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International human rights

International law

International law is a crucial aspect of human rights. Governments are in a powerful position to control the freedoms of individuals or groups – freedoms that may be harder to win without international agreement and pressure.

A series of human rights treaties and other instruments adopted since 1945 has developed into an influential body of international human rights. These are monitored and implemented by important international institutions including the UN Human Rights Council, UN treaty bodies, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.

Obligations in international law are binding on countries which have agreed to abide by them. This means that when the UK Government has signed a treaty and Parliament has ratified it, the country has made a formal commitment and the Government must do everything the treaty requires.

This international dimension forms part of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s remit to embed a strong human rights culture in Britain.

Find out more about what we do to promote and protect human rights on the domestic and international stage.  

United Nations

The United Nations (UN) is an organisation founded to promote worldwide cooperation and to protect human rights. The main institutions within the UN which are relevant to human rights in Britain are as follows.

  • The UN Human Rights Council. This is made up of 47 States (in 2013 the UK was elected a member for a three-year term) and is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.
  • The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. This:
    • supports human rights institutions and governments
    • monitors human rights practice
    • makes sure all UN work has a human rights perspective, and
    • supports implementation of human rights on the ground.
  • The General Assembly Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). This is one of the UN’s six Main Committees, focusing on a range of social, humanitarian and human rights issues.
  • UN treaty bodies. These monitor the implementation of international treaties. The UK has signed seven core UN treaties that deal with human rights. They include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  • UN agencies that address human rights issues as part of their remit include UN Women, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Council of Europe

Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe is the oldest inter-governmental organisation in Europe. It has 47 Member States, 28 of which are members of the European Union. All Member States have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The European Court of Human Rights oversees the implementation of the Convention in the Member States. The Council and the European Court is based in Strasbourg, France.

European Union

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 28 countries. These Member States have decided to share some of their sovereignty to allow collective decision making on matters which concern them all. The EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights brings together a wide range of human rights and freedoms in a single document.

National Human Rights Institutions

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are independent bodies established to stand up for those in need of protection and hold governments to account for their human rights obligations. They also help shape laws, policies and attitudes that create stronger, fairer societies. NHRIs must meet a set of minimum international standards, known as the Paris Principles, to prove they can fulfil this role and demonstrate their independence from government.

In 2009 the Equality and Human Rights Commission joined the family of ‘A’ status accredited NHRIs around the world. The United Kingdom has three NHRIs:

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (which as an NHRI covers England and Wales, and human rights issues in Scotland that are reserved to the Westminster Parliament), the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The Equality and Human Rights Commission mandate with regard to equality law covers the whole of Great Britain.

Last updated: 04 May 2016