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International Human Rights Law

International law is most often in the form of a treaty. Treaties – written agreements between States – are critical to international law because they are binding on the governments who sign and ratify them.

When a country ratifies a treaty, it is obligated to abide by the requirements of that treaty.

Most international and regional treaties have a committee of human rights experts that measures how well countries are living up to their obligations. Countries report on their progress and civil society and advocacy groups can provide information, including complaints of violations in individual cases, to the committee to assess how well a country is doing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a milestone document in the history of human rights, was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948. It set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.

International Human Rights Treaties

Of the ten core international human rights treaties, these three are the most critical to our work:

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW):

Sometimes described as the “bill of rights” for women, this treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and was the first to address women’s rights as human rights. CEDAW is the international standard used to measure individual countries’ progress to eliminate laws that discriminate against or harm women and girls.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC):

Outlining the rights of children, including civil, social, economic, and health rights, this treaty changed the way children are viewed and treated as human beings with their own distinct set of rights. This treaty is especially useful to us when we take on cases of girls’ rights.

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol):

Because the Palermo Protocol commits ratifying states to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, protect and assist victims of trafficking and promote cooperation among states to meet those objectives, it is essential to our work to end trafficking for sexual exploitation.

Regional Instruments

Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol):

As one of the most advanced and progressive legal tools on women’s rights, the Maputo Protocol is a groundbreaking treaty for Africa and a model for other nations. We, as a founder member of the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition (SOAWR), campaigned for the development, adoption, and ratification of the Protocol and continue to advocate for African nations to use the Protocol as a roadmap for promoting women’s rights. The treaty sets a high standard and, with SOAWR, we have helped build the capacity and skills of thousands of activists, legal practitioners, and state officials to use it effectively.

Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará):

This was the first instrument to specifically define violence against women and to call for systems to protect and defend women’s rights as a way to combat violence and discrimination. This treaty spells out the commitment of nations in the Americas to protect and defend women’s rights and prevent abuse.

Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention):

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence is based on the understanding that violence against women is a form of gender-based violence that is committed against women because they are women.

The state must fully address it in all its forms and to take measures to prevent violence against women, protect its victims, and prosecute the perpetrators. Failure to do so would make it the responsibility of the state.

The convention leaves no doubt: there can be no real equality between women and men if women experience gender-based violence on a large scale and state agencies and institutions turn a blind eye.

Directive 2011/36/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 April 2011 on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims (EU Anti-Trafficking Directive):

The Directive provides binding legislation to prevent trafficking, to prosecute criminals effectively, and better to protect the victims, in line with the highest European standards. The Directive takes a victim-centered approach, including a gender perspective, to cover actions in different areas such as criminal law provisions, prosecution of offenders, victims’ support and victims’ rights in criminal proceedings, prevention, and monitoring of the implementation.

African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child:

Like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Children’s Charter is a comprehensive instrument that sets out rights and defines universal principles and norms for the status of children. The ACRWC and the CRC are the only international and regional human rights treaties that cover the whole spectrum of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.