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International Human Rights Law

©Michael Amendolia/ Network/ ActionAid
©Michael Amendolia/ Network/ ActionAid


The international human rights system has the state at its centre: it is the state that ratifies treaties and thereby obliges itself to respect, protect and fulfill the rights contained therein, including the right to education. And it is the state that must report on its own implementation and that can be “named and shamed” in public for not doing so. Treaties specify mechanisms for how the international community can hold the state to account, exerting pressure from above. Such mechanisms can be very powerful – for better or for worse (when they become overtly politicised), so it is the challenge of campaigners and courts to make sure that those whose rights have been violated by the state know about and use these procedures for ensuring legal accountability.

The United Nations system, created in 1945 with the UN Charter, depends on the level of interest, willingness and participation demonstrated by states as signatories to treaties, as authors of reports on the progress and rate of implementation of rights, and as parties to face-to-face meetings. With regard to human rights, the UN works within two parallel dimensions. On the one hand, it runs a peer system (called Universal Periodic Review), where states assess each other’s performance and record, placing pressure on each other - or avoid doing so for political reasons. On the other, it works as a system of independent experts (via the Committees of the various Conventions, but also thematic and country specific Special Procedures), who examine, interpret, assess, critique and give recommendations on the efforts of countries on the background of normative texts and internationally binding law.

All major UN human rights Conventions (explained via the links below) have provisions relevant to education, non-discrimination or access to justice, and they can all be signed by states. It matters whether a state has ratified or acceded a particular Convention, signed it, or merely indicated its intention to do so, as it will consequently be legally bound by that Convention to a corresponding degree. Furthermore, it is very important to note whether states have lodged any reservations or declarations, preventing the Convention in question from having full effect at the national level. Lastly, some Conventions, either in their core text or in Optional Protocols, specify routes of individual complaints to the different Committees of independent experts. All these aspects must be checked before contemplating legal action at this level.

Read further:

NEW: Optional Protocol to the ICESCR

UN Human Rights Law:

   Taking your case to the treaty bodies and committees

   Universal Periodic Review

   Shadow reports

   Special Rapporteurs

   Commission on the Status of Women

Regional human rights mechanisms:

   Taking your case to regional bodies