International instruments

United Nations

The United Nations (UN) is an international organisation whose stated aims are to facilitate co-operation in international law, international security, economic development, and social equity [1]. There are currently 193 UN member states. It is through the UN that the key international human rights treaties have been adopted. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the most important UN agency for Human Rights Defenders, although many other United Nations agencies and partners are also involved in the promotion and protection of human rights.

The two main sources of support below for Human Rights Defenders in cases of emergency are the special procedures and UN field offices; with the procedures for human rights treaty bodies generally a longer-term process.

The main human rights treaties of the United Nations system may be applied vis-à-vis States which have ratified them; this also relates to the clauses dealing with individual complaints (i.e. the “Conventional Procedures”). Furthermore, reservations made by States parties must be taken into account.

The Committees consist of independent experts serving in their individual capacity and elected by the States parties to the treaties. They receive, in intervals of 4 to 5 years, the States reports which offer them information about the progress reached in the implementation since the States became parties to treaty. In general, those reports are examined after 18 months in a public hearing with the representatives of the State; they are prepared after having contacted national Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs).

If there are States parties whose reports are very significantly overdue, the Committees might review the implementation of the Convention concerned in the light of information received from sources other than the States parties.

The links presented below offer presentations of the United Nations procedures which would complete or even substitute explanations provided here:

All inhabitants of Kenya may turn to the UN Human Rights Committee through the Complaints Procedure, to the Special Rapporteurs for violations of specific human rights or to Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) for women’s rights violations.

Since Kenya is a member state of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), its citizens may use the UNESCO procedure for human rights violations in UNESCO’s fields of mandate.

The Procedure of UNESCO

The rights falling under UNESCO’s competence of which the Articles are mentioned below refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948:

  • Right to education (Article 26)
  • Right to participate in cultural life and to share scientific advancement (Article 27)
  • Right to information, including freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19)
  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18)
  • Right to freedom of association (Article 20)

Individual Complaints (Procedure of 104 EX/ Decision 3.3)

Individuals, groups of individuals and NGOs can submit an individual complaint to the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations of UNESCO if they are direct victims or if they have a sufficient connection to the claimed violation. The protected persons are teachers, students, researchers, artists, writers and journalists. The procedure is confidential from the beginning to the end.[2]


UN Declarations, Conventions and Covenants

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. It sets out fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

The rights contained in the ICCPR include the right to life, the right to be free from arbitrary detention, the right to a fair trial and the freedoms of expression and association, as well as the right to participate in decision-making.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)

Articles 11 and 12 of the ICESCR protecting the right to food and the right to health are key provisions regarding land and environmental rights, along with the right to adequate housing in the case of land rights.[3]

United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

The United Declaration on Human Rights Defenders tells us that we all have a role to fulfil as human rights defenders and emphasizes that there is a global human rights movement that involves us all. The Declaration’s full name is the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Its aim is to “achieve the full development and advancement of women so that they may exercise and enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with men”. Among its provisions, CEDAW obliges states to ensure that women have the right to participate in development planning at all levels, to organize self-help groups and co-operatives in order to obtain equal access to economic opportunities, to have equal treatment in land and agrarian reform, as well as in land resettlement schemes, and enjoy adequate living conditions, including in relation to housing, sanitation, and water supply. Civil society organisations have reported the discrimination and persecution of WHRDs, including violence against them, to the UN Committee which monitors implementation of CEDAW.

Declaration on Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW)

DEVAW sets forth a clear international standard for addressing violence against women. DEVAW establishes the most comprehensive set of standards in international law for the protection of women against sexual and gender-based violence.

The European Union

The EU supports the principles contained in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Although the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights lies with states, the EU recognizes that individuals, groups and organs of society all play important parts in furthering the cause of human rights. The activities of Human Rights Defenders include: –

  • documenting violations;
  • seeking remedies for victims of such violations through the provision of legal, psychological, medical or other support; and
  • Combating cultures of impunity which serve to cloak systematic and repeated breaches of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Guidelines of the European Union on Human Rights Defenders

The European Union Guidelines constitute the framework of intervention for the protection of Human Rights in third party countries.
These guidelines concretize the affirmed will of the European Union and its Member States to promote the principles of the United Nations Declaration concerning Human Rights Defenders in their relations with countries outside the EU.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

The OECD Guidelines target Multinational Enterprises. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises were adopted in 1976 and revised by the OECD Council at ministerial level on 27 June 2000.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises constitute recommendations addressed by OECD Member States to multinational enterprises operating in or from adhering countries. They also concern de facto all the enterprises of the OECD in their international activities. They are one of the pillars of the OECD Declaration on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises, adopted by OECD Member States in 1976. They are equipped with a procedure to file complaints for non-respect at the National Contact Points.

The recommendations in the OECD Guidelines cover a very large part of the activity range of multinational enterprises: human rights, publication of information, employment and professional relations, environment, science and technology, competition, fiscal systems, the fight against corruption, and consumer protection.

The OECD Guidelines are divided in three parts: the first part constitutes the Guidelines themselves, the second part is about the implementation procedures and the third part assembles commentaries on the Guidelines and the implementation procedures.

Currently, the OECD Guidelines are in a process of revision, with discussions focusing on supply chains, human rights and environment and climate change.[4]

The International Criminal Court (ICC)

The ICC is a permanent independent court which judges persons accused of the most severe crimes of concern to the international community, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC founding treaty was signed by 105 states.

The ICC is a court of last instance. It does not intervene if and as long as a case is object of an enquiry or prosecution within a national judicial system with the exception that the procedures are not seriously conducted, for example if they are officially conducted to deprive a person of his penal responsibility. Furthermore, the ICC does only judge persons who are accused of having committed a severe crime such as the ones mentioned above[6]. Jurisdiction and functioning of the ICC are regulated by the Rome Statute. The Court is competent for severe crimes committed on the territory or by nationals of a State Party.

[1] Cited from Wikigender


[3] For frequently asked questions on the ICESCR, see UN Fact Sheet 33


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