Identifying Violations of International Human Rights Law

Many international human rights are defined by international and regional agreements, known variously as charters, covenants, conventions, or treaties. These agreements specify what obligations countries (States) have undertaken. If a State has not signed and ratified a particular treaty, it generally is not obligated to comply with the terms of that treaty. Even if the State has signed and ratified a particular treaty, it may register specific reservations, understandings, and declarations (often referred to as RUDs) which limit the state's obligations.

Identifying human rights violations requires knowing what the law requires or prohibits. Look first to the language of the treaty, then consult the official interpretations of the treaty language issued by the particular body charged with treaty implementation. For example, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) does not, on its face, appear to address discrimination against non-citizens. However, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's General Recommendation No. 30 makes clear that the treaty specifically applies to certain kinds of discrimination against non-citizens.

Determine if the country of concern has signed and ratified the treaty. If the State has not signed the treaty, it is not obligated to its terms. If the State has signed but not yet ratified the treaty, it is bound not to act in a way that is contrary with the treaty's spirit and principles. Once a State ratifies a treaty, the treaty is legally binding upon the State. Remember to also check whether the State has entered any RUDs.

Ratification status is easily accessed through Human Rights On-Line, a project of the University of Minnesota Law School's Human Rights Center.

When reporting on human rights compliance, remember that all levels of government - local, state, and federal - are obligated to comply with international human rights obligations. Advocates should report on violations of human rights obligations at the local and state levels. Practices by school districts, local police departments, or state agencies are particularly relevant.