role in reporting to the Commission annually. Information received from Governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals was used in the preparation of these reports.

The Commission's success was measured by its ability to make a difference to the lives of individuals.

Advisory services and technical cooperation

Where problems were identified, the Commission could take action to address them. It regularly requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide assistance to Governments through its programme of advisory services and technical cooperation in the field of human rights. This assistance took the form of expert advice, human rights seminars, national and regional training courses and workshops, fellowships and scholarships, and other activities aimed at strengthening national capacities for the protection and promotion of human rights.