Researching International Human Rights

By Susan M. Boland and James Hart

Susan M. Boland is Associate Director and Associate Senior Librarian at the University of Cincinnati Law Library. Her work includes serving as liaison to the Human Rights Quarterly and teaching research to the LL.M. students.

James Hart is Senior Librarian Emeritus at 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).

Published January/February 2021

(Previously updated by Grace M. Mills in March 2008, June 2012, and October 2014; and by James Hart in November/December 2017)

See the Archive Version!

Table of Contents

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. Contemporaneously with the 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 Middle East because it doesn’t have 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

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 United Nations Digital Library (UNDL), 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

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

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). The Council’s website lists the core human rights instruments. Charter Bodies

The charter bodies are:

The charter-based bodies differ from the treaty bodies in that they:

  • Derive their establishment from provisions contained in the Charter of the United Nations
  • Hold broad human rights mandates
  • Address an unlimited audience
  • Take action based on majority voting 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 7 October 2020, there are 44 thematic and 11 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 UN staff members or 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

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:

  • National reports
  • Compilations of UN information
  • Summaries of stakeholders’ information
  • Questions submitted in advance
  • Outcomes of the reviews
  • Reports of the working groups
  • Decisions of the outcomes
  • Related webcast archives

This information is all accessible from the UPR website.

  • Report
  • Reporting cycle related information
  • Session related information
  • Jurisprudence
    • Inquiry
    • Meetings of states parties
    • SPT Related
    • Follow-up to concluding observations Treaty Bodies

There are ten UN treaty bodies monitoring international human rights treaties:

  • Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  • Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
  • Human Rights Committee (CCPR)
  • Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • Committee against Torture (CAT)
  • Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW)
  • The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT)
  • Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  • Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED)

The treaty-based bodies differ from the charter-based bodies in that they

  • Derive their existence from provisions contained in a specific legal instrument;
  • Hold more narrow mandates: the set of issues codified in the legal instrument;
  • Address a limited audience: only those countries that have ratified the legal instrument, and
  • Base their decision-making on consensus.

Nine of the treaty bodies have procedures for dealing with individual complaints (of the nine, the CMW’s individual complaint mechanism has not yet entered into force). Although there are variations among the procedures of the committees, “… their design and operation are very similar”:

  • Anyone can submit a complaint
  • Complaints should be submitted as soon as possible after exhaustion of domestic remedies
  • The process begins when a complaint is received
  • Complaints are registered
    • as long as they contain all the information needed
    • the State is a party to the treaty
    • the State 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 admissibility must be satisfied before consideration of the merits, both are usually examined at the same time. 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. 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. There is no process to appeal a committee decision. The decisions are available in the treaty bodies database.

In addition to individual complaints, some of the treaty bodies also have mechanisms to address inter-state complaints. Inter-state complaints are where one State alleges another State has violated the treaty provisions. Both States must be parties to the treaty. The basis and procedures vary across treaty body. Inter-state complaints are rare.

The treaty bodies also publish “general comments,” also called “general recommendations,” that offer interpretations of the treaties they monitor. The general comments may be substantive and specific or general and wide-ranging. 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 treaty body 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, publications, useful links, external links, and follow us. The search category provides links to the Treaty body database and the Universal Human Rights Index.

The UN 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:

  • Country Visits by thematic special procedure
    • State invitations
    • Dialogue with State
    • Report to HR Council
  • Communications
    • Allegations of violations
    • Appeals & letters to States
    • Reports to Human Rights Council of communications sent and the responses received at each regular session
  • Miscellany
    • thematic studies
    • develop human rights standards and guidelines
    • participate in expert consultations, seminars and conferences
    • organize panels during the sessions of the Human Rights Council
    • organize “working visits”, i.e. in-country missions that are not fact-finding but a mix between technical assistance, mediation and the development of best practices, and raise public awareness about specific human rights situations and phenomena attesting threats to and violations of human rights through public statements and interaction with a wide variety of partners

2.2. UN Human Rights Documents Listed by Subject

The following section is derived from the UN List of Human Rights Issues.

Adequate Housing

Administration of Justice


Business and Human Rights


Civic Space

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


LGBTI people

Local Government and Human Rights

Mental health and human rights





Older Persons

Plans of Action for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights



Private Military and Security Companies



Rule of Law

Safety of Journalists



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. Select other UN organs dealing with human rights follow below.

2.4. UN Acronyms

  • CAT – Committee Against Torture
  • CED – Committee on Enforced Disappearances
  • CEDAW – Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
  • CERD – Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  • CESCR – Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • CHR – Commission on Human Rights
  • CMW – Committee on Migrant Workers
  • CRC – Committee on the Rights of the Child
  • CRPD – Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • CSW – Commission on the Status of Women
  • DAW – Division for the Advancement of Women
  • DESA – Department on Economic and Social Affairs
  • ESC – Economic and Social Council of the United Nations
  • FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • HABITAT – United Nations Human Settlements Programme
  • HRC – Human Rights Committee
  • IASC – Inter-Agency Standing Committee
  • ICJ – International Court of Justice
  • ILO – International Labour Organization
  • NHRI – National Human Rights Institutions
  • OCHA – Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
  • OHCHR – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • OSAGI – Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women
  • SPT – Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • UNAIDS – Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
  • UNDP – United Nations Development Programme
  • UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • UNGA – General Assembly of the United Nations
  • UNHCR – United Nationals High Commissioner for Refugees
  • UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fun
  • UNIFEM – United Nations Development Fund for Women
  • UNIFPA – United Nations Population Fund
  • UNMA – United Nations Mine Action
  • UNTS – United Nations Treaty Series
  • UPR – Universal Periodic Review
  • WHO – World Health Organization

GlobaLex and the UN’s Dag Hammarskjold Library have several excellent articles that can help you find more information:

· Mark Engsberg and Mary Beth Chappell Lyles, UPDATE: An Introduction to Sources for Treaty Research

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

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was created on November 2, 1987 by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) 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 members serve in their individual capacity, not as representatives of their States. The Commission is a quasi-judicial institution charged with:

  • the promotion of human and peoples’ rights
  • the protection of human and peoples’ rights
  • the interpretation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

States, organizations, and individuals can bring complaints (communications) against State parties to the Charter for alleged violations of the rights enumerated in the Charter under Articles 48-49 and 55. Complaints are registered under a file number in the Commission’s Official Register of Communications, with the first number being the chronological number and the second being the year that particular communication was received. The Commission’s website has a detailed explanation of the communications procedures. Once a communication has been registered, the Commission has to be “seized’ with it. Once a simple majority of commissioners decide it can be seized, the Commission considers the communications’ admissibility before its sessions and then considers the substantive issues of those cases admitted at the session. 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.”

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 promotes human rights through subsidiary mechanisms (Special Rapporteurs, Committees and Working Groups), similar to those of the UN Human Rights Council, that monitor and identify violations, promote human rights, and advise states on ways to enhance human rights in their countries. Subsidiary mechanisms visit State parties as needed to fulfill their mandates and report on each mission. In 2020, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted Standard Operating Procedures for its special mechanisms. The subsidiary mechanisms are the following:

Each special mechanism has a webpage. At the bottom of each page of the website you will find the following links:

  • Key Documents
  • News
  • Press Releases
  • Announcements
  • Videos
  • Gallery
  • Useful Links
  • Resolutions
  • Mission Reports
  • Intersession Activity Reports

The Commission also reviews State reports to monitor compliance with states’ human rights obligations and issue Concluding Observations. Under Article 62, States are required to submit a report to the Commission every two years on the measures they have taken to implement the Charter and any additional protocols the State has ratified. The Commission will review the report and adopt concluding observations that acknowledge the progress made, express concern about possible human rights violations, and offer recommendations to improve compliance. State reports and Concluding Observations are organized by country and available on their website.

3.2. The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights

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 30 countries have ratified; 22 countries have signed, but not ratified; and 3 states that have neither signed nor ratified. It came into force on January 25, 2004. The later Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights will merge the African Court of Justice and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights once it comes into force. Currently it has 8 ratifications and will need 15 to enter into force. The additional Protocol on Amendments to the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights will provide for an International Criminal Law Section of the Court; however, it has not yet been ratified by any states.

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

  • The Commission
  • The State Party which has lodged a complaint to the Commission
  • The State Party against which the complaint has been lodged at the Commission
  • The State Party whose citizen is a victim of human rights violation
  • African Intergovernmental Organizations

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 2017, only 9 of them have submitted such a declaration and 3 of those have since announced withdrawals. The Council of Ministers is informed of judgments and monitors their enforcement. The Court publishes cases on its website. Cases are divided into contentious matters and advisory proceedings. For each division, cases are further organized by latest opinions, finalized opinions, and pending opinions.

3.3. African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) was adopted in 1990 and entered into force in 1999. Articles 32-46 give the ACERWC its mandate to protect human rights in Africa and interpret the Charter. The Committee members consist of 11 elected experts serving in their individual capacity. The Committee holds two Ordinary Sessions each year, in March or April and November where they hear:

After hearing the reports by State Parties, the Committee issues concluding observations and recommendations. Communications are complaints that can be brought by “any person, group or non-governmental organization recognized by the Organization of African Unity, by a Member State, or the United Nations relating to any matter covered by this Charter.” Even States that are not a party to the Charter can bring communications before ACERWC on behalf of a child that is from a ratifying State if it is in the best interest of the child. Procedures for communications can be found in the Revised Guidelines for the Consideration of Communications. The Committee also issues general comments that provide substantive elaboration of the meaning of treaty provisions and in-depth analysis of procedural concerns.

3.4. The Economic Community of West African States

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 and has an anticipated role as arbitrator once the Arbitrational Tribunal for the Community is established. Supplementary Protocol A/SP.1/01/05 Article 3(4) gave the Court “jurisdiction to determine case[s] of violation of human rights that occur in any Member State.” Article 4(d) of the Supplementary Protocol inserted Article 10 in the Protocol on the Community Court of Justice, which allows access to the court by “[i]ndividuals on application for relief for violation of their human rights….” There is no domestic exhaustion of remedies requirement.

Pursuant to the Rules of the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), 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, Article 41(2) states “the following measures of inquiry may be adopted:

  • The personal appearance of the parties;
  • A request for information and production of documents;
  • Oral testimony;
  • The commissioning of an expert’s report
  • An inspection of the place or thing in question.”

Oral arguments and testimony are 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. Decisions 2015 – present are available on the Court’s website.

The Court has rendered a number of ground-breaking decisions on human rights including SERAP v. Nigeria, Judgment, ECW/CCJ/APP/0808 (ECOWAS, Oct. 27, 2009), which held that the right to education is justiciable; and Koraou v. Niger, Judgment, ECW/CCJ/APP/0808 (ECOWAS, Oct. 27, 2008), which ruled in cases involving modern forms of slavery.

For more information on ECOWAS see the following article:

3.5. The Southern African Development Community

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is another regional economic community. It was established in 1992 by the SADC treaty. Article 9 of the SADC Treaty and the subsequent treaty amendment established the SACD Tribunal. In Mike Campbell (Pvt) Ltd and Others v Republic of Zimbabwe (2/2007) [2008] SADCT 2 (28 November 2008), the SACD Tribunal ruled that it had jurisdiction over individual complaints of alleged human rights violations. In 2010, SADC ordered a review of the Tribunal’s role and functions and suspended it. In 2012, SADC resolved that a new Tribunal should be negotiated and its role be restricted to interpretation of the Treaty and disputes between member States. You can find the former SADC Tribunal’s cases on the Southern African Legal Information Institute’s website.

3.6. East African Court of Justice

EACJ’s mission is to contribute to regional integration by ensuring adherence to justice, rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms through the interpretation, application of and compliance with the East African Community Law. In Article 27 of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community, the EACJ was given “such other original, appellate, human rights and other jurisdiction as will be determined by the Council at a suitable subsequent date.” While no such protocol has yet extended the Court’s jurisdiction, the EACJ has reached human rights issues through its interpretation of Article 6(d) which sets out that “good governance including adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency, social justice, equal opportunities, gender equality, as well as the recognition, promotion and protection of human and peoples rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights…” is one of the East African Community’s fundamental principles; and Article 7(2) which states that the Partner States shall “abide by the principles of good governance, including adherence to the principles of democracy, the rule of law, social justice and the maintenance of universally accepted standards of human rights.”

The Court has two divisions: (1) the First Instance Division, and (2) the Appellate Division. First Instance Division cases can be appealed to the Appellate Division to clarify points of law, to establish whether the court has jurisdiction, and to establish whether the First Instance Division committed any procedural irregularities. Decisions of the Appellate Division cannot be appealed. The Judges of the Court are appointed by the EAC Summit of the Heads of State or Government. Articles 2830 of the Treaty provide that a Party State, the Secretary General, or any natural or legal resident in the EAC may bring a case to the EACJ. Article 30(2) directs that references (complaints) must be brought “within two months of the enactment, publication, directive, decision or action complained of, or in the absence thereof, of the day in which it came to the knowledge of the complainant.” Section X of the East African Community Court of Justice Rules of Procedure, 2019 also allows for amicus curiae to apply to a case. EACJ Rules provide for written and oral proceedings.

In addition to interpretation of the Treaty, the Court issues advisory opinions, preliminary rulings to National Courts, and arbitral awards. The Court’s decisions are published on their website. You can browse decisions and filter by classification, case type, and year or you can perform an advanced search.

3.7. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa

COMESA was established in 1994 by the COMESA Treaty as a regional economic trading unit. Article 7 of the Treaty established the Court of Justice as its judicial arm and Articles 19 – 43 fill out its structure and role. Unlike the ECOWAS and the EACJ, there is no reference to human rights jurisdiction in the articles addressing the Court’s jurisdiction. The Treaty itself makes direct reference to human rights in Article 6(e) where it states one of the fundamental principles of COMESA is the “recognition, promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights….” Since the Court of Justice has the jurisdiction to interpret the Treaty, it could potentially hear human rights cases. Thus far, COMESA cases have largely been employment disputes.

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.

  • 1945 Inter-American Conference on Problems on War and Peace charged the Inter-American Juridical Committee with preparing a draft “Declaration of the International Rights and Duties of Man.”
  • 1948 Ninth International Conference of American States established the Organization of American States and proclaimed the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (May 2, 1948)
  • 1959 Creation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • 1969 American Convention on Human Rights (entered into force 1978) and
  • 1979 New Statute on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • 1980 Statute of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

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

The Commission was established in 1959 and began making country visits in 1961 “to observe the human rights situation in situ.” 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.” 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.

The Commission consists of seven members elected by the General Assembly. Members serve in their personal capacity, not as representatives of their countries. Articles 18-20 of the Statute of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights set out its duties and powers. Among the duties and powers listed in Article 18 are promoting awareness of human rights, make recommendations to the States on human rights measures, prepare studies or reports, request reports from member States on human rights measures, respond to inquiries made by member States on matters related to human rights and provide advisory services if requested, submit an annual report to the General Assembly, and conduct consensual or invited on‑site observations in a State. Article 19 sets out additional duties and powers applying to States Parties to the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), which will be discussed below in Section 4.3. For those States not party to the ACHR, Article 20 provides that the Commission will “pay particular attention to the observance of the human rights referred to in Articles I, II, III, IV, XVIII, XXV, and XXVI of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man…” and upon verification of exhaustion of domestic remedies, examine information and make recommendations related to its human rights obligations.

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

  • Descriptions of tasks or mandates assigned to rapporteurs or working groups including the execution of special programs, studies and projects;
  • Recommendations made to the member states for the adoption of progressive measures in favor of human rights;
  • Studies or reports considered advisable in the performance of the Commission’s duties;
  • Annual reports of the rapporteurs and working groups;
  • Requests for information on the human rights measures that the member states have adopted;
  • Responses to inquiries of member states on human rights matters and advisory services they request;
  • Annual reports for the OAS General Assembly.

4.3. American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

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 complementary 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.

In Article 41, the American Convention on Human Rights, “Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica” (B-32) (ACHR) reiterates the Commission’s powers and duties listed above but also, most importantly, lists “f. to take action on petitions… pursuant to Articles 44 through 51 of this Convention.” Pursuant to Article 44, “[a]ny person or group of persons, or any nongovernmental entity legally recognized in one or more member states of the Organization, may lodge petitions with the Commission containing denunciations or complaints of violation of this Convention by a State Party.” Generally, domestic remedies must be exhausted unless domestic law does not “afford due process of law,” access to domestic remedies has been denied, or there has been unwarranted delay in domestic remedies. (ACHR Art. 46). All petitions must be submitted to the Commission first.

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 Inter-American Court of Human Rights as long as the state has declared its acceptance of the binding jurisdiction of the Court. (ACHR Art. 62). Individuals cannot submit their cases directly to the Court but must go through the Commission.

State parties may also 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 Inter-American Court of Human Rights 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 procedures for the examination of petitions may produce the following types of documents:

  • The petitions
  • Requests for information from the state
  • Written statements requested by the Commission as part of their examination of the merits
  • Reports on a friendly settlement containing a summary of the facts and description of the solution
  • Reports on failure of friendly settlement (may not be published)
  • Separate opinions from dissenting members of the Commission
  • Written and oral statements made by the parties attached to the report on failure of friendly settlement
  • Proposals and recommendations of the Commission in its transmittal of the report

· The opinions and conclusions of the Commission if the case has not been settled by the parties or submitted to the Court and its jurisdiction accepted within 3 months of the period the Commission gave for the state to take the measures incumbent upon it.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has seven elected judges who serve in their individual capacity. Judges may not hear cases concerning their States. Usually, the Court holds at least seven Periods of Sessions per year. The Court’s contentious jurisdiction is based on ACHR Articles 61 – 63 and its advisory jurisdiction is based on Article 64. The Statute of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights sets up its structure. According to the Rules of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a case is initiated when written briefs are filed. Once the case has been initiated, the alleged victim also has a chance to file briefs. An Inter-American defender may be appointed for alleged victims by the Court if needed. As part of its answer, the Respondent State can file preliminary objections. The alleged victim and the Commission or the Petitioning State then has the opportunity to present their observations on the preliminary objections. Supplementary written pleadings may be submitted. Amicus briefs may also be submitted during this process. Once the written procedures are completed, the oral proceedings begin, and hearings may be scheduled.

“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 Court’s decisions are published on its website and are searchable. You can filter decisions by jurisprudence type, language, country, and year.

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

5. Asia

5.1 The Association of Southeast Asian Nations & the ASEAN Charter

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established in August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration. As described in the ASEAN Declaration, its purposes are:

  • To accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavours in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian Nations;
  • To promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter;
  • To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields;
  • To provide assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities in the educational, professional, technical and administrative spheres;
  • To collaborate more effectively for the greater utilization of their agriculture and industries, the expansion of their trade, including the study of the problems of international commodity trade, the improvement of their transportation and communications facilities and the raising of the living standards of their peoples;
  • To promote Southeast Asian studies; and
  • To maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes, and explore all avenues for even closer cooperation among themselves.

ASEAN currently consists of ten Member States. The Member States interact with each other according to a set of principles enacted in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation:

  1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations;
  2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coersion;
  3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
  4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means;
  5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force;
  6. Effective cooperation among themselves.

The ASEAN Charter entered into force on December 15, 2008 and it created the institutional framework for ASEAN. It also expanded the original purposes “to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms….” In order to realize this purpose, the Charter also created the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) which would operate according to terms determined by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting. The Terms of Reference (TOR) were drafted in 2008 and adopted on July 20, 2009 during the 42nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.

5.1. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights

The TOR sets out the purposes, mandate, and structure of the AICHR. The ten representatives of AIHRC are not independent but appointed by their States and are accountable to them. Paragraphs 2.3 and 2.4 of the TOR emphasize that “primary responsibility to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms rests with each Member State” and that the AICHR should pursue “a constructive and non-confrontational approach and cooperation to enhance promotion and protection of human rights.” As such, there is no mechanism for the filing of complaints; however, communications and complaints can now be submitted to AICHR via the ASEAN Secretariat. The Guidelines on the Operations of AICHR further flesh out the operation of the AICHR. Pursuant to paragraph 7.1 of the Guidelines, the AICHR may, but is not required, to keep the public informed about meeting outcomes.

One of the mandates for the AICHR was to draft the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. The Declaration was adopted on November 18, 2012. The Declaration and other publications associated with the AICHR can be found under the Resources part of their website.

For information on ASEAN, see the following excellent GlobaLex article:

6. Europe

6.1. The Council of Europe

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.

6.2. The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

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 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. Protocol 11, which entered into force in 1998, replaced the existing European Commission and Court of Human Rights with a new permanent Court.

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. There have been 16 protocols to the Convention but Protocols 10 and 15 have not yet entered into force. Since the 2017 edition of this guide, one protocol to the Convention, 16, has come into force. It allows the highest courts and tribunals of a High Contracting Party, as specified by the latter, to request the European Court of Human Rights “to give advisory opinions on questions of principle relating to the interpretation or application of the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention or the protocols thereto.”

The website of the COE’s Treaty Office includes a list of all the organization’s treaties. Entries in the list link to a detailed description of the treaty which includes the title; the date of entry into force; a summary; links to the text in both official languages; links to the text in other languages, if there are any; links to related material such as reservations and declarations and explanatory reports; and links to shareable forms such as Mail, Print, PDF, and Bilingual versions. The explanatory reports are particularly valuable aids to understanding the treaties. They were first introduced by the Committee of Ministers in 1965. 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….” 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.

6.3. Launching a Complaint

In Article 48 of the original Convention, individuals could not file complaints with the Court but had to apply to the Commission, which would then file complaints on their behalf. Protocol 9 allowed individuals, whose petition was the subject of a report by the Commission, to request the Court to deal with the case. Protocol 11 replaced the existing European Commission and Court of Human Rights with a new permanent Court and Article 34 “allowed applications from any person, non-governmental organisation or group of individuals claiming to be the victim of a violation by one of the High Contracting Parties of the rights set forth in the Convention or the protocols thereto.”

From 1953 through 2009 the process through which complaints traveled from application to judgment began with the assignment of a judge rapporteur, who presented each case to the Court. The rapporteur made a recommendation on admissibility to a committee of three judges, who in turn made the initial decision on admissibility. Only cases that were unanimously considered admissible were referred to a chamber. Chambers had seven judges and reviewed individual cases for admissibility again. They could rule only on admissibility or on both admissibility and the merits of a case. If they ruled only on admissibility, the case could be referred to a grand chamber, which consisted of seventeen judges. In rare cases, at the request of one party, a grand chamber could examine a case on which a chamber had already ruled on the merits. Article 43 of Protocol 11 stated that these cases must “raise serious questions concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention or its protocols, or… an issue of general importance.” The purpose was to ensure the quality and consistency of the Court’s case-law by allowing for a reexamination of the most important cases if the above-mentioned conditions were met. Decisions on admissibility had to be taken separately from those on the merits and, pursuant to Article 45, had be reasoned.

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 is final if the case is inadmissible. If the case is not inadmissible, it is forwarded to a committee of three judges or a chamber of seven judges. Committees decide on admissibility. If the decision is admissible, 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.” 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 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.

Cases may go to a Grand Chamber in any of the following ways:

  • If the issue in the case raises a question of the interpretation of the Convention or the Protocols, a Chamber may give up its jurisdiction to the Grand Chamber.
  • If “the resolution of a question raised in a case before the Chamber might have a result inconsistent with the Court’s case-law, the Chamber shall relinquish jurisdiction in favour of the Grand Chamber,”
  • Either of the parties may request that the case go to the Grand Chamber. The request should be based on a serious question affecting the interpretation or application of the Convention or the Protocols, or an issue of such importance that in its view warrants consideration by the Grand Chamber. This option is exceptional. See the Court’s Rules.

If a large number of applications share a common, root cause, they are joined into a single action, which is called a pilot judgment. 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.

At any time during the procedure, the parties may attempt to come to an agreement, called a “friendly settlement,” before the end of the procedure. The Court will provide support to the parties. If a friendly settlement is reached, the Committee enforces it. See Details of Treaty No. 05.

6.4. Judgments and Court Decisions

After the Court comes to a judgment, it 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. “Just satisfaction” may be merely the judgment of the court; a finding against a High Contracting Party 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.

6.5. Enforcing Judgments and Court Decisions

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.

6.6. Finding the Documents

6.6.1. Treaties, Protocols, and Rules

See Section 5.2 on the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms above on finding treaties, protocols, etc. The Court’s rules can be found under Official Texts on the Court’s landing page.

The Court published its judgments and decisions from 1961 to 1996 as Series A and its pleadings, oral arguments, and documents from 1961 to 1988 as Series B. In 1996, the ECtHR changed the title and format of Series A to the Reports of Judgments and Decisions. The Court provides a wide variety of texts on its website. Cases and their documents are accessed through the HUDOC system. It can be difficult to find for new users. Starting at the Court’s landing page, select the Case Law tab near the top of the page; then follow these links: Judgments and decisions > HUDOC Database > HUDOC database. The HUDOC system is a complex and thorough system for storing and locating case material. It includes the following documents beginning with 1960:

  • Decisions, judgments, and advisory opinions of the court
  • Reports of the Commission
  • Resolutions of the Committee of Ministers

The database provides a template with blanks for the following search criteria: document fields, language, importance, title, respondent state, application number, Convention article number, keyword, Strasbourg case law, conclusion, case number, and date. It also provides its own list of keywords to choose from and searches for cases decided under previous cases, like a citator. One can also find “communicated” cases—complaints that have been communicated to the countries against which they have been filed.

In the top of the page navigation, are the following links and web options: “simple search” box, useful links, preferences, advanced search, help, and other languages. The interface languages are available in English, French, Russian, Spanish, Georgian, Ukrainian, and Turkish. The left navigation pane is divided into the following:

The “Documents Collections” section is one of the most important functions of HUDOC; it allows searchers to limit the databases they search to just the content they need to search: all cases, all judgments, all decisions, communicated cases, legal summaries, advisory opinions, reports, or resolutions. Judgments are further broken down by Grand Chamber, Chamber, or Committee. Decisions are broken down by Grand Chamber, Chamber, Committee, Commission, or Screening Panel.

Below “Document Collections” are several filters including language, state, non-violation, importance, article, and violation. The HUDOC Manual states, “[u]se the Non-violation filter to search for judgments (Grand Chamber, Chamber and Committee) in which the Court found no violation of the Convention or Protocol Article(s) indicated.” There are four levels of importance: case reports and levels 1, 2, and 3. The highest level of importance are the case reports, and the lowest level of importance is level 3. The Case Reports are the judgments, decisions and advisory opinions that have been selected for publication since 1998.

Below that is a list of keywords that is arranged by the articles from which they come. Click on “More” at the bottom of that square to see the entire list. Several keywords can be combined by the Boolean operators that are above the complete list.

Finally, there are more precise filters that allow further division of the source by Document Type, Court, Judge, Date, Originating Body, and Organisation. Mouse over the question mark next to the name of each one for an explanation of its use.

Once you click on the Advanced Search link, the Advanced Search box presents a number of field search options. Searchers can find an explanation of each by hovering their mouse over the question mark next to the name of each type of field. The Court additionally provides Case-law Information Notes, which summarizes cases of particular interest and includes annual indexes to the cases.

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

6.7. The European Commission for Democracy through Law (The Venice Commission)

6.7.1. The Beginning

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 created a significant number of nations that had either no experience or experience beyond memory with democratic institutions such as open and free elections, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms, judicial independence, a number of political parties, separation of powers, and many more. They needed assistance in building their new institutions. The Italian government invited the members of the COE to participate in a conference in Venice with the following countries as observers: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, and the U.S.S.R. The conference resulted in a resolution, which was submitted to the appropriate bodies of the Council of Europe. Those COE bodies specified and developed the institutional links between the two organizations. On May 10, 1990 the COE’s Committee of Ministers unanimously passed a resolution establishing the European Commission for Democracy Through Law on the basis of an enlarged partial agreement. The partial agreement was enlarged and revised in the 2002 Revised Statute of the European Commission for Democracy Through Law. The Venice Commission is neither entirely independent of the COE nor a part of it; their relationship is best described as consultative and advisory.

As stated in Article 1 of the Revised Statute, the Commission’s purposes are:

  • strengthening the understanding of the legal systems of the participating states, notably with a view to bringing these systems closer
  • promoting the rule of law and democracy
  • examining the problems raised by the working of democratic institutions and their reinforcement and development

The Commission’s work focuses on democratic institutions and fundamental rights; elections, referendums and political parties; and constitutional justice. It both produces its own documents and some documents from the COE and ECtHR. All of the Venice Commission’s actions in the area of constitutional law are guided by the principal “that all action by the state should be confined to the limits set by the constitution.” It produces its own research studies such as CDL-PI(2020)010 English 21/07/2020 Questionnaire on European Decision-making Processes and National Parliaments.

6.7.2. The Venice Commission’s Work and Documents

The Venice Commission has 62 members, which includes the 47 members of the COE and 15 others. Pursuant to Article 2(1) of the Statute, the individual members of the Commission are “independent experts who have achieved eminence through their experience in democratic institutions or by their contribution to the enhancement of law and political science.” They are nominated by their home countries for four-year terms but serve in their individual capacity and cannot receive or accept any instructions. The Commission has a Bureau that is located in Strasbourg. The Bureau consists of one President, three Vice Presidents, and four other Bureau members. It also has an Enlarged Bureau that consists of those just mentioned and the Chairs of the twelve Sub Commissions, the Co-chair of the Joint Council on Constitutional Justice (JCCJ), and the President of the Council for Democratic Elections (CDE). The terms of these offices are all 2 years.

The Commission’s most important task is to produce opinions at the request of its member states on draft legislation or legislation already in force. The purpose of these opinions is to assist in bringing the legislation or constitutions into line with the European democratic heritage and international experience.

The opinions go through a long, diverse, dialogic process. After a request is made, the first step is to form a working group of rapporteur members and experts. They write a draft opinion. Then they visit the country itself to consult with its authorities, civil society and other interested stakeholders. Based on this research the working group produces a final draft opinion that is distributed to all Commission members before its consideration at the next plenary meeting. If necessary, the working group may consult with the Venice Commission sub-commission on that topic and national authorities. Finally, it is discussed and adopted in the plenary session, submitted to the requesting authority and published.

It is important to note that requests may be submitted and accepted from a wide variety of sources. In addition to the Commission’s Member States, the major organs of the COE, the European Union, OSCE/ODIHR, the Organization of American States, and other organizations that have been involved in the Commission’s work may submit requests. This last group may include governments or organizations far from Europe such as Bolivia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mozambique. This exercise can produce a wealth of documents that serve as important sources of research.

Its work in the area of constitutional justice is steered by the Joint Council of Constitutional Justice (JCCJ), which consists of the members of the Commission and the liaison officers who have been appointed by the constitutional courts of their home countries “The constitutional courts and councils and supreme courts with constitutional jurisdiction participating in the Joint Council thus have a very strong role in determining the Venice Commission’s activities in the field of constitutional justice.” Its purpose is “to steer cooperation between the constitutional courts and the Venice Commission.” It consists of members of the Commission and liaison officers who are appointed by their own constitutional courts. The members of the Joint Council come from the Commission’s Member States, Associate Member States, Observer States, those with status equivalent to Observer States (South Africa and the Palestinian National Authority), the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Justice of the EU, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

National constitutional courts, courts whose jurisdiction is equivalent and the European Court of Human Rights may send requests for opinions to the Commission. These opinions are called amicus curiae briefs. A discussion of amicus curia briefs may be found under the Case-Law section of the Constitutional Justice webpage of the Venice Commission. Although these requests emerge from cases, the opinions do not address the specifics of those cases but discuss the comparative constitutional and international law that pertains to the legal subject of the case. The opinions do not “address the constitutionality or law concerned in a given case before the requesting court….” The constitutional courts making the request must include particular questions.

You can find summaries of the case-law of the Venice Commission’s member and observer states and that of the ECtHR, the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the e-Bulletin on Constitutional Case-law. It publishes descriptions of the most important cases whose judgments are handed down during a four-month period. The bulletin was published from 20oo through 2017 in paper and converted to digital format in 2018. Its name was changed to the e-Bulletin on Constitutional Case-law and it is free. The e-Bulletin informs judges from around the world of the newest case law from other jurisdictions and “to foster an exchange of information and ideas and to assist national judges in solving difficult questions of law, which often arise simultaneously in courts of different countries.”

The Commission also hosts and updates the CODICES database, which contains the full text of over 10,000 judgments from over 100 courts. In addition to the cases, CODICES also contains the laws on constitutional courts and their equivalents, the constitutions of most of the Venice Commission Member and Observer States as well as other information. Liaison officers, appointed by the participating Constitutional Courts and Courts with equivalent jurisdiction contribute to CODICES three times a year. CODICES features a simple search, advanced search, Boolean search, faceted search, CODICES English search, and CODICES French search. You can filter by country or thesaurus.

In addition to its opinions the Commission publishes a large and multifarious collection of documents. The Commission has an excellent list of its main reference documents on its website. It has organized conferences and seminars all over the world whose object is to assist national courts in preserving the primacy of their constitution and its jurisprudence in their country. These conferences and seminars are held in cooperation with regional and linguistic groups. Examples are Conference of European Constitutional Courts, the Eurasian Association of Constitutional Review Bodies, the Association of Asian Constitutional Courts and Equivalent Institutions, the Union of Arab Constitutional Courts and Councils, the Ibero-American Conference of Constitutional Justice, and the Conference of Constitutional Jurisdictions of Africa. As the Constitutional Justice webpage states, “[t]he purpose of this cooperation is to strengthen the court members of the groups in their task of safeguarding the supremacy of their constitutions.” The JCCJ holds a mini conference following its annual meeting on a topic chosen by representatives of the courts whose proceedings are subsequently published.

Another aspect of democratic institutions in which the Commission is active is elections and electoral law. Without democratic elections the social and governmental institutions of democracies would collapse under the pressure of corruption and grasping for power. The Commission’s work in this area is managed by the Council on Democratic Elections, which consists of representatives from the Venice Commission, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. Before the opinions on draft electoral legislation are submitted to the plenary session, the Council examines them to make sure that they meet the Commission’s standards supporting the European democratic heritage. To clarify these standards, the Commission and the Council developed the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters and the Code of Good Practice on Referendums. Both of these have been approved by the COE’s Parliamentary Assembly and Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. The Commission also works closely with the electoral management bodies (EMB) of all of its members and the European Union, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR), the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. These are the groups that organize and supervise elections in their countries, regions, and localities. Since 2002 it has held the European Conferences of Electoral Management Bodies. These conferences bring EMB administrators and experts together to exchange information on international standards, domestic legislation and good practice in their field. The discussions and working sessions have been summarized and published after each conference since 2014. Those held from 2005 to 2013 published only their conclusions. The published material can be found on the Previous EMB Conferences page of the European Conferences of Electoral Management Bodies website. The Council on Democratic Elections also advises the Parliamentary Assembly’s electoral observation missions.

The VOTA database contains constitutions, national laws, opinions, and case law that concern electoral law. Subject searches may be enhanced by a hierarchical subject authority control list, a thesaurus. There is a list of countries and one can do free text searches. All documents are in Spanish, French or English.

One of the difficulties of dealing with the work and documents of the Commission in this area is that the Commission supports so many groups including its Members, Associate Members, Observer States, States or entities with a special cooperation status equivalent to an Observer State, regional and linguistic groups from all over the globe, and international organizations. To add to the complexity some of these groups have access to some of the Commission’s institutions, services, or products while others do not.

Users can find nearly everything they need from the left-hand column of the Commission’s landing page, which is divided into 3 columns. The left-hand column that the major topics, bodies, and document access points for the whole of the Venice Commission’s website:

  • The Commission
  • Democratic institutions and fundamental rights
  • Elections, referendums and political parties
  • Constitutional justice
  • Non-European Partners
  • Main documents
  • Documents
  • Web Resources

One of the most important of the options in the column is Main reference documents. This includes checklists, reports, guidelines, interpretive declarations, codes. Checklists are lists of practical, brief items that can be used to evaluate the state of one of the Venice Commission’s fundamental values such as the rule of law in single states. They are based on reports or studies. The purpose of reports is “to identify a consensual definition” of one of the Commission’s fundamental values that “may help international organizations and both domestic and international courts in interpreting and applying these values.” See Report on the Rule of law, adopted in Venice, March 25-26, 2011, CDL-AD(2011)003rev. They tend to be rather broad in scope. The objective of guidelines is to assist legislators to translate international standards into domestic laws; to provide an overview of issues regarding the development and adoption of legislation; to clarify key issues related to legislation; and to provide examples of potential good practices for states. They aim to fill the need for guidance in areas in which it is needed. See Joint Guidelines of the Venice Commission and OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) on Freedom of Association’ adopted in Venice, December 12-13, 2011, CDL-AD(2014)046-e. Codes provide principles on which practice of a fundamental value should be based. The final type of document of significant importance is Compilations of studies and opinions. These are compilations of excerpts from opinions and reports/studies. One could say they present the jurisprudence of their subjects. They “serve as a source of reference for drafters of constitutions and of legislation … for researchers, as well as for the Venice Commission’s members, who are requested to prepare opinions and reports concerning legislation dealing with such issues.” See Compilation of Venice Commission Opinions and Reports Concerning Freedom of Expression and Media, Strasbourg, July 7, 2020, CDL-PI(2020)008.

All Venice Commission documents are classified under symbols that tell that the document is from the European Commission for Democracy through Law while the second part stands for subject (Reference document), type of document (Reference document), body (WCCJ -GA), or some other classification. The following is a list of the current series of Venice Commission documents:

  • Adopted opinions and studies (since 2002) – CDL-AD
  • Constitutional Justice – CDL-JU
  • Electoral Matters – CDL-EL
  • Judiciary – CDL-JD
  • International Law – CDL-DI
  • Minorities – CDL-MIN
  • Rule of Law – CDL-RoL
  • Annual Report – CDL-RA
  • UniDem – CDL-UD
  • Science and Technique of Democracy – CDL-ST
  • Working Methods – CDL-WM
  • Plenary sessions – CDL
  • Reference document – CDL-REF
  • Public information – CDL-PI
  • Fundamental Rights – CDL-FR
  • Federalism – CDL-FED
  • Constitutional Reform – CDL-CR
  • Democratic Institutions – CDL-DEM
  • UniDem Campus Trieste Seminar – CDL-UDT
  • Scientific Council – CDL-SC
  • WCCJ General Assembly – CDL-WCCJ-GA
  • Latin America – CDL-LA

6.8. European Union

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 27 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, Court, Case number, Party names, Documents, Provisions of national and international law referred to, ECLI, Date, 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, as well as other documents 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 GlobaLex articles:

7. Selected International Human Rights Journals

8. Human Rights Institutes and Non-Governmental Organizations

8.1. Resources to Find Relevant Institutes and NGOs

8.2. Selected Organizations With a United States Base

Many Also Have Offices Abroad. This list was originally based on the list on the Georgetown Law Human Rights Organizations webpage.

8.3. Selected Organizations Based Outside the United States

This list was originally based on the list on the Georgetown Law Human Rights Organizations webpage.