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Complaints to UN and international bodies

The international route should only be pursued if the domestic route is not available or has been exhausted and proved unsuccessful. Having said this, the international route can help to highlight and document the human rights situation domestically and is therefore useful in generating pressure at the national level. While the majority of international fora are committees rather than courts, their views and opinions have political and moral weight and value, and consequently can be effective lobbying tools, even if they are not legally binding. 

Usually, anyone can bring a complaint to an international body, as long as they live in a state that has ratified the treaty, that the treaty body has the recognised competence to deal with complaints, and that there are no reservations that prevent the committee from considering the particular case brought. There are two main types of international court or committee which may hear a case related to the violation of the right to education - those established by UN treaties, and those established by human rights treaties. There are also two political routes – through the Commission on Human Rights or through the Commission on the Status of Women - which focus on systemic violations and may be brought against any country in the world. The third option is the World Bank and IMF inspection panels.

Each type of complaint will have its own process to follow. For example, the three UN bodies which accept individual complaints (CEDAW, ICERD and ICCPR) have the following two- to three-year process: 

Submission of a complaint to the secretary general, who brings it to the attention of the relevant treaty body. 

The body registers and examines the complaint, considering whether it admissible, and whether there has been a violation. 

The State is then required to respond, and the complainant (the person or body that submitted the complaint) can reply to the State’s response. 

The body then issues its views. If a violation is found the State will be expected to provide compensation and/or change the law. 

There is no appeals process 

The process of preparing a case is very similar to that of a domestic case, and the relevant law and case reference documents should be examined carefully. 

In the case of the Commission on Human Rights, the initial stages of the process are similar. However, once the government has responded, the process is private. You will not receive information about the government response or be informed of any further progress of the complaint. This means it is much harder to follow up any action.


Please also consult the highly useful database on this topic.