The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System



The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt played a key role, as committee chair, in drafting the Declaration, which proclaims a common standard of achievement for all countries. Article 1 states: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

One important function of the Declaration has been to provide a baseline for the elaboration of international human rights treaties. As the attached table indicates, the United Nations Human Rights Treaty System is currently comprised of 18 human-rights treaties (i.e., 9 treaties and 9 optional protocols) the last of which became part of the system on April 14, 2014. Most Optional Protocols serve the purpose of implementing their main treaty (e.g., allowing an individual to present a grievance); others, however such as the first two optional protocols to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child are substantive treaties in their own right.

These 18 treaties are listed in the attached table, along with the year of General Assembly approval, number of States parties (i.e., countries that have ratified) and signatories, whether the U.S. is a State party or not, U.S. limitations (see below), whether the U.S. is a signatory or not and amount of change in States parties and signatories since November 1, 2014. (Please note that the United Nations has 193 member states). Here is some additional information about the United Nations Human Rights Treaty System. (1) When a country signs a treaty it is expressing its intention to become a party at some future date, and in the meantime, it is obliged to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty; (2) When a country ratifies a treaty, it becomes bound by the treaty's provisions; (3) A country may ratify a treaty without having previously signed it; (4) A treaty enters into force when it has been ratified by a requisite number of countries. Then a committee is formed to monitor the observance by treaty parties of its provisions. A recent example re U.S, compliance with ICCPR is presented in Part 2 (see below). (5) For some treaties, signatories and/or States parties may include one or more countries that are not members of the United Nations; (6) A country may ratify a treaty adding reservations, understandings and/or declarations that limit the full applicability of the treaty for itself. Examination of the attached table shows that the United States has added reservations, understandings and/or declarations to each of the three treaties that it has ratified (e.g., the United States has declared all three of these treaties to be "not self-executing").

Since January 2009 the United States has taken two important steps: (1) joined the Human Rights Council, the 47-member body responsible for advancing and monitoring adherence to human rights around the world and (2) Susan Rice, in her role as Ambassador to the United Nations, signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Examination of the accompanying table indicates (1) Since November 1, 2014, 2 states parties have been added to one of the treaties and 1 or 2 signatories have been added to 6 of them, (2) None of these actions involved the United States. (3) The two most ratified of these 18 treaties are the Convention on the Rights of the Child (194 states parties) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (188 states parties). The United States has signed both (1995 and 1980 respectively), but has ratified neither. Other non-ratifying countries are Iran, Palau, Sudan and Tonga for the Treaty on Women and Somalia and South Sudan for both treaties.

The narrative and table are updated quarterly.  To access the narrative, enter and to access the table, click on February 1, 2015 treaty table at the bottom of this narrative.  The next update will report treaty status as of May 1, 2015.

There are other treaties that have direct bearing on human rights. One of these is the Rome Statute that was adopted on July 17, 1998 and entered into force on July 1, 2002 with the primary purpose of establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC). It currently has 123 States parties (although the U.S. is not one of them), and hears cases involving genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and, in the future, the crime of aggression.

The ICC is independent of the United Nations, but there are other UN bodies that promulgate treaties bearing on human rights. These include the International Labour Organization that has detailed conventions promoting the wellbeing of workers and promoting jobs, and the UN Environmental Programme that is responsible for the promulgation and enforcement of treaties that protect the natural environment and human health. Perhaps the most complex international treaties (conventions) fall under the jurisdiction of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. They are complex because they involve ethics, social norms, and day-to-day social interaction; for example, the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. (A careful reading of this Convention shows that it affirms cultural pluralism and the celebration of social differences.) It can be finally noted that most countries are members of regional bodies that have their own treaties. The United States is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), which has its own human rights treaties and a human rights court.


Slater Newman
February 1, 2015