The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System



The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System


Reviews of the United States’ obligations in complying with human rights treaties

The United Nations’ Human Rights Treaty System comprises various treaties (also called conventions, pacts or covenants) and optional protocols, which are addenda to specific treaties that provide procedures for complying with a treaty or explain how a substantive area related to the treaty should be addressed. These human rights treaties form part of international law and States (governments) that have ratified them are required to make periodic reports on how they are meeting their treaty obligations. They can also be called to account for lapses or violations of human rights by the Treaty Monitoring Committees or by other States; individuals can also bring cases of human rights violations to the Committees.

When a UN Member State ratifies an international human rights treaty, it assumes the obligations to respect, promote and fulfill the provisions of that treaty. The obligation to respect means that the State must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights by individuals and groups of individuals. The obligation to protect requires that the State must protect individuals and groups against abuses and violations of their human rights. The obligation to fulfil means that the State must take positive action to facilitate individuals’ and groups’ enjoyment of basic human rights.

US treaty obligations and recent recommendations

The United States now has obligations related to a number of UN treaties which it has ratified (a full list of all international treaties can be found here). They include the following five core UN human rights treaties which have committees within the UN system that monitor States’ implementation of the treaty provisions:

  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT, ratified by the US government on 21 October 1994)
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, ratified 8 June 1992)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD, ratified 21 October 1994)
  • The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (CRC-OP-AC, ratified 23 December 2002)
  • Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children child prostitution and child pornography (CRC-OP-SC, ratified 23 December 2002).

The most recent review of the United States’ compliance with a treaty concerned ICCPR. The United States made its first report to the Human Rights Committee, which monitors this treaty, in 1995. Its fourth report elicited recommendations from the Committee, called Concluding Observations, which were published on 23 April 2014. All the recommendations are worth reading; citations of particular interest for North Carolina:

·         Applicability of the Covenant at national level : strengthen and expand existing mechanisms mandated to monitor the implementation of human rights at federal, state, local and tribal levels, provide them with adequate human and financial resources or consider establishing an independent national human rights institution, in accordance with the principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (the Paris Principles) (General Assembly resolution 48/134, annex)

·         Accountability for past human rights violations: ensure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in positions of command, are prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies. The responsibility of those who provided legal pretexts for manifestly illegal behavior should also be established.

·         Racial disparities in the criminal justice system: continue and step up its efforts to robustly address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, including by amending regulations and policies leading to racially disparate impact at the federal, state and local levels.

·         Gun violence: continue its efforts to effectively curb gun violence, including through the continued pursuit of legislation requiring background checks for all private firearm transfers, in order to prevent possession of arms by persons recognized as prohibited individuals under federal law, and ensure strict enforcement of the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban of 1996 (the Lautenberg Amendment); and …review the Stand Your Ground laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when using deadly force in self-defence [sic].

·         Immigrants: review its policies of mandatory detention and deportation of certain categories of immigrants in order to allow for individualized decisions; take measures to ensure that affected persons have access to legal representation; and identify ways to facilitate access to adequate health care, including reproductive health-care services, by undocumented immigrants and immigrants and their families who have been residing lawfully in the United States for less than five years.

·         Voting rights: take all necessary measures to ensure that voter identification requirements and the new eligibility requirements do not impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

The United States also participates in the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, whereby each UN Member State’s overall human rights record is reviewed by other UN Member States. The UPR offers governments the opportunity to report on the actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their country and to fulfil their human rights obligations in general. The UPR Working Group also provides each State with a list of recommendations on how it can improve its obligations to respect, promote and fulfil human rights.

The US government underwent a UPR review in 2010 and will have its next review during the Human Rights Council’s 22nd session in April-May 2015. That gives the government time to address the recommendations made in the 2011 Working Group report. A few of the more notable ones made by some country delegations:

  • Ratify other UN and Inter-American human rights treaties (recommended by numerous States including Algeria, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Finland, France, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Qatar, Russian Federation, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sudan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Uruguay, Venezuela, Viet Nam, etc.)
  • Establish a national human rights institution, in accordance with the Paris Principles (e.g., Egypt, Germany, Ghana, Ireland, Norway, Sudan, Venezuela)
  • Enact a federal crime of torture, consistent with the Convention, and also encompassing acts described as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (Austria)
  • Attempt to restrain any state initiative which approaches immigration issues in a repressive way towards the migrant community and that violates its rights by applying racial profiling, criminalizing undocumented immigration and violating the human and civil rights of persons (Guatemala)
  • Continue its intense efforts to undertake all necessary measures to ensure fair and equal treatment of all persons, without regard to sex, race, religion, color, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, and encourage further steps in this regard (Israel).

Many countries also recommended abolishment of the death penalty, measures to end racial profiling by law enforcement officials, actions to address the situation at Guantanamo Bay and of political/armed conflict prisoners and numerous specific actions with regard to the situation of migrants.

Update by Maria de Bruyn, 10 December 2014

Part 3: U.S. Obligations Under Human Rights Treaties: CERD & CAT 2014>>