Introduction Key Terms

Introduction Key Terms

Using Human Rights Mechanisms


An act by which a State accepts to become a State Party to a treaty and to be legally bound by it. Accession occurs when a State follows its own national requirements to become legally bound by a treaty. Accession does not require the State to sign the treaty. Accession has the same legal effect as ratification.

The formal act by which a treaty text is finalized and opened for accession or ratification by potential state parties.

Amicus curiae (friend of the court)
A person, who is not a party to a lawsuit and who, on their own volition, petitions the court to file a legal document (sometimes referred to as an amicus brief) advocating a particular legal position or interpretation.


Concluding observations
Recommendations by a treaty’s enforcement mechanism on the actions a state should take to ensure compliance with the treaty’s obligations. This generally follows both submission of a state’s country report and a constructive dialogue between the treaty body and state representatives presenting the country report.

Country report
States are obligated to submit periodic national reports on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations (for treaties they have ratified or acceded to). All States, regardless of how many treaties they have ratified or acceded to, must submit a periodic report to the Universal Periodic Review.

Customary international law
A source of international law derived from the consistent conduct of states acting out of the sense of a legal obligation. Customary law is established by showing 1) state practice and 2) opinion juris – the State’s sense of legal obligation or what the State has accepted as law.

One category of customary international law is jus cogens. This refers to a set of principles that are so fundamental that they are non-derogable and override all conflicting international and national law. Examples of jus cogens principles include the prohibition of genocide, crimes against humanity, slave trade and human trafficking.


Entry into force
The date on which a treaty comes into effect and becomes legally binding. Frequently, the treaty itself specifies when the treaty enters into force, which is most often upon ratification or accession of the treaty by a specific number of States. A treaty does not enter into force on the date it is adopted.

Essential medicines
“Essential medicines are those that satisfy the priority health care needs of the population … Essential medicines are intended to be available within the context of functioning health systems at all times in adequate amounts, in the appropriate dosage forms, with assured quality and adequate information, and at a price the individual and the community can afford.”1

Exhaustion of domestic remedies
Requirement of admissibility to most international and regional courts. Before filing a complaint or case to an international or regional court, the complainant is required to pursue all available avenues for national redress unless national remedies are unreasonably delayed or unlikely to bring effective relief.


General comments / General recommendations
General comments or general recommendations are issued by UN treaty bodies. They provide authoritative guidance on how States Parties are expected to implement their treaty obligations. General Comments are not legally binding on States Parties, but they have significant weight as soft law.


Hard Law
Hard law consists of treaties that are legally binding and enforceable. This includes all international or regional treaties that a State has ratified or acceded to. It also includes national law.

A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (WHO).

Human rights
“Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law, general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.”2

Human rights indicators
Indicators are used to monitor the implementation of human rights and a State’s compliance with treaty obligations. This is commonly achieved through data collection and statistical analysis.3


Interdependent / Interrelated / Indivisible
Terms used to describe the relationship between human rights. They generally mean that the enjoyment of any right requires the enjoyment of other rights. The OHCHR explains that “[t]he improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others.”4

International law
The set of rules and legal instruments regarded and accepted as binding agreements between nations. Sources of international law include: treaties, custom, general principles of law, and judicial decisions and juristic writings (Statute of the International Court of Justice, art. 38(1)(d)).


Maximum available resources
Key provision of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Article 2(1) obliging governments to devote the maximum of available government resources to realizing economic, social and cultural rights.

Monitoring/ fact finding/ investigation
Terms often used interchangeably that are generally intended to mean the collection and analysis of information about government practices and whether there is compliance or violations of human rights.


Non-discrimination is a cross-butting principle in international human rights law. Everyone is entitled to all human rights without distinction of any kind. The list of categories for non-discrimination is non-exhaustive and includes on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.


Optional Protocol
An optional protocol is supplemental to another treaty and establishes additional rights and obligations to that treaty. Optional protocols are subject to independent ratification.


Progressive realization
Requirement that governments advance as expeditiously and effectively as possible toward the goal of realizing economic, social and cultural rights, and refrain from regressive developments.

The term can be used interchangeably with treaty, declaration, covenant or convention. See also “optional protocol.”

Public health
“Public health refers to all organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole. Its activities aim to provide conditions in which people can be healthy and focus on entire populations, not on individual patients or diseases. Thus, public health is concerned with the total system and not only the eradication of a particular disease.”5


Ratification occurs when a State signs a treaty and then fulfills its own national requirements to become legally bound by the treaty. Upon ratification, a State becomes a State Party to the treaty and is legally bound by it.

A unilateral statement by a State signing, acceding to or ratifying a treaty that purports to exclude or modify the effect of certain treaty provisions. Under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a state cannot enter a reservation that is “incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty.”

Right to health
The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health.


Shadow report
A supplemental report submitted to a human rights treaty body by any organisation other than the State during the periodic State reporting period. These reports allow NGOs to submit additional or alternative information to the treaty body to help the treaty body assess the state’s compliance with that treaty.

Signing a treaty is an expression of a state’s willingness to continue the treaty-making process and proceed to ratification. Although the provisions of the treaty are not legally binding upon signature, it does create an obligation for that State to refrain in good faith from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.

Soft Law
Soft law consists of international, regional or domestic instruments that are not legally binding. Soft law can include interpretations of treaties issued by treaty bodies, resolutions and declarations, principles, or guidelines. Soft law is often utilized to bolster or supplement arguments by demonstrating common interpretation or customary implementation of a treaty.

Special procedures
Activities covered by the mandate of the Human Rights Council to address thematic or country-specific human rights issues. Special procedures include individuals named as special rapporteur, independent expert, special representative of the Secretary-General, and working groups.6

Special rapporteurs
Independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Their mandate authorizes them to undertake country visits, send communications to States with alleged violations of human rights, conduct studies, report annually to the Human Rights Council, and, for most mandates, report to the General Assembly.


“A ‘treaty’ is a formally concluded and ratified agreement between States. The term is used generically to refer to instruments binding at international law, concluded between international entities (States or organizations). Under the Vienna Conventions on the Law of Treaties, a treaty must be (1) a binding instrument, which means that the contracting parties intended to create legal rights and duties; (2) concluded by states or international organizations with treaty-making power; (3) governed by international law and (4) in writing.”7


Underlying determinants of health
Factors that promote conditions in which people can live a healthy life. The underlying determinants of health include an adequate supply of safe food and nutrition, housing, access to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation, safe and healthy working conditions, healthy occupational and environmental conditions, and access to health-related education and information, including on sexual and reproductive health.


Working groups
Small committees, usually composed of five independent experts, appointed by the Human Rights Council to conduct research on a particular human rights issue.


1 WHO, “Essential Medicines.”

2 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “What are Human Rights?”

3 For more information on indicators, please see: UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation (2012).

4 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “What are Human Rights?”

5 World Health Organization, “Public Health.”

6 For more information see: ESCR-Net, Manual on the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council (June 2006).

7 UNICEF, Introduction to the Convention on the Rights of the Child: Definition of Key Terms.