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Universal human rights

Institutions for the protection of human rights


61st UN General Assembly, New York City.

Through the UN human rights treaties the in­ter­national com­mu­ni­ty has acknowledged that an in­ter­national framework is needed in order to ensure that human rights are upheld. Various organs of the United Nations are responsible for the protection and realisation of human rights. For instance, ten committees monitor compliance with the nine core in­ter­national human rights treaties.

The In­ter­national Criminal Court prosecutes serious human rights violations such as war crimes or crimes against humanity; regional communities of states have likewise founded institutions for the protection of human rights. Besides the European Court of Human Rights there is an Inter-American Court of Human Rights and an African Court on Human and People’s Rights. Important actors for national and in­ter­national human rights protection also exist at the national level.

In­ter­national institutions for the protection of human rights

In the UN General Assembly each member state of the United Nations has a vote. The General Assembly meets annually in September, and can debate fundamental human rights issues. The General Assembly adopts human rights instruments by resolution. It introduced the UN Human Rights Council, and awards its seats.

The UN Security Council comprises five permanent and ten non-permanent members. It can impose political and economic sanctions on states that commit serious and systematic human rights violations, and in extreme cases can even issue mandates for military measures.

In 2006 the UN Human Rights Council superseded the UN Commission on Human Rights, in order to strengthen the protection of human rights by the United Nations. It is the United Nations’ main forum for human rights. As a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly it reports and is accountable to the latter directly. Germany was a member of the Human Rights Council from May 2006 to June 2009, and on 12 November 2012 was once again elected to serve as a member from 2013 to 2015.
To investigate specific coun­try situations or issues of particular relevance to human rights, the UN Human Rights Council can appoint special rapporteurs, expert working groups or independent experts.

Since 1994 a High Commissioner for Human Rights has been responsible for coordinating the human rights work of the United Nations. The core task of the Office of the High Commissioner is to promote and protect human rights worldwide. This involves for instance supporting governments in strengthening human rights protection in their coun­try and harmonising it with in­ter­national standards.

In 1993 the United Nations adopted the Paris Principles, which recommend that member states of the United Nations each establish a national institution for human rights. These institutions are designed to advise governments and other state organs in translating in­ter­national human rights treaties into national law. Since the year 2000, institutions in the member states have been able to obtain accreditation as National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). Decisions on accreditation are taken by the In­ter­national Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions, which is made up of representatives of the NHRIs. Accreditation as an A status NHRI is a precondition for active involvement in the bodies of the United Nations. The German Institute for Human Rights, which is supported in part by the Federal Ministry for Economic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (BMZ), has been accredited since 2002 as Germany’s independent A status national human rights institution.

The In­ter­national Criminal Court, which is headquartered in Dutch city of The Hague, took up its work in spring 2003. The Court is responsible for prosecuting especially serious criminal offences such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It does not convict states. It convicts individuals who are responsible under criminal law. Some governments reject the In­ter­national Criminal Court because they fear it will interfere with their own state sovereignty. The United States, Russia and China, for instance, have not yet ratified the Rome Statute. Germany advocates universal recognition of the In­ter­national Criminal Court.

Civil society is an im­por­tant actor in the monitoring of human rights, also at in­ter­national level. Large human rights organisations like Amnesty In­ter­national, Human Rights Watch, FIAN In­ter­national (formerly the Food First Information and Action Network) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) regularly publish reports and address human rights policy bodies such as the Human Rights Council.

Regional institutions for the protection of human rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg took up its work in 1959. It is an organ of the Council of Europe, whose membership comprises 47 coun­tries with over 800 million inhabitants.

The Court deals primarily with complaints lodged by individuals against member states of the Council of Europe. These complaints usually involve violations of rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force in 2009, marked the accession of the EU to the ECHR, which will also further boost the importance of the ECtHR.

In 1969 the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted the American Convention on Human Rights, which is based on the European human rights protection system. The Convention entered into force in 1978. The Inter-American human rights system includes the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Both institutions began work in 1979.

The African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights is the youngest of the regional court institutions responsible for monitoring the observance of human rights. The body took up its work in 2006 and is headquartered in the Tanzanian city of Arusha. The African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights monitors compliance with human rights as set out in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (the Banjul Charter) and other regional human rights instruments that the state concerned has ratified. It is an organ of the African Union.

The Court complements and works closely with the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. This Commission has been accepting complaints from individuals and non-governmental organisations concerning human rights violations since 1987. Unlike the Court, the Commission cannot hand down legally binding verdicts; it can only issue recommendations.

National institutions for the protection of human rights

By creating its Permanent Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, the German Bundestag has made clear that it attaches very high priority to the protection of human rights.

The Committee is currently focusing on the safeguarding of human rights in the fight against terror, the protection of human rights defenders, and the improvement and further de­vel­op­ment of national, European and in­ter­national instruments to protect human rights.

It is also looking increasingly at human rights issues in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. Key areas of work include for instance the de­vel­op­ment of human rights in transformation coun­tries and coun­tries with a need for structural reform (such as Myanmar), the protection of human rights in North Africa and the Middle East, and human rights and business.

The German Institute for Human Rights (DIMR) also plays an im­por­tant role in the national and in­ter­national protection of human rights. It was established in March 2001 by a resolution of the German Bundestag, and is Germany's independent accredited human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles of the United Nations. It is designed to prevent human rights violations, and promote and protect human rights.

The tasks of the DIMR include:

  • information and documentation on human rights issues
  • research to professionalise human rights work
  • advising policymakers and societal players
  • human rights education, including the de­vel­op­ment of training programmes for specific professional groups such as the legal profession and the armed forces
  • in­ter­national co­op­er­a­tion with other national human rights institutions and human rights organisations of the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Orga­ni­sa­tion for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations
  • promoting dialogue and co­op­er­a­tion on national and global human rights issues.

The DIMR also advises and supports the BMZ in training and sensitising actors of German de­vel­op­ment co­op­er­a­tion for their human rights work.

The DIMR receives funding from the Federal Ministry of Justice, the Federal Ministry for Economic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. In order to safeguard the Institute's independence, the ministries have no voting rights in its decision-making body.

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