4. Access to justice – Global mechanisms
4. Access to justice at the global level
Access to justice at the global level; what to do when local and national
systems haven’t worked
As we mentioned in the other films on access to justice the primary level at which
we should be able to access legal justice is at the local and national level. But in
some contexts local and national systems don’t exist or don’t work effectively. So
what do you do when all your domestic options are used up or if domestic options
There are two possibilities, regional human rights systems and global
mechanisms. In this film we’re going to focus on global mechanisms – on the
human rights mechanisms of the United Nations.
It’s important to remember that UN human rights mechanisms are not courts.
They don’t have legal authority and can’t order international intervention into the
affairs of sovereign states. There is no international police force. What UN human
rights mechanisms can do is put international pressure on states to respect,
protect and promote human rights.
Three United Nations bodies that it’s useful to know about are the Office of the
High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Committee, and the
Human Rights Council.
1. The Office of the High Commissioner supports the human rights work of the
United Nations as a whole. The Office assists States in upholding human rights,
for example by providing technical training on legislative reform or the
administration of justice. The office also empowers individuals for example
through human rights education.
2. The governments of the world have agreed on nine core human rights
conventions or treaties. For each one of these treaties there is a so called treaty
body. A Treaty Body is a committee of independent experts that monitors what
states are doing to implement the treaty. Freedom of religion or belief is provided
in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or ICCPR.
The treaty body that monitors the ICCPR is called the human rights
committee. If your government has signed the ICCPR then once every four
years it has to submit a report to the Committee on how the rights in the covenant
are being implemented. The Committee examines the report and puts its
concerns and recommendations to the government in a document called
”concluding observations”. Civil society organisations can contribute to this
process by producing shadow reports and engaging in dialogue with the
committee to highlight violations.
Do you know if your country has signed a document called the First Optional
Protocol to the ICCPR? If you don’t know then find out! If your country has
signed, then it’s given the Human Rights Committee permission to consider
individual complaints. That means that anyone in your country can complain to
the committee if their freedom or religion or belief, or other civil and political
rights, have been violated. A complaint can be brought either by the individuals
affected or by a third party working on their behalf (like an NGO). A third party
can only bring a complaint if they have written consent from the individuals
affected or if those affected are in prison without access to the outside world.
So treaty bodies like the Human Rights Committee monitor how states are
implementing human rights treaties, make recommendations to states and
receive and act upon individual complaints.
3. The Human Rights Council has been set up by the UN General Assembly – in
other words by all 193 member countries of the UN. And the General Assembly
elects 47 countries to sit on the Council. So the council is an inter-governmental
body – with diplomats sitting on it.
The Human Rights Council’s task is to strengthen and promote all human rights
in all countries and to address human rights violations. The Council has two ways
of working that are particularly important to know about – the Universal Periodic
Review and appointing special rapporteurs, including the special rapporteur on
freedom of religion or belief.
The Universal Periodic Review or UPR reviews the situation for all human
rights in all of the UN’s 193 member states. It’s the only process in the world
where the human rights records of all UN member states are examined in the
same way regardless of whether the countries are powerful or weak, rich or poor.
The UPR is a system of peer review, where good practices and experiences from
one country can be shared with others. But there’s also an element of “naming
and shaming”. States don’t like having their human rights weaknesses pointed
out publicly by other states so many states do make efforts to improve even if
there are others that don’t.
You can find a separate film on how the UPR works in practice and how civil
society organisations can participate in it on the website.
So the Human Rights Council is responsible for the Universal Periodic review.
Another way in which the Council works is to appoint so called ‘special
procedures’, these are independent experts who look at a specific theme or
country as part of a working group or individually, holding the title independent
expert or special rapporteur.
The special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, the special rapporteur on
freedom of expression and the special rapporteur on minority issues are three
examples of thematic ‘special procedures’. There are also special rapporteurs for
some countries where the Council regard the human rights situation as being
particularly bad, like Eritrea and Iran. You can find more information about what
countries and themes have special rapporteurs or working groups on the
OHCHR’s website. If there is a special rapporteur for your country it’s important
to know about it!
But let’s focus on the role of the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or
belief – Mr Ahmed Shaheed.
The special rapporteur’s role is:
– to encourage governments to take action to promote and protect freedom
of religion or belief;
– to identify obstacles to freedom or religion or belief and recommend ways
to overcome them;
– to examine violations of freedom of religion or belief;
– and to apply a gender perspective.
The rapporteur has several ways of working:
One is to make fact finding country visits to investigate incidents or learn about
good practices. Visits are made on invitation from the government concerned.
The special rapporteur also receives complaints about violations from individuals
and organisations. Complaints can submitted through an online form on the
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ website. When submitting a
complaint it’s good to keep in mind that the information needs to be accurate,
include details of the event you are complaining about and what state action has
been taken. Remember that the rapporteur will only act on the complaint if
permission is given by the victim or their family or legal counsel.
Complaints are important because if they provide enough evidence that a
violation of freedom of religion or belief is taking place, the special rapporteur
can write an urgent appeal or allegation letter asking the state concerned to
provide explanations and suggest solutions.
Unlike complaints to regional courts or UN Treaty Bodies, victims can raise their
case with special rapporteurs before exhausting national remedies and even when
the State concerned has not ratified the relevant human rights conventions.
Communications between the special rapporteur and the government concerned
are initially confidential, but the full text of all communications sent and replies
received are published in communications reports to the Human Rights Council
three times a year. The names of alleged victims are usually included in
communications and reports, although they’re sometimes removed due to
concerns about privacy or protection. The identity of the source of information is
always kept confidential: It’s not included in the communication sent to the
Government or in the public communications report.
Reports from the Special Rapporteur to the Human Rights Council are useful
resources and important inputs to the UPR process. Special Rapporteurs work
hard but they do have limited time. That’s because they are not paid and have to
do the work of the rapporteur at the same time as having another job.
If you haven’t related to the United Nations before then all this information
probably sounds very bureaucratic and complicated. But don’t be put off! It is
possible for ordinary people and organisations to use this knowledge. Getting in
touch with the special rapporteur, for example, is easier than you might think.
To sum up
When local and national systems of justice haven’t worked you can highlight
violations through to the global human rights mechanisms of the United Nations.
The Human Rights Committee monitors what states are doing to live up to the
rights specified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
including freedom of religion or belief. States have to report to them once every
four years and the Committee recommends steps that the government could take
to improve the situation. The committee also receives individual complaints.
The Human Rights Council oversees the Universal Periodic Review, which looks
at the state of human rights in each country of the world once every four and a
half years. There are several ways for civil society to feed information about
violations into the review so watch the separate film on this for more information.
The Council also appoints special procedures. The special rapporteur on freedom
of religion or belief is one of these and undertakes country visits, receives and acts
upon complaints about violations and produces reports on freedom of religion or
Together with local, national and regional systems of justice, these global human
rights mechanisms form the framework through which we can try to find justice
in relation to human rights violations, including of course violations of freedom of
religion or belief.
Copyright SMC 2017
End of Transcript