English

Introduction

 

Anyone may bring a human rights problem to the attention of the United Nations and thousands of people around the world do this every year. What kinds of communications on human rights can the United Nations receive, and how deos it deal with them? This fact sheet explains the procedures, and the ways open to individuals and groups who want the United Nations to take action on a human rights situatin that is of concern to them.

 

 
From the beginning…
 
When it met for the first time in 1947, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights saw that procedures for handling communications would be needed. The procedures established since then have been improved and widened in scope over the yaers. The fact that they exist and are frequently used is a powerful arm in poroting respect for human rights and in deterring abuses.
 
In 1959 the United Nations Economic and Social Council decided that a confidential list of communications to the United Nations complaining of human rights violations should be distributed to the Commission on Human Rights and to the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discriminnation and Protection of Minotities 1). The Identity of the authors is not revealed unless they state they have no objection to disclosure. Governments of States referred to in the communications receive copies, and their replies are also sent to the Commission on Human Rights.
 
The Economic and Social Council, in 1967, authorized the Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to „examine information relevant to gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms … in all countries“. The Council decided that the Commission could, in appropriate cases, „make a thorough study of situations which reveal a consistent pattern of violations of human rights“, report, and make recommendations on these violations to the Council 2).
 
This was an important step forward. Another followed in 1970, when the Economic and Social Council adopted a „procedure for dealing with communications relating to violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms“. 3)
 
This is known as the „1503“ procedure from the number of the Council`s resolution which brought it into being. It does not deal with individual cases, as such, but with situations that affect a large number of people over a protracted period of time.
 
The possivility of dealing with individual cases was opened up when the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rithts came into force in 1976.
 
This fact sheet will first take a look at the „1503“ procedure which concerns situations, then at the „optional protocol“ procedure, and finally at other avenues for the consideration of human rithts violations by the United Nations and ist specialized agencies.
 

 
A „consistent pattern of violation“ („1503“ procedure)
 

 
The system at work
 

      Every month members of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities -human rights experts who serve in their personal capacity- receive from the United Nations Secretary-General a list of communications, with short descriptions in each case, and any replies sent in by Governments. The list is also supplied to members of the Commission on Human Rights.
      A five-member Workung Group of the Sub-Commission meets for two weeks each year, just before the Sub-Commision`s a`nnual session. The Group considers all the communications and Governments` replies, and selects for the attention of the Sub-Commission cases where there seems to bee reliable evidence of a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, i.e. situations affecting a large number of people over a protracted period of time.
      A majority of the Working Group`s members is needed to refer a communication to the Sub-Commission. No further action is taken con communications which the Working Group does not pass on to the Sub-Commission.
      The Sub-Commission then considers the communications brought before it by the Working Group and has to decide whether to refer situations where there appears to be a sonstistent pattern of human rights violations to the Commission on Human Rights.
      Subsequently, it is the turn of the Commission to determine whether a tohough study of a particular situation is needed, with a report and recommendations to the Economic and Sozial Council. The Commission may also decide to appoint an ad hoc committee to make an investigation, but this requires the consent of the State where the violations are alleged to have happened.

 

 
ABC of a human rights communication
 
To decide qhat communications may be accepted for examination, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minotities has drawn up rules of procedure 4).
 
The first of these rules is that the aim of the communication must not be inconsistent with the principles of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or other applicable human rights treaties, conventions, etc.
 
A communication will be admitted omly if consideration shows there are reasonable grounds to believe -also taking into account aniy replies sent by the Governments concerned- that there is a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
 

 

 

      1) Economic and Social Council resolution 728 F (XXVIII) of 30. July 1959
      2) Economic and Social Council resolution 1235 (XLII) of 6. June 1967
      3) Economic and Social Council resolution 1503 (XLVIII) of 27. May 1970
      4) Sub-Commission resulution 1 (XXIV) of 13. August 1971

 

 
Communications may be admitted when they come from people -individuals or groups- who claim to be victims of human rights violations. They may also be admitted when they come from any person or group of people which has direct, reliable knowledge of violations. When non-governmental organizations (NGOs) present communications on violations, the conditions are that the NGO is acting in good faith in accordance with recognized principles of human rights, and that it has direct, reliable evidence of the situation it is describing.
 
Anonymous communications are inadmissible as are those based only on reports in the mass media.
 
Each communication must describe the facts, the purpose of the petition, and the rights that have been violated. As a rule, a communication will not be considered if the language is abusive or if it contains insulting remarks about the State against which the complaint is directed. If the ofher requirements are fulfilled once the abusive language has been deleted, such dommunications may, nevertheless, be considered.
 
No communication will be admitted if it runs counter to the principles of the United Nations Charter, or fi it shows political motivations.
 
The domestic remedies must have been exhausted before a communication is considered – unless it can be shown convincingly that solutions at the national level would be ineffective or that they would extend over an unreasonable length of time.
 
The rules of procedure, finally, seek to avoid overlapping with other existing procedures, and the repeated submission of communications already dealt with by the United Nations.
 
Communications intended for handling under the „1503“ procedure may be addressed to:
 

 

 
Centre for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

 

 
Sifting the complaints
 
The Working Group on Communications dealt with over 350.000 complaints of violations of human rights between 1972 and 1988, as well as several thousand replies from Governments. The number of complaints referred by the Working Group to the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities is only a fraction of the number of complaints received, but those that go forward are well documented. In some years, between 1.000 and 2.000 pages of documents are sent to the Sub-Commission with an annual confidential report from the Working Group.
 
Except in 1986, when it did not meet, the Sub-Commission has referred human rights situations that are the subject of complaints to the Commission on Human Rights every year since 1973. By 1988 the human rights situations in 44 countries had been placed before the Commission.
 
Dialogue with Governments
 
With the passage of time, United Nations human rights procedures have become more readily accepted and recognized by Governments, and their co-operation in the work of the Commission on Human Rights has grown steadily. The Commission works through direct contacts to astablish a dialogue with the Governments of countries where human rights violations are alleged to have occurred. These contacts are made either by the United Nations Secretary-General or by special representatives or independent experts who are appointed by the Commission and who report to it.
 
A number of steps have been taken aimed at enhancing Governments` co-operation under the „1503“ prodecure. In 1972 the Sub-Commission underlined the importance of receiving replies from Governments to allegations of human rights violations contained in the communications received. In 1974 the Commission itself decided to refer the documents on complaints to the Governments concerned, and to invite them to make written comments. At the same time the Sub-Commission was instructed to inform such Governments of ist intention to refer a situation to the Commission and to invite observations in writing. A five-member Working Group of the Commission has been appointed annually since 1974 to examine the material transmitted by the Sub-Commission, and the observations of Governments, and to recommend a course of action to take in each case. This body is known as the Working Group on Situations. Ist recommendations also go to the Governments concerned, which have the right to be represented during the Commission`s debate, and when ist decision is being adopted.
 
Confidentiality
 
All actions taken under the „1503“ procedure remain confidential unless the Commission reports thereon to the Economic and Social Council. Until that stage is reached, the meetings of all human rights bodies involved are held in private and the confidentiality of their records and the documents they handle is preserved.
 
Since 1978, however, the Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights has announced in public session the names of countries which have been under examination. The Chairman makes a distinction between countries where the Commission continues to keep a human rights situation under review, and those where it has been decided to take no further action.
 
The Economic and Social Council sometimes decides -on ists own initiative, after the study of a particular situation has ended, or on the revommendation of the Commission on Human Rithts- that secrecy may be lifted. This was the case with Equatorial Guinea in 1979, Argentina and Uruguay in 1985, and the Philippines in 1986. In 1987, the Council decided that the confidential report by the Special Representative of the Commission on the human rights situation in Haiti should be made public.
 

 
„Optional Protocol“ procedure
 

 
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ist Optional Protocol entered into force on 23 March 1976. A State which is a party to the Covenant and to the Protocol recognizes that the United Nations Human Rights Committee -a body of 18 experts, appointed in their personal capacity, which meets three times a year- can receive and consider communications from individuals who claim that their human rights have been violated by that State.
 

 
Of the 87 States which hat acceded to or ratidied the Covenant by the end of 1988, 43 had accepted the competence of the Committee to deal with individual complaints. These States are:

·Argentina             ·	Austria	                    ·Barbados
·Bolivia               ·	Cameroon                    ·Canada
·Central African Rep   .	Colombia                    ·Congo
·Costa Rica	       ·        Denmark                     ·Dominican Rep.
·Ecuador	       ·	Equatorial Guinea           ·Finland
·France	               ·	Gambia	                    ·Hungary
·Iceland	       ·	Italy	                    ·jamaica
·Luxembourg	       ·	Madagascar	            ·Mauritius
·Netherlands	       ·	Nicaragua	            ·Niger
·Norway	               ·	Panama	                    ·Peru
·Portugal              ·        Saint Vincent a.t. Gren.    ·San Marino
·Senegal	       ·	Spain	                    ·Suriname
·Sweden	               ·	Trinidad an Tobago	    ·Togo
·Uruguay	       ·	Venezuela	            ·Zaire
·Zambia

Communications from individuals are considered by the Committee in closed meetings. Their letters, and other documents of the Committee, ramain confidential.

Between 1977 and 1988, the Committee had received 333 communications involving 28 States. in 76 of the 88 cases where the Committee has concluded ist work and made known ist views, violations of the Cevenant have been established. It takes between six months and one year to decide whether a communications is admissible, and the Committee`s views on the merits may follow a year or two later. The intire process of dealing with a complaint is normally completed within two to three years.

Is it admissible?

A communication, to be considered, must not be anonymous and it must come from a person, or persons who live unter the jurisdiction of a State which is a party to the Optional Protocol. Normally, a communication should be sent in by the individual who claims that his or her rights, as set out in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, have been violated by that State. When it seems that the alleged victim cannot submit the communication, the Committee may consider a communication from another person, who justifies his authority to act on behalf of the alleged victim. An unrelated third party having no apparent links with the alleged victim cannot submit the communication.

The complaint, naturally, has to be compatible with the provisions of the Covenant, and it cannot be considered if the same problem is being examined under another international procedure of investigation or settlement. All domestic remedies must have been exhausted before the complaint is placed before the Committee.

Even before deciding whether a communication is admissible or not, the Committee -or ist Working Group on Communications- may ask the alleged victim or the State concerned to provide additional written information or observations and set a time-limit. If the State replies at this stage, the person complaining receives a copy for comment. If the case is referred back to the author only for more information, and is then found to be inadmissible, nothing will have been transmitted to the State. The Committee may decide to drop a complaint without a written decision; for example, when the author withdraws it, or shows in some other way that he does not wish to go on with the matter.

At the end of this fact sheet there is a model which shows how a communication to the Human Rights Committee should be set out. Communications intended for handling under the Optional Protocol should be addressed to:

Human Rithts Committee
c/o Centre for Human Rithts
United Nations Office at Geneva
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Assessing a complaint

Once a communication has been declared admissible, the Committee asks the State concerned to explain or clarify the problem and state whether anything has been done to settle it. A limit of six months is set for the State party`s reply. Then the author of the complaint is given an opportunity to comment on the State`s reply. After that, the Committee expresses ist views and sends them to the State concerned and to the author of the complaint.

The Committee puts individuals who complain and the States which are alleged to have violated their rights on an equal footing throughout ist proceedings. Each has an opportunity to comment on the other`s arguments.

Calling a halt ….

People who allege that they are victims of human rights violations may need protection before the Committee has had time to make ist final views known. Without prejudging the merits of complaints, the Committee has sometimes had to give an interim opinion to particular States. Pending study of one case, the Committee informed a State that the alleged victim „having sought refuge in country X, should not be handed over or expelled to country Y“. On another occasion, the Committe expressed concern over the state of health of an alleged victim, and asked the Government to have him examined urgently by a competent medical body. The Committee also asked for a copy of the body`s report. There have also been decisions asking a State not to carry out a death sentence while a communication is under examination.

Evidence and burden of proof

The Committee is bound to consider all written information made available to ti by the parties concerned. As yet, it has not developed any independent fact-finding functions.

In a number of cases dealing with the right to liefe, torture and ill-treatment, as well as arbitrary arrests and disappearances, the Committee has established that the burden of proof cannot rest alone on the person who is complaining of the violation. The Committee also holds that it is not sufficient to make a refutation in genral terms of a complaint of violation of a person`s human rights.

Individual opinions

The Human Rights Committee works by consensus, but individual members can add their opinions to the views it expresses on the merits of a case. This has happened in nine cases. On four occasions when communications have been declared inadmissible, individual opinions have been added to the Committee`s decisions.

Decisions are announced

While a communication is being considered by the Human Rights Committee, the proceedings are totally confidential. The Committee`s findings -views on communications which have been declared admissible and examined on the merits, and decisions declaring others inadmissible- are always made public.

A selection of the Committee`s decisions under the Optional Protocol is being published. Volume I of this series, covering the 2nd to the 16th sessions of the Committee, was published in 1985. Volume II, covering the 17th to the 32nd sessions, is due for publication in 1989.

How do the procedures differ?

The major difference between the procedure under resolution 1503 (XLVIII) and under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is that the former covers the examination of situations, and the latter is concerned with the examination of individual complaints: isolated instances of alleged violations of human rights. But there are other ways of telling the two procedures apart.

    · The „1503“ procedure is based on a resolution of a United Nations body: the Economic and Social Council. To make it work, the volunatary co-operation of States is indispensable. The „Optional Protocol“ procedure takes ist autority from an international treaty under which the States parties have bound themselves to acdept a specific procedure for examining claims brought against them. · The „1503“ procedure applies to all States. Under the Optional Protocol, the procedure applies only to States which have acdeded to or ratidied the Covenant and Protocol. · Violations of all human rithts and fundamental freedoms are covered by the former, while the latter is concerned only with those civiel and political rights which are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. · Any person. group of persons of non-governmental organization may invoke the „1503“ procedure if they have direct or second-hand knowledge of the alleged violations. A communication under the Optional Protocol must either be signed by the alleged victim or by someone with autority to act on his or her behalf. · The authors of communications under the „1503“ procedure are not involved at any stage in ist implementation, nor are they informed of any action taken by the United Nations – unless it is made public. The authors are merely informed by the United Nations Secretariat that their communications have been received, that copies have been sent to the States concerned, and that summaries will be handed to members of the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and to the members of the Commission on Human Rights. The author of a communication put before the Human Rights Committee under the Optional Protocol, on the other hand, has full standing. He is informed of all actions taken by the Committee or ist Working Group on Communications. The State concerned is also kept informed. The author has the opportunity to comment on any written submissions by the State.

Other avenues

Two toher procedures are available to people who believe that their human rights are being violated. They have been astablished under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Elimination of racial discrimination

Individuals or groups of peoble who claim that their rights, as set out in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, are being violated, may -as laid down in article 14 of the Convention- write to the United Nations Committee an tohe Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), asking that their complaint be considered. They must first have exhausted all domestic remedies.

Twelve of the 125 States that had ratidied or acceded to the Convention by the end of 1988 recognize the competence of the Committee to receive and consider communications under article 14. They are: Costa Rica; Denmark; Ecuador; France; Iceland; Italy; Netherlands; Norway; Peru; Senegal; Sweden; and Uruguay.

Communications intended for handling by the Committee should be addressed to:

Committe on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

c/o Centre for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland.

The Committee cannot receive a communication if it concerns a State which, although a party to the Convention, does not recognize the competence of the Committee to do so.

Convention against Torture

Under Article 22 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, individuals who claim to be victims of a violation of the rights protected by the Convention and who have exhausted all the domestic possibilities of recourse may write to the Committee against Torture, asking for consideration of their case. As of 31 March 1989, 17 of the 41 States which have ratified or acceded to the Convention had recognized the competence of the Committee to receive and consider communications of this kind. These States are: Argentina; Austria; Denmark; Ecuador; France; Greece; Luxembourg; Netherlands; Norway; Portugal; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Togo; Tunisia; Turkey; Uruguay.

Communications intended for handling by the Committee should be addressed to:

Committee against Torture
c/o Centre for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

The Committee cannot receive communications which concern States not recognizing ist competence under article 22 of the Convention. (For more information, please refer to Fact Sheet No. 4, Methods of Combating Torture).

Status of women

Two lists dealing with violations of human rights are prepared annually for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women by the Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs, based in Vienna. One is a non-confidential list containing summaries of communications which concern the promotion of the status of women in the political, economic, social, civil and educational fields. The other is a confidential list which contains summaries of communications on alleged violations which affect the status of women.

Communications intended for handling by the Commission on the Status of Women should be addressed to:

United Nations Commission on the Status of Women

Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs
United Nations Office at Vienna
Vienna International Centre
P. O. box 500
1400 Vienna, Austria

United Nations specialized agencies

The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have created international legislation in defence of human rights and supervise ist implementation.

Committees of experts receive regular reports from the Governments of contracting States on the action they have taken to conform with conventions adopted by these organizations. There are procedures to deal with complains and disputes over the application and interpretation of ratified conventions.

A special ILO procedure has been astablished to cover freedom of association, under which complaints ca be brought against states even when they are not bound by conventions on this subject.
For more information about such procedures please write to:

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO)
Human Rithts and Peace Division
7, place de Tontenoy
75700 Paris, France;
International Labour Organization (ILO)
International Labour Standards Department
4, route des Morillons
1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland

 

Model communication

Datum: _________________

Communication to:
The Human Rights Committee
c/o Centre for Human Rights
United Nations Office
8-14 avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
submitted for consideration under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

I. Information concerning the author of the communication
Name:	______________________	First name(s) __________________________________

Nationality _____________________	Profession	________________________________

Date and place of birth ________________________________________________________

Present address:	____________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________
Address for exchange of confidential correspondence 
(if other than present address):

________________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________

Submitting the communication as:
a)	Victim of the Violation or violations set forth below ...		p
b)	Appointed representative/legal counsel of the alleged victim(s) p
c)	other						p

If box © marked, the author should explain:
(i) In what capacity he is acting on behalf of the victim(s) 
(e.g. family relationship or other personal links with the alleged victim(s):
(ii) Why the victim(s) is (are) unable to submit the communication himself 
(themselves):
________________________________________________________________________________

An unrelated third party having no link to the victim(s) cannot submit a 
communication on his (their) behalf. 

II. Information concerning the alleged victim(s)
(if other than author)

Name:	____________________________	First name(s): _________________

Nationality: ___________________________	Profession:_________________

Date and place of birth ________________________________________________________

Present address or whereabouts _________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________________

III. State concerned / articles violated / domestic remedies
Name of the State party (country) to the International Covenant and the Optional
Protocol against which the communications is directed:

________________________________________________________________________________	

Articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Righta allegedly 
violated:

________________________________________________________________________________

Steps taken by or on behalf of the alleged victim(s) to exhaust domestic 
remedies - recourse to the courts or other public authorities, when and 
with what results (if possible, enclose copies of all relevant judicial
or administrative decisions): 

________________________________________________________________________________
If domestic remedies have not been exhausted, explain why:

IV. Other international procedures
Has the same matter been submitted for exmination under another procedure of 
international investigation or settlement (e.g. the Inter-american Commission 
on Human Rights, the European Commission on Human Rights)? If so, when and 
with what results?

________________________________________________________________________________

V. Facts of the claim
Detailed description of the facts of the alleged violation or violation 
(including relevant dates)*

________________________________________________________________________________

____________________________________
Author`s signature

* Add as many pages as needed for this description. 

Human Rights Fact Sheets:

No. 1	Human Rights Machinery
No. 2	The International Bill of Human Rights
Nr. 3	Advisory Services and Technical Assistance in the Field od Human Rights
No. 4	Methods of Combating Torture
No. 5	Programme of Action for the Second Decade to Combat
	Racism and Racial Discrimination
No. 6		Enforced or Involuntary Disapperances
No. 7		Communications Procedures

  The Human Rights Fact Sheet series is published by the Centre of Human Rights,
  United Nations Office al Geneva. It deals with selcted questions of human 
  rights that are under active consideration or are of particular interest. 

Human Rithts Fact Sheets are intended to assist an ever-wider audience in better
understanding basic human rights, what the United Nations is doing to promote 
and protect them and the international machinery available to help realize those
rights.. Human Rights Faxt Sheets are free of charge and distributed world-wide.

Their reproduction in languages other than the official United Nations languages
is encouraged privided that no chandes are made in the contents and the Centre 
for Human Rights in Geneva is advised by the reproducing organization and given 
credit as being the source ot the material.

Inquiries should be addressed to:

Centre for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
8-14, avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

New York Office:

Centre for Human Rights
United Nations
New York, NY 10017
United States of America

Printed at United Nations, Geneva

GE.89-15961-May-1989-7,475
Reprinted at United Nations, Geneva
GE.92-17221-November 1992-10,000

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