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Finding Help at the UN

On the anniversary of the United Nations human-rights declaration, DW-WORLD.DE shares practical advice for contacting the appropriate UN bodies in the case of human-rights violations.

White flags decorated with the logo of the UN Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) is based in Geneva

What options do I have if I have been the victim of a human-rights violation?

It is generally advisable in the case of human-rights violations for the injured party to turn to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that specialize in this area. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are two examples.

However, in countries where NGOs are oppressed by the government, citizens may need to turn to the United Nations directly. For this reason, we have prepared a brief guide to contacting the responsible UN bodies.

Logo Amnesty International

It is a good idea to start by contacting an NGO like Amnesty International

What are human rights?

The United Nations Human Rights Commission formulated a general human-rights declaration, which was signed by the majority of then-member states on Dec. 10, 1948. Like many international contracts, this document is not internationally binding. However, it serves as the basis for over 50 human-rights treaties worldwide, which help to define human rights in a variety of areas.

In the case of which human rights abuses can I turn to the United Nations?

For four of these human-rights treaties, there is a corresponding UN committee that individuals can turn to if they have been the victims of a human-rights violation. These treaties are:

  • The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

    Under which conditions can I turn to these organizations?

    The claimant's country must have signed the human-rights treaty as well as a supplementary treaty allowing individual citizens to bring a complaint to one of the UN committees.

    The domestic possibilities for protesting human-rights violations must have been demonstrably exhausted and a court protocol or similar documents must be made available. In Europe and the United States, a claimant must first contact a regional authority before he or she can turn to one of the UN committees. This is not the case in Africa and Asia.

    The claimant's state has the right to rebut that all domestic possibilities have been depleted.

    Only individuals and not organizations may file a complaint. Lawyers and close relatives of the injured party may also file a complaint. One exception is the committee for women's rights, which accepts collective grievances.

    The complaint must be submitted personally. Under exceptional circumstances, if the claimant is unable to submit the complaint in person, a written document may be submitted with the complaint, confirming that the claimant has authorized a lawyer or family member to file the grievance.

    A women in a pink headscarf holds a yellow rose

    Petitions to the women's rights committee may be sent collectively

    Contact information must be provided so that the committee can communicate with the claimant. Anonymous complaints are therefore not permitted.

    The complaint must be submitted in writing.

    To whom can I send a complaint?

    The High Commissioner for Human Right's petition team in Geneva is responsible for human-rights violations related to the first three treaties -- torture, civil and political rights and ethnic discrimination.

    Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

    United Nations Office at Geneva

    1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

    Fax: + 41 22 917 9022

    E-mail: tb-petitions@ohchr.org

    Complaints may be submitted without filling out any forms. However, the UNHCHR provides a template at the Web site listed below.

    The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in New York City is responsible for human-rights violations related to women's rights.

    Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs

    United Nations Secretariat

    2 United Nations Plaza, DC-2/12th Floor

    New York , NY 10017, United States of America

    Fax: + 41 22 917 9022

    Here, complaints may also be submitted without a form. See the link below for guidelines.

    What happens then?

    The legitimacy of the complaint is reviewed and the committee determines whether a human rights violation has actually occurred. If so, the committee calls upon the claimant's country to correct the wrongdoing.

    The committee's decision is published in an annual report to the UN General Assembly.

    A member of the committee is appointed to observe whether the state in question takes measures against the reported human-rights violation. If it doesn't, a follow-up report is sent to the General Assembly the next year.

    There is currently no legal framework in place to force a country to rectify wrongs. No international courts exist that can examine human- rights violations against individuals. Only public pressure on the government can be used to bring about change.

    In extreme cases, when the humanitarian situation represents a greater danger to regional or international peace, the UN Security Council may send in troops, as it has done in Darfur, Sudan.

    A Sudanese girl looks through a barbed-wire fence at a refugee camp in Darfur

    The UN responded to the crisis in Darfur by sending peacekeeping troops

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