If you are thinking about using an international human rights mechanism to submit a complaint for a concrete human rights violation, you should carefully consider which mechanism suits best your needs. There are a number of international mechanisms that can receive complaints, yet they all have their advantages and limitations. These are listed in detail below.
Yet before examining which mechanism fits best your case, you should start preparing by gathering the following information and answering the following questions:
To learn more about international human rights law, including customary law, treaties, ratification and reservations, see our page on international law.
Some (but not all) special procedures can receive individual complaints which are called "communications". For thematic special procedures, communications can refer to violations committed in any country of the world, yet the violation has to relate to the right(s) that fall under the competence of the mandate contacted. For country-based procedures, communications can refer to a violation of any human right committed within a specific country. No previous action at the domestic level is required before contacting special procedures. Among all the mechanisms listed, the special procedures are probably the most appropriate ones if urgent action is required, since they can react quickly (issuing so-called urgent appeals). Action of special procedures does not produce a legally binding result, but relies more on the contact made by the mandate holder with the government. Mandate holders can also make cases public, which usually receive high attention. Special procedures only give feedback on communications received if they require a follow-up. Yet it is possible (and even recommended) to stay in contact with the mandate on an ongoing basis. You may also request a meeting with the special procedures assistant or the mandate holder himself.
The complaint procedure has been established to address gross and systematic violations of any human right in any country of the world. Action may though only be taken if the complaints received point to a pattern of grave human rights violations - one single complaint is not enough to trigger the mechanism. Domestic remedies must have been exhausted before the complaint procedure can be seized, and no complaint can be filed if another international mechanism has already been seized in the same matter. The complaint procedure may take a long time, and a complainant does not get feedback due to the confidential nature of the mechanism, which may be very frustrating for victims or their families. The Human Rights Council is in fact free to decide whether to keep the situation under review and request further information from the concerned state, to appoint an independent expert to monitor the situation and report back to the Council, to request the OHCHR to provide technical cooperation to the concerned state, to take up public consideration of the situation or to discontinue considering it. Whether a complaint has made it to the Council and whether the latter takes action on that basis is often unclear for outsiders. Yet this mechanism may still be useful in situations where human rights violations are committed on a large scale and require political action. This procedure can also be used as a fall-back solution, wherever a special procedures mandate does not exist and/or where a state has not ratified the relevant human rights treaty and accepted the relating complaints procedure.
Treaty bodies are Committees composed of independent experts who monitor the implementation of nine human rights treaties. Each of these treaties provides for the possibility for individuals to submit a complaint if they believe their right guaranteed in the treaty has been violated. This possibility is though only open to you if the perpetrating state has 1) ratified the treaty that protects the relevant right and 2) accepted the competence of the Committee to receive individual complaints. A state can accept this competence either through ratifying an additional optional protocol to the treaty (CESCR, CCPR, CEDAW, CRC and CED) or through issuing a declaration under the article providing for the competence of the treaty body to receive individual complaints (CERD, CAT, CMW and CED). Before filing a complaint to a treaty body, you must have exhausted domestic remedies, and a Committee will not accept your complaint has already been submitted to another international complaints mechanism. Petitions with treaty bodies usually take time, yet if successful, they yield a result that is binding.
Specific conditions for the submission of communications to treaty bodies vary from one treaty to another, and it is thus important to carefully check requirements before submitting a complaint. The nine treaties and their relevant treaty bodies are the following:
|Treaty / Convention||Treaty body / Committee||Competence of the treaty body to receive individual complaints||Specific conditions, Instructions on how to submit a complaint, jurisprudence / case law.|
|International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights||Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)||pending entry into force of Optional Protocol after 10 ratifications||Fact Sheet 16, ESCR-Net, CETIM|
|International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights||Human Rights Committee (CCPR)||If the state has ratified the Optional Protocol||Instructions, Instructions II, Model Complaint Form, CCPR Centre, Case law. If complaint submitted on behalf of victim, an intimate personal link is required!|
|International Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination||Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)||If the state has made a declaration under article 14||Instructions, Instructions II, Model Complaint Form, Fact Sheet 12, Case law, Need to file complaint within 6 months of exhaustion of domestic remedies!|
|Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women||Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)||If the state has ratified the Optional Protocol|
|Convention against Torture||Committee against Torture (CAT)||If the state has made a declaration under article 22||Instructions, Instructions II, Model Complaint Form, Fact Sheet 17, Case law|
|Convention on the Rights of the Child||Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)||pending entry into force of Third Optional Protocol after 10 ratifications||NGO Group for the CRC|
|Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers||Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW)||pending entry into force after 10 declarations under article 77||Fact Sheet 24|
|Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities||Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)||If the state has ratified the Optional Protocol||Instructions, IDA, IPU Handbook, Guidelines|
|Convention on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance||Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED)||If the state has made a declaration under article 31||Instructions, Fact Sheet 6, ICAED|
There are also a number of very useful resources on the treaty body system as a whole we recommend you check when considering submitting a complaint:
There are regional human rights mechanisms which have the competence to receive complaints in Africa, the Americas and Europe:
|Treaty / Convention||Court||Competence of the institution to receive individual complaints||Specific conditions, Instructions on how to submit a complaint, jurisprudence / case law.|
|African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights||African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR)||If ratification of the Charter AND majority of Commission members in favour of consideration||Complaints by NGOs in consultative status with the ACHPR or individuals (even if they are not direct victims). Written procedure. Submit complaint "within a reasonable period" after exhaustion of domestic remedies. Referral of serious and massive violations to Assembly of Heads of State under art. 58(1) possible. Referral of urgent cases to Chair of the Assembly under art. 58(3) possible. ACHPR Info sheet 3, FR, Case law|
|African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights||African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights||If ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights AND declaration under art. 34(6) of the Protocol||Complaints by NGOs in consultative status with the ACHPR or individuals (even if they are not direct victims). Coalition for an Effective African Court, ARC Project, Case law, Case law II|
|European Convention on Human Rights||European Court of Human Rights|
|American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man & American Convention on Human Rights||Interamerican Commission on Human Rights||Petitions by individuals and groups|
|Interamerican Court on Human Rights|
Some mechanisms require that domestic remedies be exhausted before they accept a complaint. This is in particular the case of the Complaint Procedure of the Human Rights Council, the treaty bodies, regional mechanisms as well as the International Criminal Court.
Having exhausted domestic remedies means that you have already taken all possible action within the domestic legal system, through courts or other complaint mechanisms (in some countries, the National Human Rights Institution). If your efforts to seek redress at the national level have not yielded a result (because your complaint has not been admitted, or because the decision has not been in your favour) domestic remedies are considered exhausted and you may file your complaint to one of the international mechanisms mentioned above.
The requirement to exhaust domestic remedies can be waived if domestic remedies have to be considered inaccessible or ineffective and thus do not offer reasonable prospects of redress for the complainant. If you think this is the case, you have to argue in detail why you consider domestic remedies to be inaccessible or ineffective.
In any case, when submitting a complaint to an international mechanism, it is crucial to detail what action you have taken in the domestic legal system (When did you file a complaint to which instances? When did the instances give you a reply? What was the outcome?). You also need to explain why there is no further action possible at the domestic level (for instance, because national laws explicitly state that a complaint cannot be taken to any further domestic instance).