UN human rights petition systems


The system of communicating with international human rights mechanisms has evolved steadily over many decades. Today, the system is highly complex and lacks proper coordination. There are serious questions as to its accessibility for people on the ground and as to its effectiveness in actually helping people.

The project therefore looked at the historical evolution of petitioning the human rights system (Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, the Confidential Complaints Procedure etc.), and took a fresh look at whether the system is ‘fit for purpose.’ This two-year research project resulted in a policy report: ‘Reform of the UN human rights petitions system: an assessment of the UN human rights communications procedures and proposals for a single integrated system.

The report offers a number of conclusions.

First, each of the three main communications procedures plays a distinct and crucial role in the overall UN human rights petitions system. Each has its own strengths when viewed from a victim’s perspective.

Second, the challenges faced by, and the weaknesses of, each procedure, especially when viewed from a victim’s perspective, show significant overlap. 

Third, these weaknesses or challenges cannot be addressed, within existing resources, by focusing on each procedure in isolation. Rather, States and the UN Secretariat must once again (as was the case in the late 1970s when the then Secretary-General published a ground-breaking analysis of contemporary communications procedures and their interaction) look at the procedures as three interconnected and complementary parts of a single coherent UN petitions system – with a single user interface and, perhaps, a single Secretariat.

Fourth, modern technology presents enormous opportunities to finally put in place such a ‘fully coordinated approach’ within ‘a fully automated system’ (as called for by the Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in 2000).

With these conclusions in mind, this policy report makes a number of recommendations. In particular, the report argues that reforming and re-energising the UN human rights petitions system should be a priority for States as they look towards the 2021-2026 review of the Human Rights Council by the General Assembly. In considering those reforms, States should adopt a victim’s perspective, viewing the current system – and possible changes thereto – through the lens of those people who need to use it. 

In the opinion of the Universal Rights Group, such reforms, in order to be successful, must be based on the overarching objective of establishing a single, coherent UN human rights petitions system comprising a single user interface and single UN petitions Secretariat, responsible for channelling petitions to the most appropriate communications procedure(s) and following up on each and every case. To make this possible, the UN will need to leverage the power of modern information technology.