What are treaty bodies?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration) was adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. The former UN Commission on Human Rights later drafted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to put into binding legal terms the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration.

These Covenants were adopted unanimously by the General Assembly on 16 December 1966. Together with the Universal Declaration and the Optional Protocols to the ICCPR, these instruments constitute the International Bill of Rights.

The International Bill of Rights has been supplemented by additional international human rights treaties dealing with particular kinds of violations or groups, including racial discrimination, torture, and discrimination against women, the rights of the child, migrant workers and their families, persons with disabilities.

Another human rights treaty recently adopted by the UN General Assembly, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, is expected to enter into force shortly.

The core international human rights instruments can be found on the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Treaty bodies

Committees of experts known as the "treaty monitoring bodies" or "treaty bodies" oversee implementation of the core international human rights treaties. The treaty bodies consist of independent, impartial members who are elected by the states parties to the treaty.

Currently, there are nine treaty bodies:

  • the Committee against Torture (CAT),
  • the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),
  • the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD),
  • the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR),
  • the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW), the Human Rights Committee (HRC)
  • the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and
  • the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED).  

Although it does not carry out the same functions, as the other treaty bodies, the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture carries out confidentially visits to places of detention and performs other activities as spelled out under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. There is scope for NGOs to provide information in advance of country visits and to use the reports of those visits, where they are made public (with the agreement of the state concerned), in their advocacy.

Find out more information on each of the above committees at the treaty bodies website of the OHCHR.

Functions of the treaty bodies

All of the treaty bodies are empowered to consider initial and periodic reports of states parties on how they are implementing the provisions of the treaty:

The reports that states parties are obliged to submit provide information about legislative and practical measures taken to implement the treaty. The reports are considered through a public dialogue between representatives of the government concerned and members of the treaty body.

The treaty body experts ask a series of questions on issues of particular concern and on violations under the treaty to which the government must respond. The treaty body then formulates its concluding observations to the government as a collective assessment of the report, listing positive aspects as well as factors and difficulties impeding the application of the treaty, principal subjects of concern and recommendations.

As the consideration of reports takes place in public, a summary of the discussion is provided in UN press releases. The public sessions are also minuted and the minutes are then distributed as a summary record of the discussion. The concluding observations or recommendations of the treaty body are issued separately, also as public documents.

All of these documents are available on the website of the OHCHR. Although there are no resources to webcast public treaty body meetings, audio files of the proceedings are available from the treaty body secretariat.

Find out more information on Amnesty International's website on NGOs' role in the consideration of states reports

Most treaty bodies are also able to consider individual complaints, where a state party has recognized the competence of the committee to do so. The Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which provides for this, will shortly enter into force. In June 2009, the Human Rights Council established an open-ended working group to consider the possibilities for an individual communications procedure under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The process by which a treaty body considers an individual complaint is confidential until the treaty body has taken a decision on the admissibility and merits of a case. Decisions are then available from the secretary to the treaty body concerned, in the annual report of the treaty body and on the website of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

For more information on individual complaints, see the OHCHR webpage.

In addition, three treaty bodies currently are able to carry out confidential inquiries into allegations of widespread or systematic violations of the treaty (CAT, CEDAW and CPWD). The CERD has a specific early warning/urgent procedure.

The Human Rights Committee has also developed a mechanism for the urgent consideration of situations of serious difficulties in the implementation of the Covenant, which it has invoked in a few rare situations. Furthermore, the treaty bodies also elaborate international human rights law through the development of general comments/recommendations.


OHCHR international human rights instruments

OHCHR treaty bodies webpage

OHCHR country pages

OHCHR treaty bodies database

Universal Human Rights Index

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