International human rights

Published: 4 May 2016

Last updated: 2 August 2021

What countries does this apply to?

  • England
  • Scotland
  • Wales

International law

International law is an important part of upholding 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 law.

These are monitored and implemented by important international institutions including the United Nations (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 approved it, the country has made a formal commitment and the government must do everything the treaty requires.

This international dimension forms part of our commitment to firmly plant a strong human rights culture in Britain.

Find out more about what we do to promote and protect human rights in England, Scotland and Wales, and internationally.  

United Nations (UN)

The 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 England, Scotland and Wales are as follows.

The UN Human Rights Council

This is made up of 47 States (in 2020 the UK was elected a member for a three-year term from 2021 to 2023) and is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.

The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR)

The OHCHR is the leading UN body on human rights. It:

  • supports human rights institutions and governments
  • monitors human rights practice
  • makes sure all UN work has a human rights perspective
  • 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.

Visit our human rights tracker to see how UN treaties are monitored and whether the UK is meeting international standards. Search specific information on UN recommendations, government responses and what stage the UK is currently at in each review cycle.

UN agencies

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.

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:

As an NHRI the Equality and Human Rights Commission covers England and Wales, and human rights issues in Scotland that are reserved to the Westminster Parliament. On equality law our authority covers England, Scotland and Wales.

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