North American office: P. O. Box 53022, Medford MA 02153. U. S. A


Human rights week observance and electronic mail conference

Web-site: http://www.ethiopians.com
Dates: 3-8 March, 1997
Dedication: To past and present Ethiopian men and women who gave up
their freedom, family, friends and career to struggle for
a democratic Ethiopia

On U.N. Human Rights Commissions and Committees
Adeno Addis,
Professor of Law,
Tulane University, Tulane, LA, USA

Within the UN, there are two kinds of organs that are meant to monitor and
enforce human rights norms. One group is established by the UN Charter, the
constitution which established the UN itself. These are referred to as
Charter-based organs. In the second group are committees established by
human rights treaties. These are referred to as treaty-based organs.

1. Charter-based Organs

The UN Human Rights Commission – This is perhaps the most well-known
Charter-based human rights organ. Established under Article 68 of the UN
Charter in 1946, its mandate is to deal with any matter concerning human
rights, whether the right allegedly violated is based on a treaty, on a
General Assembly resolution, on international customary law, or on the
Charter itself. This means that the Commission has the authority to address
human rights issues in all states that are members of the United Nations,
and almost all countries are members of the UN.

The Commission has, I think, 56 members now. The members of the Commission
are all government representatives, selected from the five categories into
which the world is divided—Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and
Western Europe and others ("others" usually means the US, Canada, Australia
and New Zealand).

The Commission is based in Geneva and has a regular annual meeting for six
weeks. It might, of course, meet for emergency session at other times if the
need arises. There are three main procedures through which the Commission
could deal with allegations of human rights violations by the state:

i. What is referred to as the 1503 procedure: Under this procedure, the
Commission could admit evidence of human rights violations and investigate
the accused state if the following conditions exist:

(a) if there is allegation of a consistent pattern of gross and reliably
attested violations of human rights. The allegations could come from the
alleged victims of the violation, or from any persons or group of persons
who have direct and reliable knowledge of those violations, or
non-governmental organizations such as human rights organizations. No
anonymous allegations will be admitted;
(b) To be admitted, the communication must describe the facts clearly and
must refer to the specific human rights violated;
(c) The complaint must show that domestic remedies are exhausted;
(d) And the communication must be done within a reasonable time after
domestic remedies are exhausted.

The Commission meets in private sessions and decides what action to take.

ii. The 1235 Procedure: Under this procedure, the Commission examines
allegations of gross human rights violations in public. Often at the annual
meeting, the Commission has a public session during which NGOs and
governments are given the opportunity to identify publicly countries they
believe need to be investigated for human rights violations. On the basis
of this debate, the Commission may appoint a Special Rapporteur to report to
the Commission.

iii. Thematic Procedure—Under this procedure, the Commission has
established working groups on various areas which are meant to inquire into
allegations of violations in those areas. There is, for example, a Working
Group on Arbitrary Detention with mandate to "investigate cases of
detention imposed arbitrarily or otherwise inconsistently with the relevant
International standards set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights." Or the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and make
reccomendations to eliminate it at all levels. Or Special Rapporteur on
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumanor Degrading Treatment, etc.

A human rights advocate group (an NGO) that wished to bring human rights
violations to the attention of the Commission could do one of the following:

It could make an oral presentation to the Commission (or the Sub-Commission,
or it could seek the establishment of a country-specific rapporteur or
expert under 1235, or it could submit allegations of violations under the
confidential procedure of 1503, or it could provide information to a
thematic working group or special rapporteur.

2. Treaty-based Organs

Almost every human rights treaty has provisions that call for the
establishment of a committee to monitor and enforce the human rights
principles enunciated in the treaty. Here are two of those committees:

a. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
Committee. The Committee is established by Article 18 of the ICCPR. It has
18 members. Unlike members of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the
members here are not government representatives. They are meant to be
independent experts. But in actual fact, they tend to be affiliated with
governments. The Committee has jurisdiction only in relation to the rights
enumerated in the Covenant and only over countries that are signatories.
There are two ways a human rights violations will come to the attention of
the committee: either another country which is a party to the treaty
complains about human rights conditions in a member country (this is
referred to as interstate complaint) or an individual brings a complaint.

As to the first alternative, unfortunately it has never been used. No
interstate complaint has ever been filed. In terms of the second
alternative, it will only be allowed if the country 9say, Ethiopia) against
whom there is a complaint has signed and ratified the Optional Protocol to
the Covenant. This is a supplementary agreement to the Covenant that
provides for individual complaints procedures. Under the Optional Protocol,
any individual who claims to be a victim of the state and was at the same
time under the state’s jurisdiction (or his or her representative) can
submit a complaint to the Committee. The Committee meets for three sessions
every year. It meets twice in Geneva and once in New York. Each session is
three weeks long.

b. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW) Committee: This Committee is established by article 17 of the
Convention and members of the Committee are supposed to be independent,
serving in their professional capacities. One important point is that while
in other committees women are almost totally absent here it is almost all
women. (Note: although CEDAW is perhaps the most important instrument that
deals with the rights of women, it is not the only one. There is a UN
Commission on the Status of Women and as I mentioned earlier the UN
Commission has also a special rapporteur on "Violence Against Women".

CEDAW Committee, unlike all other human right committees which are based in
Geneva, is headquartered in Vienna, Austria. The Committee meets for two
weeks annually. Under the CEDAW Convention there is no procedure for
Individual petition.

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