International human rights law is part of international law. There is a close relationship between international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law.
International human rights law codifies human rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom of thought and expression and the right to health and housing in various international treaties. There are nine core international human rights treaties.
International human rights law is applicable to the territory of a state but also extends to any territory which is under its effective jurisdiction, even if it is outside its borders. Effective jurisdiction refers to the de facto level of control of one state over another territory or people, for example during an occupation.
Derogations and limitations of Human Rights Law
In exceptional cases, such as in times of public emergency which threaten the life of the nation, a state can derogate (temporarily depart) from some of its obligations under human rights law. A derogation from a right means that the right is suspeeded for a certain period of time. An example of a right that can be derogated from under times of emergency is the right to peaceful assembly. The derogation must be proportional and must not be introduced on a discriminatory basis.
Certain human rights can be limited, but only if such limitations are provided for by law and necessary for the protection of national security or public safety etc. Contrary to a derogation the right is not taken away but continues to be valid, however, in a limited manner. Examples of rights which can be limited are the right to freedom of expression and the freedom of association.
Fundamental human rights, such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and slavery, can never be derogated from or limited.
The relation to International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
The International Court of Justice (ICJ)in its Advisory Opinion on the Wall of July 2004 considered the inter-relation between the two bodies of law – international humanitarian law and human rights law. It concluded that when dealing with a situation of armed conflict, IHL is lex specialis (governs a specific subject matter) while human rights law, which is applicable both in times of armed conflict and in times of peace, governs general matters. It elaborated three possible inter-relations between the two bodies of law:
Therefore, each action needs to be examined under IHL, human rights law or both together depending on the circumstances.
How can the UN enforce Human Rights Law?
The UN has many sub-organs, bodies, Special Rapporteurs and representatives dealing with the enforcement of international human rights law. On this page you can get an overview of the work of the much heard of UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies and the UN Human Rights Council.
UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies
All of the major international human rights treaties have quasi-judicial supervisory bodies attached to them, which oversee the implementation of the treaties. For example, the Human Rights Committee supervises the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Committee against Torture supervises state practice relating to the Convention against Torture.
Individual and state complaints against human rights violations
The Human Rights Committee (HRC) has, together with three other treaty bodies (CAT, CERD, CEDAW), a mandate to receive complaints from individuals and states regarding violations of any of the human rights conventions. Many individual claims are submitted but practice on a state filing a complaint against another state is non-existent due to political sensitivity.
The bodies act like quasi-courts with the difference that their decisions are only recommendatory – not legally binding. However, the “decisions” are made public and are therefore of important political value and could damage the reputation of the state affected.
Individual complaints can only be filed if the state in question has recognised such a competence for the Treaty Body by ratifying what is called an "optional protocol" to the conventions.
Reports on the implementation of human rights
The treaty bodies also require all state parties to the human rights conventions to submit reports, where they describe the implementation of the respective convention in their country.
Non-governmental organisation’s may submit so called “shadow reports” if they fear that the state’s reporting on the human rights situation in its country will not be accurate. The treaty bodies analyse the reports and make a subsequent remark on the state’s respect of human rights. Most of the time, the remarks include criticism of certain state policies, which is useful for consequent media reports and various organisations' advocacy work.To the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ website and more information about the treaty bodies
UN Human Rights Council
The United Nations Human Rights Council (former UN Commission for Human Rights) was established in order to promote universal respect for human rights. It reviews the implementation of human rights by various states and makes recommendations when violations have occurred.
A number of “special procedures” have been established under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, such as the Special Rapporteurs or Working Groups that examine the implementation of human rights either in a specific country or on a specific thematic issue. There is, among others, a Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory and Rapporteurs on torture, counter-terrorism and violence against women.
The mandates of these Rapporteurs, who serve in their personal capacity and without salary, includes making country visits, writing reports and issuing urgent appeals or so called letters of allegation to the suspected state violators of human rights.
The Human Rights Council also hosts a number of “working groups” including the Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, which has produced a draft treaty banning the use of mercenaries.
Finally, individuals and groups may lodge complaints through the Council’s complaints procedure.