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3. Opportunities for You to Engage

3.11 Inquiries – Why are they useful?

You can engage with Treaty Bodies in all areas of their work – periodic reviews, individual communications, general comments, inquiries, early warnings and urgent actions, and by following up on Treaty Body actions.

This and the next section focus on:


Inquiries can be a powerful tool of the Treaty Bodies, but they can be demanding from the perspective of human rights defenders. You can submit information to a Treaty Body and request that its members initiate an inquiry into well-founded allegations of “serious, grave or systematic” human rights violations by a State party.

Below you will find questions to help you consider why inquiries 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: Inquiries – What can Treaty Bodies do?

Reflection Questions

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  • An inquiry offers the opportunity to:
    • Seek redress and reparations for victims of serious, grave or systematic human rights violations.
    • Commence a lengthy in-depth investigation into serious, grave or systematic human rights violations.
    • Raise awareness of the seriousness and extent of a human rights issue at the international level.
    • Be a powerful catalyst for national debates on fundamental human rights issues.
    • Provide the Treaty Body the opportunity to get a full picture of the human rights situation ‘throughout the territory of’ the concerned State party.
    • If the inquiry includes a country visit, national NGOs can meet with Treaty Body members and can directly input into the outcome of Treaty Body work without coming to Geneva.
    • Enhance the visibility of the Treaty Body and the system at the national level.
    • Build relationships with Treaty Bodies for future action.
  • Inquiries can be lengthy (they may take up to two years or more to complete) and are demanding. They require resources and could potentially be a lot of investment for minimal return.
  • Treaty Bodies also have limited financial resources to conduct inquiries, including country visits.
  • Inquiries are confidential, and the process of inquiries is opaque. There is often little information that is public, except for the final inquiry report, and this only if the State in question consents to the report being made public.
  • Submitting information or contributing to a Treaty Body inquiry could lead to reprisals by your government. See ISHR Academy: Security
  • Remember:
    • Not all Treaty Bodies are able to conduct inquiries in all States – the Treaty Body must have the mandate to conduct an inquiry (under the relevant treaty) AND the concerned State party must have recognized the competence of the relevant Treaty Body in this regard
    • Consent of the concerned State is required for a Treaty Body to undertake a country visit as part of such an inquiry.
    • Inquiries are unlikely to completely change a situation, so it must be considered as one of many tools that you can use in your advocacy. Some follow-up work with your government will be necessary.
    • An inquiry report from a Treaty Body can provide a good basis to request a Commission of Inquiry at the UN Human Rights Council.
    • Any information that you submit as part of an inquiry can be used or upcycled for other human rights mechanisms, including in submissions as part of periodic reviews by Treaty Bodies, communications to Special Procedures, or even submissions to regional or international courts.

Examples of using inquiries:

Defender Story

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Canada - CEDAW inquiry on indigenous women

In Canada, Aboriginal women and girls experience extremely high levels of violence. In 2011, two civil society organisations submitted information to the CEDAW Committee and requested an inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women. In response to the information submitted, and in accordance with Article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the CEDAW Committee commenced an inquiry. Cooperation of the State party was sought at all stages of the proceedings. In 2013, two members of the Committee conducted a visit to Canada, with the consent of the State. The CEDAW Committee found that Canada committed a ‘grave violation’ of the rights of Aboriginal women by failing to promptly and thoroughly investigate the high levels of violence they suffer, including disappearances and murders. It made 38 recommendations for action. Canada disagreed with CEDAW’s finding that there had been a grave violation of rights, however, it accepted 34 of the Committee’s recommendations.

The inquiry prompted a national outcry, with all mainstream news media picking on the findings. The inquiry contributed to the initiation of a significant and sustained process in Canada. The federal government established its own Commission of Inquiry, which presented its findings in a 1,200 page report in June 2019. The federal inquiry gathered testimonies from over 2,000 Canadians, and led to the Canadian Prime Minister apologizing for the fate of the victims.

Media coverage

Defender Story

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Hungary – CRPD inquiry on institutional discrimination against persons with disabilities

In 2017, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) initiated an inquiry after receiving a joint request from three NGOs which included extensive evidence documenting violations. The communication alleged that persons with disabilities continue to be deprived, in law and in practice, of their right to equal recognition before the law and that their continued institutionalization constituted disability-based discrimination.

In September 2019 after a two-year inquiry, the CRPD found there to be “grave and systematic violation of the Convention”. In its report, the CRPD condemned Hungary for maintaining and expanding a national system of social care institutions which “perpetuate segregation and isolation from society”. The report also criticises systematic discrimination in Hungarian law, policy and practice, including through operating a system of guardianship that strips people with disabilities of their rights. Noting the scale and gravity of the violations uncovered, the UN experts called for mass reparations to be made to people who have suffered violations of their rights, including ending institutionalisation, equal access to support, community services and justice, as well as structural and legislative reforms.

Hungary submitted its observations on the CRPD’s report in March 2020 refuting many of the findings, and included its comments and clarifications on the matter.

Media Coverage

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Egypt – CAT inquiry on the practice of systematic torture

After receiving communications by a civil society organisation in November 2012 regarding the systematic practice of torture in Egypt, the Committee against Torture (CAT) triggered an inquiry under article 20 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The allegations included the routine use of torture to force confessions from detainees following arbitrary arrests. The inquiry concluded, after four years of continuous reports submitted by civil society and concurring reports from UN bodies and officials, that torture was “habitual, widespread and deliberate” in Egypt. The CAT made several urgent recommendations to the State, such as ending the practice of torture in detention facilities, ending impunity for perpetrators and ensuring public condemnation of torture and ill-treatment. Egyptian authorities responded to the CAT in June 2016, largely disregarding its recommendations due to the State rejecting the conclusion that the practice of torture was systematic in the country. As Egypt did not agree to publish the inquiry report of CAT, the Treaty Body included a summary in its report to the General Assembly in 2017.

Example of inquiries (and using inquiry findings in periodic reviews):

Defender Story

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Philippines – CEDAW Committee inquiry on women’s sexual and reproductive health

On 29 February 2000, the Mayor of Manila issued an executive order governing the provision of sexual and reproductive health rights, services and commodities in the City of Manila. While the order did not expressly prohibit the use of modern contraceptives, its practical implementation severely limited women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, and effectively resulted in a ban of modern contraceptives in the capital. A confidential inquiry was launched under Article 8 of the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women through a joint request submitted by three NGOs in 2008, with a report issued by the CEDAW Committee in 2015.

While the government of the Philippines did not consent to the full report of the CEDAW Committee being made public, the summary of the inquiry findings published by the Committee stated that the Government of the Republic of Philippines had violated women’s human rights on many counts. This marked an important step forward in ensuring reproductive health rights in the country.

The CEDAW Committee’s summary of inquiry findings was used as a basis in a joint NGO submission: Supplementary Information on the Philippines, as part of the periodic review process of the Philippines by the CEDAW Committee, reviewed during its Pre-Sessional Working Group.

Defender Story

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United Kingdom – CRPD inquiry into the rights of persons with disabilities

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)’s first inquiry of a State party was launched at the request of a disability rights NGO in 2012, under Article 6 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which the UK has been a signatory since 2007. The initial communication by the NGO, along with reports subsequently submitted by other organisations, alleged that welfare reforms implemented by the UK government, including changes to housing benefit entitlements and eligibility criteria for social care, were carried out without assessing the impact of such reforms on persons with disabilities.

After conducting a country visit in 2015 (which was granted by the UK government), interviewing over 200 people, and collecting more than 3,000 pages of documentary evidence (both public and confidential), the CRPD in its Inquiry report published in 2017, found that the reforms had led to grave and systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities. The UK government rejected all of the Committee’s recommendation, but the inquiry contributed to a wide national debate on the human rights of persons with disabilities.

As a follow up to the UK government’s response to the Committee’s inquiry report and recommendations, CSOs published an alternative report which was submitted to the periodic review of the UK by CRPD in order to highlight the continued need for protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in the UK.

Media coverage

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