Identifying human rights violations requires knowing what the law requires or prohibits. International human rights law describes the rights that people possess and assigns responsibility for ensuring those rights.
Two human rights treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, contain a comprehensive list of human rights that governments must respect and promote.
Other major human rights treaties address particular issues or populations. These treaties include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Read the treaties.
When getting started, first read the text of the treaty itself. What does the treaty prohibit the government from doing? What does it require? How has the treaty been interpreted by the experts in charge of its implementation?
The text of all human rights treaties can be found at Human Rights On-Line, a project of the Human Rights Center of the University of Minnesota Law School.
Experts in charge of implementing the treaties often issue official interpretations of the treaty language. These interpretations can be very important in helping you understand how the treaty is applied and what conduct it covers. The interpretations may broaden the scope of the treaty.
Make sure the country of concern is a party to the treaties.
If the State has not signed the treaty, it is not obligated to its terms. If the State has signed but not yet ratified the treaty, it is bound not to act in a way that is contrary with the treaty's spirit and principles. Once a State ratifies a treaty, the treaty is legally binding upon the State. Remember to also check whether the State has entered any reservations, understandings, or declarations (RUDs) that limit the treaty.
Ratification status is easily accessed through Human Rights On-Line, a project of the University of Minnesota Law School's Human Rights Center.
Remember to read the official interpretations issued by the treaty monitoring bodies. These official documents can significantly expand how the language of a treaty is interpreted.
Example: The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) does not, on its face, appear to address discrimination against non-citizens. However, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's General Recommendation No. 30 makes clear that the treaty specifically applies to certain kinds of discrimination against non-citizens. Access the treaty bodies at Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
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