Human Rights Treaties

Many of these treaties espouse non-discrimination, due process and other core values that most Americans unquestionably support. They set international standards for human rights and establish committees to monitor states’ compliance.

Only when the US ratifies these treaties and incorporates them into its own laws will it be truly a human rights leader. The following is a list of some of the most important:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1948, after world leaders had emerged from the destruction of the Second World War, they endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though technically not law, the document embodies modern conceptions of freedom and justice.

It proclaims that individuals bear inalienable rights and that those rights are interrelated and indivisible. It also makes it clear that duty-bearers, not just states, are accountable to international human rights norms. Its flexibility allows it to be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. Its nonbinding status initially worried authoritarian states, but it has yielded a universal moral language that is now the bedrock of human rights treaties.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The ICESCR outlines a set of universal economic, social and cultural rights. States parties undertake to ensure that everyone enjoys those rights in actual practice, subject only to restrictions imposed by law and necessary for the protection of national security, public order (ordre public), health, morals or public safety or the rights and freedoms of others and of society as a whole.

It was clear at the time of ratification that ECOSOC would not have the capacity to oversee adherence to the Covenant, so responsibility was devolved to a Sessional Working Group. However, the system has not proved very effective. There are widely formulated reservations which effectively render the Covenant non-binding on states, and state participation in the scrutiny of reports has been largely voluntary.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

When States sign and ratify international human rights treaties, they undertake to respect, protect and fulfil the rights enshrined in those treaties. The primary mechanism through which this happens is by the application of domestic laws and regulations based on those treaties.

The ICCPR is one of the core human rights treaties that requires States to limit their governmental powers to protect individuals against the abuses of power. It also includes two Optional Protocols, one of which allows individuals to file individual complaints with the ICCPR’s Human Rights Committee (subject to permissible reservations).

Non-governmental organizations like human rights and civil liberties groups play a vital role in helping to monitor government compliance with treaty obligations. NGOs frequently provide information and analysis to the committees that review States’ compliance with their treaty commitments.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

CEDAW is a human rights treaty that prohibits discrimination against women and affirms the principle of equality between men and women. It obliges States parties to take “all appropriate measures, including legislation, to guarantee the full development and advancement of women in order to achieve de facto equality with men” (article 1).

In addition to addressing civil rights, legal status and social services, the Convention also affirms women’s right to reproductive choice and addresses culture and tradition as influential factors that shape gender roles and family relations.

Most core human rights treaties have oversight bodies that monitor a State’s implementation of its obligations under the treaty. These committees consist of independent experts who are elected by State parties for fixed, renewable terms.

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Convention against Torture (CAT) prohibits acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Among other things, it obliges States parties to prevent such mistreatment inside their territory and forbids them from transporting people to countries where they will likely be subjected to torture.

The UDHR has inspired, and been incorporated into the texts of, many human rights treaties. It has also helped shape the jurisprudence of international tribunals and courts dealing with human rights violations around the world.

Human rights treaty bodies – committees of independent experts – are the UN’s main mechanisms for monitoring State compliance with their obligations under international human rights treaties. They assess State reports on their implementation of the treaty, issue authoritative interpretations of its provisions and consider individual complaints brought by individuals or groups against States.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

In 1989 world leaders made a historic commitment to children when they adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history and has transformed many children’s lives.

The treaty says that children have the right to life, to a name and to family, and that they must be allowed to participate in cultural and social activities. It also requires states to ensure that children don’t take part in armed conflicts.

It gives individuals from the 196 countries that have ratified it the right to file complaints against their government if they believe their country is not living up to its commitments. These complaints are reviewed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

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