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1. Understanding the Treaty Bodies

1.6 Individual communications - What do the Treaty Bodies do?

Although each Treaty Body focuses on a different treaty or convention, the tools or outputs that are available to the Treaty Bodies are basically the same, with some procedural variations.

This section focuses on one of the following main outputs of the Treaty Bodies:

Individual communications

An individual communication is a complaint by or on behalf of an individual alleging that their rights under one of the treaties have been violated by a State party.

Several Treaty Bodies can receive individual communications – sometimes called individual complaints or petitions - regarding a violation of a right or rights under the relevant treaty.

What's the difference?

Treaty Body Communications Communications of Special Procedures
What are they?

Individual communications are complaints submitted to Treaty Bodies and result in views or decisions that are quasi-judicial (similar to decisions of courts and tribunals)
What are they?

Communications of Special Procedures are public statements issued by the mandate holders relating to violations asking States to remedy them. They are not bound by one specific treaty
Are they accessible?

Procedures for individual communications to Treaty Bodies can take at least three years from the time you submit your complaint. And they could take up to five years or more, due to a current backlog of over 1500 cases (2020). With existing limited resources, the 10 Treaty Bodies together adopt an average of 250 individual communications per year
Are they accessible?

Special Procedure communications can be issued very quickly, often in a matter of days or even hours.
See ISHR Academy: Special Procedures

Similar to inquiries, a Treaty Body can consider an individual communication or complaint, where the State has recognised the competence of the Treaty Body to do so, in other words, the concerned State has agreed to be bound by the individual communications procedure.

A Treaty Body can consider an individual communication or complaint from any individual claiming a violation of their rights under that treaty, or from any third party on behalf of an individual who has either given their written consent or who is incapable of doing so. In some cases, complaints can also be submitted on behalf of groups of individuals (for example to the CESCR, CERD, CEDAW, CRPD or CRC) whose rights have been violated.

If the communication or complaint is deemed admissible, the Treaty Body reviews the case (which normally involves exchanges between the petitioner and State party through the Committee), and then adopts a decision (often called ‘views’) which the State is expected to implement. However, even though Treaty Bodies are quasi-judicial mechanisms, there is no way to enforce their decisions.

Which Treaty Bodies can consider individual communications? Eight Treaty Bodies have the mandate to consider individual communications or complaints: CERD, CCPR, CESCR, CEDAW, CAT, CRC, CRPD, CED.

See here for a full list of Treaty Bodies and what each can do.

Examples of individual communications:

  • Individual communication submitted by ISHR to the Human Rights Committee (CCPR) on behalf of two members of the National Human Rights commission in the Maldives who were dismissed in a clear act of retaliation for their engagement in the periodic review of the State. In their submission under the periodic review, they referenced a number of human rights issues in the country, including concerns with the independence of the judiciary.

  • Individual communication submitted by the Open Society Justice Institute to the Committee against Torture (CAT) on behalf of an individual who was detained and tortured by police in Kazakhstan. The Committee found against the State and called for reparation to be provided to the victim. For the full Defender Story, see ISHR Academy: Individual Communications – Why are they useful?

  • Decision (view) of the Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) based on an individual communication or complaint by a person in Argentina held in detention who required specific medical attention and who was denied part of that medical attention. As a consequence the person took their case to the CRPD. In 2014, the Committee found that Argentina had failed to comply with provisions of the treaty, and provided reparation to the complainant which Argentina subsequently complied with. The individual communication or complaint itself is not public

Some INGOs provide analysis and summaries of UN Treaty Bodies decisions and views which you can access:

Treaty Bodies can also examine complaints from a State against another State. For information on inter-state (or state-to-state) complaints see ISHR Academy: Inter-state complaints.

Go to the previous section and the next sections to find out more about other tools and outputs of the Treaty Bodies, including: periodic reviews, general comments, inquiries, early warnings and urgent actions, and follow-up activities.

For more information on Individual Communications, including examples of how human rights defenders use them, you can jump to Chapter 3:

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