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3. Opportunities for You to Engage

3.7 Individual communications – Why are they useful?

You can engage with Treaty Bodies in all areas of their work – periodic reviews, individual communications, general comments, inquiries, as well as early warnings and urgent actions.

This and the next section focus on:

Individual communications

Individual communications or complaints submitted to Treaty Bodies can be a very useful tool for victims of human rights violations and human rights defenders to get redress and reparations for human rights violations.

You can submit information to the Treaty Bodies and request that the experts take the matters up with governments.

Below you will find questions to help you consider why individual communications might be useful to your advocacy, followed by some examples of how other human rights defenders have done so.

For more information on what they are, see ISHR Academy: Individual communications – What can Treaty Bodies do?

Reflection Questions

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  • An individual communication offers the opportunity to:
    • Seek redress and reparations for victims of human rights violation using the Treaty Bodies, which are international quasi-judicial mechanisms
    • Submit a complaint by or on behalf of individual, or in some cases complaints can be submitted on behalf of groups (to the CESCR, CERD, CEDAW, CRPD or CRC)
    • In jurisdictions where there is no regional human rights mechanism, it offers the only opportunity for a quasi-judicial decision outside of national jurisdictions for a human rights violation
    • Let your government know that the UN is aware of the violation of human rights in your country
    • Seek a response from your government regarding a particular case, law or policy
    • Increase understanding by Treaty Bodies regarding a specific issue or case
  • Even though Treaty Bodies are quasi-judicial mechanisms and the State party is expected to implement the recommendations of the Treaty Bodies and provide an appropriate remedy to the complainant, there is no way to enforce their recommendations and decisions.
  • You must exhaust all domestic remedies first before an individual communication can be submitted to a Treaty Body.
  • It takes several years for an individual communication to be processed by a Treaty Body.
  • Submitting a complaint or information to a Treaty Body is usually not anonymous, and could lead to reprisals by your government. In situations where such risk exists, you may request the Treaty Body to adopt an interim or protective measure. See ISHR Academy: Security
  • Remember:
    • An individual communication by itself is unlikely to completely remedy a situation, so ideally it should be considered along with other tools you can use.
    • Some follow-up work with your government will likely be necessary. See ISHR Academy: Follow-up – What do the Treaty Bodies do?
    • Make sure that you are using the right mechanisms to submit individual complaints. Other complaints mechanisms (UN, regional, national) could be better suited to your case. For example, you need to have exhausted domestic remedies first before submitting an individual communication with a Treaty Body, but this is not a requirement for Special Procedures.
    • The Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) is the only Treaty Body for which the individual complaints mechanisms has not yet entered into force.

Examples of using individual communications:

Defender Story

Illustration of a women speaking

Kazakhstan – Individual communication to the Committee Against Torture (CAT)

In 2007, Alexander Gerasimov was detained and tortured by local police in Kostanay, Kazakhstan, who were attempting to force a confession. In hearing about his torture and the failure of the authorities to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, an international NGO submitted his case to CAT.

The Committee found that Kazakhstan had violated Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture and called for reparation to be provided to the victim. Complying with the CAT decision, Kazakhstan subsequently provided reparation to the victim in the amount of $13,000 USD. The Kazak Courts, when reviewing the case, considered that the Committee’s decision was binding on the State, imposing an obligation on the State to take measures to award compensation.


More information:

Defender Story

Illustration of a women speaking

Maldives – Individual communication to the Human Rights Committee (CCPR)

Two members of the Maldives National Human Rights Commission made a submission to and participated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Maldives which included a number of references to human rights issues in the country, including concerns about the independence of the judiciary. Both members of the institution were subsequently dismissed in a clear act of retaliation for their engagement in the human rights review of the Maldives. After all domestic remedies were exhausted, ISHR worked with the victims to take their case to the Human Rights Committee (CCPR) alleging violation of the ICCPR- freedom of expression. The case was registered in 2018, two years after submission to the CCPR and was under consideration at the time of writing (2020).

Note that in this communication, ISHR referenced CCPR’s General Comment No. 34 on the freedoms of opinion and expression.

Update including reply of the Maldives and ISHR observations to the State’s reply:

More information:

Defender Story

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Burundi – Individual communication to the Committee Against Torture (CAT)

Four Burundi lawyers who participated in the 2016 Special Review of Burundi were subsequently disbarred from the Burundi Bar Association in what clearly constituted a retaliation for their participation in the review. In 2020, having exhausted all domestic avenues to challenge their disbarment, the Burundi lawyers with support from ISHR presented their case through an individual communication to the CAT for a view or decision.

For more information on this case, including a copy of the concluding observations of CAT on the special report of Burundi (2016), see ISHR Academy: Periodic Reviews - Why are the useful?

Defender Story

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Australia – Individual communication to the CCPR on police abuse

A victim of police violence tried to get reparation and compensation unsuccessfully at national level. Once she had exhausted domestic remedies in Australia, she filed an individual communication in 2009 with the Human Rights Committee (CCPR). The Committee found a violation of the ICCPR including the right to an effective remedy, and recommended reform be implemented in the Australian state where the violation took place, as well as compensation to the victim. As a consequence, the State party not only acknowledged the violation, but provided the victim with a full reparation, and amended their legislation to avoid repetition of similar violations.

Defender Story

Illustration of a women speaking

Mexico – Reprisals after submission of an individual communication to CAT

In September 2016, the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) took the unprecedented step of requesting protection measures as a consequence of ongoing reprisals and intimidations faced by the complainants, their family members, and their advocates in a case of arbitrary detention and torture of four individuals by Mexican soldiers.

The victims had submitted an individual communication to the CAT in March 2012, and CAT adopted a decision finding violations of several provisions of the Convention against Torture in August 2015. The Committee had already requested Mexico to adopt interim measures in October 2013 to provide the appropriate specialised medical care and support required by one of the victims for injuries he sustained to his ears as a result of torture, which Mexico did not comply with.

Go to the next section for tips on how to submit an individual communication to a Treaty Body.

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