Hesperian Health Guides
Using the International Legal System
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When national laws fail to protect health and well-being, a community can use the international processes and agreements explained in this section to pressure their government, bring attention to their struggle, or strengthen a lawsuit.
Many agreements signed by countries who are members of the United Nations (nearly every country in the world) protect human rights for all people. Some agreements also protect the environment. For example, see a description of some of the agreements on toxics.
These agreements between different countries are sometimes called “conventions,” “treaties,” or “covenants,” but all the words mean the same thing. The agreements can only be enforced against governments, not multinational corporations.
In many countries, international agreements can be used in the national courts, although there may be restrictions. International agreements can also support and inspire our national campaigns to protect human rights and the environment.
Human rights agreements of the United Nations
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights belong to every person and cannot be taken away. Today there are 9 international agreements that protect human rights, which include the right to health and dignity. To find the text of the agreements and information about how they are used, visit the United Nations human rights website, www.ohchr.org, and click on “Human rights bodies.”
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR)
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
- International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW)
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
- International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED)
Until recently, the only human rights agreement that mentioned the environment was the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that all children have the right to a safe and healthy environment. (All governments except for the United States and Somalia have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child.)
In 2010, the United Nations also declared that the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right. This declaration could be very important for the protection of the environment. Even though the environment itself does not have rights, when governments violate people’s right to water and sanitation, we can now hold them accountable.
When a country violates an agreement
When a country violates a certain agreement, another country that has signed the agreement can bring a lawsuit to the “International Court of Justice.” But this rarely happens. A second possibility is that a person or group can send a written complaint to a United Nations committee when their country has violated specific human rights such as the right to live without discrimination or torture and the right to freedom of belief or expression. It is worth finding out whether your country allows people to send written complaints and under what circumstances. For more information, see the United Nations human rights website.
Governments that sign an agreement must present “Periodic Reports” about the human rights situation in the country to a United Nations committee. In their reports, the governments almost never mention human rights abuses. Instead they may say “yes, there are problems, but things are getting better.” For this reason it is important for communities and NGOs to submit “Shadow Reports” that explain the real situation. Every 4 years, NGOs can also submit reports that are part of the “Universal Periodic Review” of their country by the United Nations.
These reports are the only way for the United Nations committee to recognize that abuses are happening, and if you publicize the reports they can help bring international attention. Whether the committee pays attention to the NGO reports often depends on the interests of the person in charge of the committee and the amount of public outcry.
Other United Nations declarations
Other United Nations decisions are not official agreements but declarations of moral obligation for all countries in the world. Moral obligation does not count for much in most governments, but talking about these declarations can sometimes strengthen our struggles and help protect our rights.
- United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People
- The Declaration on the Right to Development
- The United Nations Declaration on Social Progress and Development
- The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development
- Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development
The United Nations has also established “special procedures” to address human rights abuses. Groups and individuals can use these special procedures by contacting human rights experts called “Special Rapporteurs.” They investigate human rights abuses that happen within their area of work (called their “mandate”), such as the right to food, the right to health, and the dumping of toxic wastes.
These Special Rapporteurs can be contacted with a simple letter, along with any news reports, documents, or other written information about the problem. The Rapporteurs then present a report to the United Nations with their recommendation. As with the Committees, the success often depends on the interests of the Rapporteur.
Sometimes a Rapporteur will visit the community, which can bring media attention and give credibility to the community’s demands. If you think that a visit would help your struggle for human rights, all of your communication with the Rapporteur should include an urgent invitation to visit the site of the abuses.
The names of the Rapporteurs, their mandates, and their contact information can be found on the United Nations Human Rights website under “Human Rights by Issue.”
Other regional legal forums exist, such as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. They have their own human rights agreements and procedures that are sometimes easier for people and communities to use.