Here we include information about how treaties are written and the rights and duties of states and individuals in relation to treaties.
Conventions, covenants, and treaties
Human rights norms are set out in international conventions, covenants, or treaties. These are the formal agreements between states
that set standards for the behavior of states (countries represented by governments) and individuals. The organization responsible for adopting most international human rights treaties is the UN General Assembly. Once a treaty has been drafted, states have the option of agreeing to it. States are not obliged to sign any treaty, but when a state does sign the treaty, it is legally binding on that state.
Most human rights treaties use these key terms to describe human rights:
Inherent — human rights are natural or inborn to all human beings.
Universal — everyone has the same rights.
Inalienable — they cannot be taken away from us, except, in some circumstances, through fair legal processes. For example, the right to freedom may be restricted if a person is found guilty of a crime by a court of law, but imprisonment without trial is a violation of a person’s right to freedom.
Indivisible — one cannot separate one right from another, or prioritize one right over another. For example, the right to a fair trial and the right to education is equal human rights. The right to a fair trial is not more important than the right to education.
Interrelated — all rights relate to each other; there are groups (or families) of rights; many treaties have the same rights and common characteristics and principles.
Interdependent — all rights depend on each other. For example, the right to vote depends on the right to freedom of movement; the right to life depends on the right to health care; the right to freedom of expression depends on the right to access to information.
International treaties, Regional treaties
Conventions and treaties can be global; for example, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty. Or they can be regional; for example, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) is a treaty that promotes and protects human rights and freedoms on the African continent. Rights, duties, and responsibilities for individuals and states Human rights entail duties and obligations for both states and individuals.
States (governments) must not interfere with human rights, either of their own citizens or the citizens of other states. They must protect citizens against human rights abuses by other states, or by any other person or people. Very importantly, human rights treaties say that states are obliged to take positive steps to ensure that all citizens enjoy human rights. This means that, if necessary, they must change their national legal systems to comply with international human rights standards.
Individuals — either on their own or in organizations or groups — have obligations to respect the human rights of others, and must not interfere with or violate the rights of others.
Human rights in international law
International human rights law is the body of law that protects and promotes human rights. It sets out the obligations of states in
regard to human rights. By signing a treaty, the state agrees to be bound by the treaty; that is, the state is legally obliged to respect,
protect and fulfill the human rights set forth in the treaty. All countries in the world, except the Vatican, are members of the
United Nations and all have signed or ratified at least one of the main human rights treaties. Eighty percent of states have signed or
ratified four or more of the main treaties.
Human rights in national law
Once a state has signed an international treaty, the government is obliged to take steps to ensure that the national legal system complies with the standards set out in the treaty. For example, a state that has signed CEDAW must ensure that none of its national laws discriminates against women. The state must also take positive steps to promote gender equality. Many states have included international human rights standards in their national constitutions and laws, or have changed their constitutions and laws so that they are more compliant with international human rights standards. States do not have to sign a treaty to comply with international human rights standards. Some states include international human rights standards in their national constitutions and laws even though they have not signed a particular human rights treaty.
DUTIES OF STATES
• “to respect” — to refrain from any measure that may deprive individuals of the enjoyment of human rights.
• “to protect” — to prevent violations of human rights by third parties.
• “to fulfill” — to take steps to ensure that citizens have opportunities to obtain satisfaction of the basic needs recognized in human rights conventions.
Human rights and power
Human rights define relationships between individuals and power structures, especially the state. Human rights set limits on state power; for example, freedom of expression rights set limits on a state’s power to restrict media.
How to read a treaty
Most human rights covenants, conventions, or treaties are laid out in the same way. They usually have:
A preamble that explains why the treaty was created and describes its main intentions and points.
A set of articles, which is the list of the rights agreed to in the treaty. Articles are mostly divided into three groups: (i) the list
of rights; (ii) a description of how they will be implemented and monitored, and (iii) an explanation of how the treaty will be signed and can be amended.
Signatories — each treaty is adopted by the governing body, and then opened for signature. Once enough states have signed, the treaty enters into force.
Signing up: Becoming a state party
States can sign, ratify or accede to treaties. States that have signed, ratified, or acceded to a treaty are referred to as “states parties,”
meaning they are “party” to the treaty. In other words, they have agreed to be legally bound by its articles.
How states agree
The most usual way for states to become parties to a treaty is by signing it. Most human rights treaties are multilateral treaties (agreements between three or more states) and are open for signature indefinitely. However, some are only open for signature until a certain date.
Once the deadline has passed, a signature is not possible, and a state may only become a party to it through accession or ratification.
Simple signature: Multilateral treaties usually provide for a simple signature; that is, a signature that is subject to ratification, acceptance, or approval. A simple signature means that the state intends to agree to be bound by the treaty at a later date. The aim of a simple signature is to give the state time to seek approval at the national level, through parliamentary processes or a referendum of citizens, and to pass any laws needed to ensure it is in compliance with the treaty.
In the period between signature and ratification, states must not act in ways that violate the treaty.
Ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession
These terms all mean more or less the same thing. They are processes of confirmation and final agreement. The processes follow “simple signature.” Once a state has ratified, accepted, or approved the treaty, or informed the UN Secretary-General that it is acceding to the treaty, the treaty is legally binding on that state.
These are additional legal articles that add to and are relevant to the original treaty. Optional protocols usually address something that
is missing in the treaty or a new concern. They are “optional” because they are not automatically binding on states that have already ratified the original treaty. Once an optional protocol has been adopted, states may independently agree whether or not to sign.
Usually, only states that have already agreed to be bound by an original treaty are likely to ratify its optional protocols. However, there are exceptions. The Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) allow non-states parties to ratify or accede to them. For example, the US has not ratified the CRC but has ratified both of the optional protocols.
Treaties or their subsequent protocols generally establish bodies and procedures to monitor the implementation of and compliance with the treaties and receive and investigate complaints regarding violations. These treaty-based committees are subsidiary organs of the UN General Assembly. Although international bodies often lack the ability to enforce their decisions and recommendations, states will often comply either out of a sense of obligation, as a result of diplomatic efforts, or because of the threat of shame or embarrassment if they do not.
In other cases, complaints may be lodged with a regional or international tribunal, which has jurisdiction over States Parties.
The first recourse for addressing human rights issues is the state’s national legal system, and complaining parties are generally required to exhaust national remedies before turning to international bodies for help. However, in many cases, the national response is inadequate and redress impossible. In such cases, international human rights bodies offer an important avenue to pursue remedies for human rights violations.