UPDATE: International Human Rights

By James Hart

James Hart is Senior Reference Librarian in the University of Cincinnati Law Library. He holds the M.A. in classics and the M.S.L.S. from the University of Southern California. Part of this article is derived from his article titled The European Human Rights System, 102 Law Library Journal 533 (2010)).

NOTE: This is a complete re-write of the original by Grace M. Mills.

Published November/December 2017

(Previously updated by Grace M. Mills in March 2008, June 2012, and October 2014)

See the Archive Version!

1. Introduction

This article explains the procedures of the major international human rights systems because it is procedures that create the need to record or communicate. In other words, documents emanate from critical junctures in a process. The article does not touch on the content of the human rights themselves or explicate the websites that hold the documents. The article will, however, give you URLs. With the information in the article and a few URLs you will be able to navigate your way through the websites easily.

International human rights are based on treaties that have secretariats that monitor the contracting parties’ adherence, interpret the treaty, perhaps provide an enforcement mechanism, and provide other support to the members of the intergovernmental organization, potential victims of abuses, and other adherents of human rights. At the same time that there has been a sharp increase in the number of these intergovernmental organizations, information technology has taken on new forms, increased its reach to the entire globe, and decreased the cost of disseminating information. These two waves of development have combined so that now one can find an enormous portion of the documents one needs on international human rights online.

The first part of this article is organized geographically. It covers the intergovernmental organizations that cover the globe, followed by those that cover the regions that have major human rights treaties. It does not cover Asia or the Middle East because neither has such a system or any comprehensive human rights system. Following that the article will list both domestic and foreign human rights journals.

2. The Global View – The United Nations (un.org)

The United Nations is the only inter-governmental organization that covers the entire globe and whose scope of activity covers so many subjects. The United Nations was established on October 24, 1945, by the governments of 51 countries, particularly the victors of WWII -- the United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union. As of this writing there are currently 193 member nations of the UN.

The UN itself describes its main purposes as maintaining international peace and security, protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, promoting sustainable development, and upholding international law. It is, therefore, an extremely large and complex organization with an enormous amount of documentation. As such it provides a few general databases of documents from all of its subdivisions, particularly the official UN document repository, Official Documentation System (ODS), and the UN Treaty Collection. These can be very helpful if you don’t know which documents will contain the information you need or you’re not sure of which agency has responsibility for the subject.

2.1. The Organization of Human Rights in the UN

2.1.1. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

The High Commissioner for Human Rights was established in 1993 as the part of the UN Secretariat with responsibility for human rights. Its mandate is to promote and protect the enjoyment and full realization, by all people, of all rights established in the Charter of the United Nations and in international human rights laws and treaties. The Office of the High Commissioner provides

“…expertise and support to the different human rights monitoring mechanisms in the United Nations system: UN Charter-based bodies, including the Human Rights Council, and bodies created under the international human rights treaties and made up of independent experts mandated to monitor State parties' compliance with their treaty obligations. Most of these bodies receive secretariat support from the Human Rights Council and Treaties Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).”

Each treaty has its own committee that has responsibility for organizing and implementing the work mandated by the treaty. Two of the committees are created by the UN Charter and nine others were created by the treaties whose work they perform. The Human Rights Bodies page provides a detailed explanation of this organization and links to pages for each body. The Human Rights Council (HRC)

The predecessor of the Human Rights Council was the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which was founded in 1946. The Commission was dissolved by the United Nations in 2006 and replaced by the Council in the hope that it would improve the UN’s support of human rights.

The Human Rights Council meets for at least 10 weeks per year at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, in regular sessions usually taking place in March, June and September.

The Human Rights Council inherited the special procedures from the Commission and added the Universal Periodic Review, the Advisory Committee, and the Complaint Procedure. All of the new procedures were intended to strengthen the UN’s enforcement of the treaties that the member states had accepted.

The Council’s responsibilities include all UN human rights treaties from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006). Charter Bodies

The charter bodies are:

The charter-based bodies differ from the treaty bodies in that they: Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council

“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... As of 24 March 2017, there are 43 thematic and 13 country mandates.” The special procedures may be individuals called Special Rapporteurs or Individual Experts or groups of five called Working Groups. Working groups are appointed by the Human Rights Council and have one representative from each of the major geographic areas of the world: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Western group. Both individuals and Working Groups act as independent experts, not as representatives of their countries of origin or residence.

Special procedures may visit countries, send communications concerning alleged violations, write thematic studies, consult experts, participate in the development of human rights standards, engage in advocacy, promote public awareness, and provide advice for technical cooperation. All of them submit reports to the Human Rights Council annually and some submit reports to the General Assembly. Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

All UN members go through the Universal Periodic Review “…to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur.” The UPR Working Group consists of all the members of the Human Rights Council meeting as the UPR Working Group. The reviews take place during the three meetings of the UPR Working Group that occur annually. The UPR receives information from the countries themselves (often called national report); from reports of the Special Procedures, human rights treaty bodies, and other UN entities; and from national human rights institutions and other intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.

The most common types of documents produced by the UPR are

This information is all accessible from the UPR website. Treaty Bodies

There are nine UN treaty bodies governing international human rights. The treaty based bodies differ from the charter-based bodies in that they:

Nine treaty bodies have procedure for dealing with individual complaints. Only one of them (CMW) has not come into force yet. Although there are variations among the procedures of the committees, “… their design and operation are very similar.” Anyone can submit a complaint and complaints should be submitted as soon as possible after all the domestic remedies have been completed. The process begins when a complaint is received. It is registered as long as it contains all the information needed; and the state is both a party to the treaty and has declared its acceptance of the individual complaint procedure. At this point the state is informed of the complaint to give it an opportunity to comment. Indeed, all parties are kept informed at every stage of the process. Complaints are examined on both admissibility and merits. Although both are usually examined at the same time, sometimes admissibility is examined first. The state is given six months to respond. If it wishes to oppose admissibility, it must submit its arguments within the first two months. There is a long list of requirements that must be met before a complaint is admitted. You can find them here. The committee may then examine the complaint to judge whether or not the alleged acts do in fact violate the treaty. The committee must give its reasons in writing, but they are not legally binding. They are recommendations. The decisions are available in the Treaty bodies database. When enough decisions accumulate on a particular issue, the jurisprudence on the various articles of the applicable treaty is provided in a committee’s “General Comments”. These can be found on the website of each treaty body, in the Treaty body database, and in the Universal Human Rights Index. Some of the treaty bodies’ websites label the General Comments as Jurisprudence.

Each one has a webpage with an introduction and links to more detail and collections of documents relevant to the committee’s work. The left-hand column is organized into the following categories: the committee, basic documents, the work of the committee, general discussions, events (only CRC), participation in the work of the committee, contact, and media. The section on the work of the committee is organized into the following subdivisions: key documents relating to reporting cycles, reporting to the committee, the complaints procedure, and urgent actions (only CED). Although the contents of these sections appear to follow a similar pattern, they vary as the committees vary from each other. The center column gives an introduction to the scope of the committee’s work. The right-hand column is organized into the following categories: country-specific, meetings and deadlines, search, publication, useful links, and external links. The search category provides links to the Treaty body database and the Universal Human Rights Index. See here.

The Treaty body database holds all the documents produced by the treaty bodies. Searches can be limited by state/entity or geographic region, committee, document type, UN symbol, and date. The Universal Human Rights Index “…provides easy access to country-specific human rights information emanating from international human rights mechanisms in the United Nations system: The Treaty Bodies, the Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).”

You will find the following types of documentation in the Treaty Bodies area of the website:

2.2. UN Human Rights Documents Listed by Subject (from UN List of Human Rights Issues)

Adequate Housing

Administration of Justice


Business and Human Rights


Civil and Political Rights

Climate change

Coercive measures

Conscientious objection

Cultural rights

Death penalty



Development (Good Governance and Debt)

Disability and Human Rights



Economic, Social and Cultural Rights





Forced Evictions

Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association

Freedom of Religion and Belief



Human Rights Defenders

Human Rights Education and Training

Human Rights Indicators

Humanitarian Action

Independence of Judiciary

Indigenous Peoples

Internal Displacement

International Order

International Solidarity

Land and Human Rights





Older Persons

Plans of Action for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights



Private Military and Security Companies



Rule of Law

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity



Social Security


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development


Trade and Investment

Traditional Values

Trafficking in Persons

Transitional Justice

Treaty Body Strengthening

Urbanization and Human Rights

Violent Extremism

Water and Sanitation



2.3. Other Organs of the UN

Although this part of the article will focus on several bodies within the United Nations that have many functions other than human rights, they nevertheless deal with human rights issues. This Article will not examine these entities at length, but they must be mentioned because of their various roles in human rights. The UN General Assembly (GA) supervises the work of the Human Rights Council. The Third Committee of the General Assembly deals with a range of social, humanitarian affairs and human rights issues. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) supervised the work of the human rights bodies before 2006. Since then, those bodies have been supervised by the General Assembly and now ECOSOC focuses primarily on sustainable development. The World Health Organization (WHO) was established when its Constitution came into force on 7 April 1948. Its main areas of work are health systems, promoting health through the life course, diseases, corporate services, and preparedness, surveillance and response. The International Labour Organization (ILO) was established in 1919. Its functions are to bring together representatives of governments, employers and workers of 187 member States to set labor standards, develop policies and devise programs that promote decent work for all women and men. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supports 1) the Convention on the Rights of the Child; 2) the protection, inclusion, education, and gender equality of children; and 3) research and analysis on children. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UNHABITAT) promotes socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the judicial arm of the UN.

2.4. UN Acronyms

GlobaLex and the UN’s Dag Hammarskjold Library have a number of excellent guides that can help you find more information:

3. Africa

Human Rights in Africa is an enormous subject. This section of the article covers the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Human Rights and the African Court of Justice and Human Rights.

3.1. African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)

The Commission was created on November 2, 1987 by the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights as an organ of the African Union (AU).

It consists of eleven members who are elected by the AU Assembly and serve 6 year terms. The Commission is a quasi-judicial institution that “… is charged [under the Charter] with three major functions:

States, organizations, and individuals can bring complaints against State parties to the Charter for alleged violations of the rights enumerated in the Charter under articles 48-49 and 55. The Commission considers admissibility before each of its sessions and considers those cases admitted at the session. Its website has a detailed explanation of the communications procedures. In addition, the Commission itself may bring communications to the Commission on behalf of complainants. The Commission’s final decisions are called recommendations and are not binding on the State concerned. “These recommendations are included in the Commissioner's Annual Activity Reports which are submitted to the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government in conformity with article 54 of the Charter. If they are adopted, they become binding on the States parties and are published.” See here.

The Commission holds two ordinary sessions per year and may call extraordinary ones as needed. The Secretary records both the Commission’s sessions and the meetings of its subsidiary mechanisms. The Secretary prepares a report on each session of the Commission and submits it to the Commission for adoption. “The Commission may invite States, national liberation movements, specialized institutions; NHRIs [National Human Rights Institutions], NGOs or Individuals to take part in its session.” You can find those reports on the website. The Commission submits its own annual report to the AU Assembly. Each country is expected to make periodic reports to the Commission. You can find these reports and the Commission’s Concluding Observations on them on the website.

The Commission also uses subsidiary mechanisms (Special Rapporteurs, Committees and Working Groups) similar to those of the UN Human Rights Council to monitor, identify violations, promote human rights, and advise states on ways to enhance human rights in their countries. Subsidiary mechanisms visit states parties as needed to fulfill their mandates and report on each mission. The subsidiary mechanisms are the following:

At the bottom of each page of the website you will find the following links to documents:

3.2. The African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR)

“At the time the OAU adopted the African Charter, very few African States (i.e., Gambia, Senegal, and Botswana), could vaunt of a democratic regime respectful of at least the fundamental human rights.” See here. The Commission’s enforcement mechanisms, therefore, were rather ineffectual. The increase in democratic governments in Africa as well as the Commission’s weak enforcement mechanisms led to a movement for the adoption of a court with stronger enforcement mechanisms. The result was the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights, which 24 countries have ratified; 25 countries have signed, but not ratified; and 5 states that have neither signed nor ratified. It came into force on January 25, 2005.

The purpose of the ACtHPR is to complement the protective mission of the Commission. “Complement” here means “reinforce” and it applies only to the Commission’s protective mission. In addition, cooperation between the two institutions is repeated in a number of important articles of the Protocol.

The Court has eleven judges elected by the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government and the quorum for the examination of cases is seven. Cases can be submitted to the Court by

Article 5 (3) of the Protocol also says that “The Court may entitle relevant Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with observer status before the Commission, and individuals to institute cases directly before it….” Article 5 (1) (e) allows African intergovernmental organizations to bring a complaint to the Court on behalf of an aggrieved party. In addition, any State Party with an interest in a case may request permission to join.

The Court’s jurisdiction includes “…all cases and disputes submitted to it concerning the interpretation and application of the Charter, this Protocol and any other relevant Human Rights instrument ratified by the States concerned.” This last item would potentially include all of the UN human rights and the sub-regional African treaties. The Court may also issue advisory opinions requested by a member state of the AU, the AU itself, any of its organs, or any African organization recognized by the AU.

The Court attempts to get the parties to agree to a friendly settlement if possible. If this is not possible, it holds a hearing at which each side may be represented by counsel and present oral and written evidence. The Court may apply the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and “any other relevant human rights instruments ratified by the States concerned.” (Protocol Art. 7). The Court may “…make appropriate orders to remedy a violation including the payment of fair compensation or reparation.” (Protocol Art 27 (1)). States Parties must submit a separate declaration accepting the competence of the Court to receive cases submitted by individuals or NGOs with Commission observer status. Although the Protocol has been ratified by 30 countries as of January 16, 2017, only 8 of them have submitted such a declaration. The Council of Ministers is informed of judgments and monitors their enforcement.

3.3. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)

ECOWAS was “established on May 28 1975 via the treaty of Lagos …” to promote economic integration in the member states. Its original vision was very similar to the single market of the Common Market and, like the EU, its original vision has grown to encompass human rights. Indeed, it is evolving into a supranational organization.

ECOWAS’s court is the Community Court of Justice. It has both advisory and contentious jurisdiction. Supplementary Protocol A/SP.1/01/05 article 3(4) and 4(c)(d) amended the Protocol on the Community Court of Justice to read as follows:

Article 3(4)
4. The Court has jurisdiction to determine case of violation of human rights that occur in any Member State.

Article 4(3)
Access to the Court is open to the following:
d) Individuals on application for relief for violation of their human rights;

The Court’s website says that it may examine “…violations of human rights that occur in any Member State”. A case begins with the arrival of an application at the Court and service on the defendant. The defendant then has one month to reply, which may be followed by a reply from the applicant and a rejoinder from the defendant. A judge rapporteur then presents a preliminary report to the Court that recommends whether further steps should be taken. If the case is to continue, the Court allows the following measures of inquiry:

a) The personal appearance of the parties;

b) A request for information and production of documents;

c) Oral testimony;

d) The commissioning of an expert's report;

e) An inspection of the place or thing in question. (Rules of the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); Title II Procedure; Chapter II) Preparatory inquiries and other preparatory measures; Art. 41(2)).

Oral arguments and testimony is taken. Indeed, the Rules of the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Title II Procedure read very much like a combination of the rules of procedure used in common and civil law procedure. Judgments are binding and contain the applicable costs to be paid by an unsuccessful defendant. The parties may come to a settlement anytime up to the end of the proceedings. All judgments are published.

To find the judgments of the Court click on this link: Click on Welcome at the bottom of the page to go to the Court’s website. The menu at the left will give links to the Basic Texts of the Court and Cases.

The Court has rendered a number of ground-breaking decisions on human rights including SERAP v. Nigeria and Universal Basic Education Commission, which held that the right to education is justiciable, and Kargou v. Nigeria, which ruled in cases involving modern forms of slavery.

For more information on ECOWAS see the following article:

For information on other African human rights topics, see the following excellent GlobaLex articles:

4. The Americas

The American human rights system is an outgrowth of the Organization of American States and the conferences that led to its organization. It is important, therefore, to understand when the most important parts of the system were added.

4.1. The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man

This declaration was the first international statement of the rights of individuals and preceded the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights by several months. It was not in any way binding when it was first issued. But over time, it has been accepted as customary law. “The IACommHr and the IACtHR have expressed that Arts 106 and 145 OAS Charter … give the Declaration binding force on all OAS member states” (Claudio M. Grossman, American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (1948) in Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (October 2010)).

4.2. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACommHR)

The Commission was established in 1959 and began making country visits in 1961 “to observe the human rights situation in situ.” See here. It became clear almost immediately that country visits and the reports on the visits were not effective. So in 1965 the Commission was authorized “to examine complaints or petitions regarding specific cases of human rights violations.” See here. After examining the complaints or petitions, the Commission could issue recommendations for the offending State’s improvement. This situation lasted until the American Convention on Human Rights entered into force in 1978.

4.3. American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) and The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)

The American Convention on Human Rights restructured the entire system and amplified and expanded the rights themselves. It created the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and defined its relationship with the Commission.

But not all member states are treated equally. The 23 member states that acceded to the ACHR are subject to the rights in both the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the Convention; and the powers of both the Commission and the Court described in the ACHR. Under the Convention, the Commission “… has retained its status as an organ of the OAS, thereby maintaining its powers to promote and protect human rights in the territories of all OAS member states.” (Cecilia Medina, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: Reflections on a Joint Venture, 12 Hum. Rts. Q. 439, 443 (1990)). Those member states that did not accede to the Convention are subject to the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

The Convention lists the following functions and powers of the Commission in Art. 41:

a) to develop an awareness of human rights among the peoples of America;

b) to make recommendations to the governments of the member states, when it considers such action advisable, for the adoption of progressive measures in favor of human rights within the framework of their domestic law and constitutional provisions as well as appropriate measures to further the observance of those rights;

c) to prepare such studies or reports as it considers advisable in the performance of its duties;

d) to request the governments of the member states to supply it with information on the measures adopted by them in matters of human rights;

e) to respond, through the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States, to inquiries made by the member states on matters related to human rights and, within the limits of its possibilities, to provide those states with the advisory services they request;

f) to take action on petitions and other communications pursuant to its authority under the provisions of Articles 44 through 51 of this Convention; and

g) to submit an annual report to the General Assembly of the Organization of American States.

The most important of these is “f. to take action on petitions…pursuant to Articles 44 through 51 of this Convention.” All petitions must be submitted to the Commission first. OAS member states that have not acceded to the Convention are subject to the rights in the Convention or to the jurisdiction of the Court. The Commission has the power “… to examine communications submitted to it and any other available information, to address the government of any member state not a Party to the Convention for information deemed pertinent by this Commission, and to make recommendations to it, … in order to bring about more effective observance of fundamental human rights.” (American Convention on Human Rights, “Pact of San Jose, Cost Rica” Art. 20(b)). Those recommendations are not binding.

Individuals, groups, or NGOs that are recognized in at least one OAS state may bring complaints to the Commission against State party for alleged violations of the Convention and of articles 8(1) and 13 of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights "Protocol of San Salvador”. The petition is first examined for admissibility. If the case is admissible, the Commission may request information from the state and send transcripts of the pertinent portions of the petition to it. (ACHR Art. 48(1)(a)). The Commission will then examine the case to verify the facts and may investigate further. (ACHR Art. 48(d). It may request any additional information and, if the parties so request, hear written and oral testimony as part of their examination of the merits. (ACHR Art. 48(e)). If a friendly settlement is reached, the Commission draws up a report, which is sent to the parties and to the OAS Secretary General for publication. (ACHR Art. 49). If there is no settlement, the Commission also draws up a report and sends it to the parties, but it is not to be published. The Commission may then submit the case to the Court as long as the state has declared its acceptance of the binding jurisdiction of the Court. (ACHR Art. 62.) Individuals may choose to be represented by counsel.

In addition, State parties may bring complaints against other State parties to the Commission for alleged violations of the Convention as long as they have filed a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the Commission in such cases. Such declarations may be unconditional, on condition of reciprocity, for a specified period, or for specific cases. (ACHR Art. 62. State parties to the Convention may submit cases to the Court if they have declared their acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction as binding. These declarations are made on the same conditions as those concerning the jurisdiction of State complaints.

The Court’s jurisdiction is binding. “If the Court finds that there has been a violation of a right or freedom protected by this Convention, the Court shall rule that the injured party be ensured the enjoyment of his right or freedom that was violated.” (ACHR Art. 63) It may also require the state to remedy the violation and pay “fair” compensation to the aggrieved party.

The Court then monitors states’ implementation of the Court’s ruling. If a state’s action is inadequate, the Court may then report the situation to the General Assembly of the OAS. “It shall specify, in particular, the cases in which a state has not complied with its judgments, with any pertinent recommendations.” (ACHR Art. 65)

The procedures for the examination of petitions may produce the following types of documents:

The Commission also has responsibilities to promote human rights, to submit an annual report to the OAS General Assembly, and

a) to develop and awareness of human rights among the peoples of America;

b) to make recommendations to the governments of the member states, when it considers such action advisable, for the adoption of progressive measures in favor of human rights within the framework of their domestic law and constitutional provisions as well as appropriate measures to further the observance of those rights;

c) to prepare such studies or reports as it considers advisable in the performance of its duties; (ACHR Art. 41)

The Commission has appointed rapporteurs and working groups that may be assigned specific tasks or mandates concerning the preparation of its periods of sessions or the execution of special programs, studies and projects. “The country rapporteurs will also be responsible for carrying out the follow-up assigned by the Commission and will report to the plenary of the Commission at least once a year on the activities undertaken.” (Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Art. 15(2)). Rapporteurs present their work plans to the Commission for approval and report in writing to the Commission, at least annually, on the work’s progress. (Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Art. 15(6)) There is a rapporteur for every OAS member state. The thematic rapporteurs are the following:

The Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression “… was created by the Commission as a permanent, independent office that acts within the framework and with the support of the IACHR.” The head of the Special Rapporteurship is the only rapporteur who is not a member of the Commission.

The following documents are produced by the work of the rapporteurs and any functions other than those of the rapporteurs and actions taken on petitions:

For a more thorough and scholarly treatment of the Inter-American Human Rights system, see:

5. Europe

5.1. The Council of Europe (COE)

The Council of Europe is the primary regional human rights organization of Europe. It was established on May 5, 1949. The founding document of the Council is its Statute. The organization is governed primarily by the Committee of Ministers, which consists of the foreign ministers of the contracting states or their designated substitutes. Article 14 gives each contracting state one representative and each representative has one vote.

5.2. The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR)

The first major treaty the Council produced after the Statute and the General Agreement on Privileges and Immunities of the Council of Europe was the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). The convention was signed on November 4, 1950, and came into force on September 3, 1953. It was the first real human rights treaty. The U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Manwere proclaimed during the Convention’s drafting process, but they were proclamations, not treaties. They bound no one. The ECHR had a preamble, laid out ten fundamental rights, and established two enforcement bodies–a European Commission of Human Rights and a European Court of Human Rights.

The original convention can be found in the United Nations Treaty Series in both of the Council of Europe’s official languages, English and French. The latest version incorporates Protocols 11 and 14, both of which made substantial changes to the Convention. The web site of the COE’s Treaty Office includes a list of all the organization’s treaties. Entries in the list link to the text of the treaty in both Word and HTML format; a summary of the treaty; a chart of signatures and ratifications; the list of declarations, reservations, and other communications; and an explanatory report if there is one. The explanatory reports are wonderful aids to understanding the treaties. The Treaty Office explains their authority as follows:

The [reports] are prepared by the committee of experts instructed to draft the convention in question and are published when the convention is adopted by the Committee of Ministers. These explanatory reports might facilitate the implementation of the provisions of the conventions, although they do not constitute instruments which provide an authoritative interpretation of them. (Council of Europe, About Conventions in the Council of Europe Treaty Series).

The ECHR’s preamble states clearly that the purpose of the ECHR was “to take the first steps for the collective enforcement of certain of the Rights stated in the Universal Declaration ...” See here. While the Universal Declaration was intended to be universal and a declaration of ideals, the ECHR was intended to be a regional, binding agreement. The ECHR bound the contracting members to live by the rights enumerated in it. The Preamble’s reference to “European countries which ... have a common heritage of political traditions, ideals, freedom and the rule of law...” indicates that one of the ECHR’s intentions is to delineate and embody the political and ethical culture of Western Europe.

The process through which complaints travel from application to judgment begins with the assignment of a judge rapporteur, who presents each case to the Court. The rapporteur makes a recommendation on admissibility to a committee of three judges, who in turn make the initial decision on admissibility. Only cases that are unanimously considered admissible are referred to a chamber. Chambers have seven judges and review individual cases for admissibility again. They may rule only on admissibility or on both admissibility and the merits of a case. See here. If they rule only on admissibility, the case can be referred to a grand chamber, which consists of seventeen judges. In rare cases, at the request of one party, a grand chamber may examine a case on which a chamber has already ruled on the merits. These cases must “… raise serious questions concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention or its protocols, or ... an issue of general importance.” See here. The purpose is to ensure the quality and consistency of the Court’s case-law by allowing for a re-examination of the most important cases if the above-mentioned conditions are met. Decisions on admissibility must be taken separately from those on the merits and must be reasoned. See here.

The Council changed the process when it adopted Protocol 14, which came into force on June 1, 2010. Under Protocol 14 initial admissibility decisions in individual cases are made by a single judge and are final. If the case is admissible, it is forwarded to a committee of three judges or a chamber of seven judges. Committees may decide on admissibility. If the decision on admissibility is positive, the committee may render a decision on both admissibility and the merits, but the latter only in cases that concern subjects that are “already the subject of well-established case-law of the Court.” See here. Committee decisions must be unanimous to be final.

Applications that are admissible, but not already the subject of well-established case-law of the Court, go to a chamber. Chambers’ decisions on individual applications will cover both admissibility and merits. Chambers make the initial decision on the admissibility of interstate cases and may make decisions in those cases on both admissibility and merits. But the two types of decision in interstate cases must be made separately.

The court may award “just satisfaction” to the parties “if the internal law of the High Contracting Party concerned allows only partial reparation to be made.” See Details of Treaty No. 005. In other words, ratification of the Convention constitutes agreement to put the court’s judgments into effect. “Just satisfaction” may be merely the judgment of the court; a finding against a government may be enough to vindicate the applicant. On the other hand, the court may also award monetary damages. It did so for the first time in 1974 in Neumeister v. Austria. Since then it has increased this practice to the point that one could now say that it is common. Monetary awards are made for both pecuniary and nonpecuniary loss and may include the expenses of bringing the application and back interest when a government delays payment.

Article 46(2) of the Convention gives the Committee of Ministers the responsibility for enforcing the court’s judgments. If the government fulfills the requirements of the court’s judgments or the parties come to a friendly settlement, the Committee adopts a resolution accepting the government’s actions or the friendly settlement and stating that no further action is necessary. Otherwise, the Committee asks the government to submit information on the progress toward fulfillment and puts the issue on the agenda of its next human rights meeting. Although the documents submitted to the Committee are public, its deliberations are confidential. It may take any of the following actions: (1) attempt to bring the parties to a friendly settlement, (2) adopt an interim resolution of concern, or (3) threaten to take action under article 8 of the Statute, which allows the Committee of Ministers to end the government’s membership in the Council. No contracting party has yet been excluded from the Council.

In yet another change to try to improve its efficiency, the ECtHR has begun to use what is called the pilot judgment procedure. The court explains it as follows:

The central idea behind the pilot judgment procedure is that where there are a large number of applications concerning the same problem, applicants will obtain redress more speedily if an effective remedy is established at national level than if their cases are processed on an individual basis in Strasbourg.

Pilot judgments are used in the case of repetitive applications that share a common, root cause. The court selects a particular case that appears to be reasonably representative of the entire group. It may adjourn the case during the adjudicatory process to give the contracting state time to remedy the situation. Although the duration of the adjournment may be prescribed at its beginning, the court may restart the case at any time “if this is what the interests of justice require ....” The ECtHR used the pilot judgment procedure for the first time in 2004.

For more information about the Council of Europe see the following:

5.3. European Union (EU)

When the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was founded in 1951 by six nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), its goals were restricted to the economic sphere. From this initial economic agreement on two mutual industries, the European Union has grown to 28 nations. It was to have its own power to put into effect the policies on which the members agreed. In other words, it was to have the power to act under the direction of, but independently of, the individual members.

Three bodies determine the decision-making policies of the European Union policies: the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. The European Commission proposes new laws and the Parliament and Council pass the new laws. Each new law fits into one of the existing European Union treaty documents.

Eventually, issues related to human rights began to appear in cases that came before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is the judicial arm of the EU. It was found that the fundamental freedoms of human rights are inextricably bound to the freedom to act as a player in a free market system. Because there was nothing explicit in the ECSC treaty or its progeny about human rights, the ECJ began to take inspiration from sources outside the EU treaties, principally the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). It did not cite the ECHR as authority—it merely derived general principles of law from it. In other words, it took the ECHR as a source of customary law. The Treaty on European Union of 1992 recognized the ECHR as general principles of law, and the EU approved its own Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000. The Charter did not create new rights, but enshrined the rights that the ECJ had found to be “general principles of law.”

The ECJ has a lower (the General Court) and higher (the Court of Justice) courts. The homepage presents users with the ability to search by court, case number, party names, and dates. The results of a search are a case’s judgment and opinion. In addition to the options provided by the general search, the advanced search has the following options by which users can search: Case status, Documents, ECLI, Text, Subject-matter, Procedure and result, References to case-law or legislation, Systematic classification scheme, Formation of the Court, Judge-Rapporteur, Advocate General, Source of a question referred for a preliminary ruling, and Authentic language.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union can be found at EUR-Lex, the website to EU law. Click on the EU Law & Related Documents tab and then Treaties. The Charter is under Treaties Currently in Force.

For more information about the European Union, see the following:

6. International Human Rights Journals

7. Human Rights Institutes and Non-Governmental Organizations (from the Human Rights Institute, Georgetown Law)

Organizations with a United States Base (Many Also Have Offices Abroad):

Organizations Based Outside the United States: