How to monitor human rights

What are UN human rights treaties?

Governments have adopted a series of international human rights treaties, which set out the basic rights and freedoms that belong to everyone.

The UK has signed and ratified (agreed to follow) seven of the nine core UN human rights treaties. These seven treaties are:

Although the rights contained in the treaties cannot be directly enforced in UK courts, they represent binding obligations in international law.

By agreeing to follow the treaties, the UK has promised to make sure it respects, protects and fulfils the human rights standards they contain.

How are human rights standards monitored?

For each of the treaties, a committee of experts looks at how well the UK is meeting the international human rights standards it has agreed to follow. These committees are called ‘treaty bodies’. The UK gets reviewed by each treaty body approximately every five years, based on evidence from the government, civil society organisations and national human rights institutions (NHRIs).

Civil society organisations such as charities and non-governmental organisations can also submit shadow reports to the UN to provide an independent perspective on progress achieved and their main human rights concerns.


The treaty monitoring cycle

There are six important steps in the treaty monitoring cycle. Find out what happens at each stage of the process:

1. Stakeholders report on progress

Stakeholders (government, NHRIs, civil society organisations) send evidence of progress and concerns relating to the UK to the UN treaty body.

The UN treaty body reviews the evidence and publishes an initial assessment of
problems in the UK.

Stakeholders (government, NHRIs, civil society organisations) send further evidence to the UN treaty body on the topics in its List of Issues.

The UN treaty body questions the government (and meets with other stakeholders) about how well it is implementing the treaty. This takes place at a public session in Geneva.

The UN treaty body publishes its Concluding Observations with recommendations to the UK on how to implement the treaty. Some treaty bodies ask for a follow up report on a small number of recommendations where they think urgent action needs to be taken.

Government should implement the UN recommendations and make good progress before its next review.


The Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

The UK also takes part in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This is a process carried out by the UN Human Rights Council to review the human rights situation in every UN Member State and make recommendations for progress.

The UPR is a peer review carried out by the UN Human Right’s Council’s 47 Member States, but any UN Member State can take part in the process. To date, every country in the world has taken part.

Member States assess the human rights situations of the UK (and every country) once every five years. This review can cover any relevant human rights issue that is of interest – it is not limited to the human rights treaties the government has ratified. They use information from a range of sources, including a report from the government and independent evidence from UN bodies, NHRIs and civil society organisations.

Member States then make recommendations for progress. The report includes a response from the government being reviewed saying whether it ‘supports’ or ‘notes’ each recommendation. Some governments submit a voluntary progress report at the midpoint of the five-year reporting cycle.


The UPR cycle

There are four main steps in the UPR cycle. Find out what happens at each stage of the process:

1. Stakeholders report on progress

Stakeholders (government, NHRIs, civil society organisations and UN bodies) send evidence of progress and concerns relating to the UK to the UN Human Rights Council.

The UN Human Rights Council reviews the evidence and discusses it in a public session in Geneva.

The UN Human Rights Council publishes recommendations on how the UK can improve its human rights record.

Government should implement the UN recommendations and make good progress before its next review.


Reporting cycles

Each treaty body, and the UPR, operates on its own unique timetable or ‘reporting cycle’. Find out which stage the UK is up to in each of the reporting cycles:


Sustainable Development Goals

A number of the rights contained in the treaties and assessed under the UPR are also contained in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a global framework for government action on a range of challenges, from poverty, inequality and peace and justice to climate and environmental degradation.

Find out more about the SDGs, or search the human rights tracker to find out which UN human rights recommendations relate to each Goal.

Last updated on 30/09/2019