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?
Examples of using inquiries:
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.