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Indigenous International Issues: Introduction: The United Nations system and human rights protection

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Friday 14 December, 2012

Section 1

Introduction: The United Nations system and human rights protection

The United Nations Human Rights System

The United Nations system for the promotion and protection of human rights consists of two main types of body: treaty based bodies established by legally binding human rights treaties and charter based bodies established as a result of resolutions and decisions under the United Nations Charter.

1. The Treaty based system

The following introductory explanation may assist in understanding the discussion of International scrutiny of Indigenous Rights in Australia in Section 2.The treaty based system refers to the seven core human rights treaties which establish international legal standards for the protection and promotion of human rights. The seven core treaties are:


Treaty body

The International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The Human Rights Committee (HRC)

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC)

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Committee against Torture (CAT)

Convention on the Rights of a Child

The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and members of Their Families

The Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW)

A State party can accept a treaty through ratification, accession or succession. Once a State becomes a party to a Treaty that State’s government has a duty to take action to ensure the people of their State enjoy the rights set out in the treaty. Treaty bodies are committees of experts created in association with a particular treaty to monitor the implementation of treaty rights by State parties.

The primary way that treaty bodies monitor the implementation of treaty rights is by receiving and reviewing regular reports submitted by State parties which outline how the treaty provisions have been implemented in that State. Once a treaty body has considered a State report it will issue Concluding Observations (or Concluding Comments) where the body will acknowledge the efforts of the State in implementing the treaty but also offer practical advice as to the areas where more needs to be done to effectively implement the treaty provisions.

Treaty bodies can issue General Comments or General Recommendations which comprise the treaty bodies’ interpretation of treaty provisions on a particular theme (such as Indigenous peoples) or its methods of work. The General Comments often act to clarify State parties reporting obligations in regard to specific treaty provisions and guide States implementation of treaty provisions.

Many treaty bodies also hold Days of General Discussion usually on a particular theme or issue of concern. For example the Committee on the Rights of the Child held a day of General Discussion on the Rights of Indigenous children in 2003. These discussions are typically open to a number of external participants such State party delegations, NGO’s and individual experts. The results of the days of discussion can lead to the treaty body drafting new General Recommendation.

See the following links for further information on the treaty based system:

Australia has ratified the following Treaties:

For information on how the treaty bodies have reviewed Australia’s Indigenous the treaty rights set out in the above treaties with particular regard to the rights of Indigenous people.


2. The Charter based system

The UN human rights bodies and mechanisms established as a result of resolutions and decisions of the UN system are referred to as the charter-based system of human rights. Charter based bodies operate through conferences and meetings and in contrast to the Treaty based system, State governments have a strong influence in the Charter based bodies where the position of government representatives as well as NGO’s are advocated.

Examples of Charter based bodies, positions and mechanisms that promote and protect Indigenous human rights include:

  • The Human Rights Council (formerly the Commission on Human Rights)
  • The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII)
  • The Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues
  • The Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP)
  • The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people

Section 3, ‘The Charter based system’ provides an overview of how these mechanisms operate to promote Indigenous human rights.

For further explanation of the Charter based system and Indigenous peoples see the overview of Indigenous peoples and the charter based system (UN Leaflet 3). Please note that the Commission on Human Rights has been replaced by the Human Rights Council which now reports directly to the General Assembly.