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ACCESSION/ACCEDE: This happens when a country (State) decides to sign a treaty – a set of rules already drawn up between countries.  It means the country must follow the rules, and could be punished if it breaks them.

It is similar to ratification (see later). The difference is that the country has waited until other countries have signed the treaty before it has done so. The treaty may say how countries can ‘accede’, and there might be a limit on the number of countries that are allowed to do so.


BINDING AGREEMENT: Means that the people, countries or other ‘parties’ made an agreement creating legal rules which they have to follow. It might mean, for example, that a country could be taken to court or punished if it breaks the agreement. Treaties, agreements, conventions, charters, protocols, declarations, memoranda of understanding, modus vivendi and exchange of notes are all ‘binding’.


CHARTER-BASED HUMAN RIGHTS BODIES (see also TREATY-BASED HUMAN RIGHTS BODIES): These are created because of the Charter of the United Nations. They work on lots of different kinds of human rights and are aimed at everyone. When they take decisions, it is by majority voting. This means most of the members of the body have to have voted ‘yes’ to take the decision.

The website of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has separate sections on Charter-based and Treaty-based bodies. While Charter-based human rights systems promote human rights, Treaty-based systems try to make sure rules are followed.

CHILD RIGHTS CAUCUS: There are two 'groups called 'the Child Rights Caucus.
The first one is the 'Child Rights Caucus for the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children' which was set up by a number of NGOs (these are like charities - see later for definition) to make sure the Convention on the Rights of the Child works.

It also made sure child rights were given priority during the UN special meetings on children. It has now joined up with the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Child Rights Caucus for the UN Human Rights Council (which used to be called the Children's Human Rights Caucus at the UN Commission on Human Rights) is different. It is a special group organised by the subgroup for the Human Rights Council.

This Caucus brings together people working on children's rights at the Human Rights Council. Activities include: 1. Planning morning talks on children's issues at the Council meetings 2. Sending out news about children at the Council 3. Talking to other Caucuses so they can work as a team. Read an example of an example of a CRIN report from the Caucus.

CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS: The rights of people to be free and to be equal; sometimes referred to as ‘first generation rights’. Civil rights include freedom to worship, to think and talk, to vote, to take part in politics, and to have information.

These rights are often talked about along with ‘second-generation’ economic, social, and cultural rights, which have sometimes been called lesser rights.

COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS (CHR): The Commission was the UN’s main organisation dealing with the promotion and protection of human rights. In March 2006, the UN General Assembly voted to replace the Commission with the UN Human Rights Council. Read how this happened

COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD (CRC): The Committee is the group of experts that checks countries are following the rules in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It tries to make sure two Optional Protocols to the Convention are being followed They concern the involvement of children in wars and the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. States must submit regular reports to the Committee, which then issues ‘concluding observations’.

CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS: All States parties that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child have to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights are being implemented. States must report initially two years after acceding to the Convention and then every five years. The Committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the State Party through “Concluding Observations”. Click here for examples

CONSULTATIVE STATUS: NGOs (see later) and some other organisations may get this status so they can help the UN with its work. It means organisations can give advice to governments and the UN. They may also carry out some work for the UN.

To get consultative status an organisation must apply to the Committee on NGOs of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – basically part of the United Nations (read more later) - which meets twice a year. The Committee recommends to the ECOSOC which organisations can get consultative status. There are three types: General, Special, or Roster. 

  • General Category organisations must be "concerned with most of the activities of the ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies". These tend to be fairly big, international NGOs that cover different countries.
  • Special Category is given to NGOs "which have a special competence in, and are concerned specifically with, only a few of the fields of activity covered by the ECOSOC". These NGOs tend to be smaller and more recently started. 
  • Roster organisations "can make occasional and useful contributions to the work of ECOSOC or its subsidiary bodies". These NGOs tend to have a small and/or technical focus.

Find out how to obtain consultative status here

CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD (created 1989; began to work in 1990): Law explaining all the human rights for children. These include civil, cultural, economic, social and political rights. It has been joined more quickly and by more governments than any other human rights law.

The USA and Somalia are the only countries which have not agreed to the law. The Convention is also the only international human rights treaty that says non-governmental organisations (NGOs or charities) should help make sure it is followed (under Article 45a). Visit CRIN’s page on the Convention here

COVENANT: Agreement between States; used along with Convention and Treaty. The major international human rights covenants, both passed in 1966, are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

CUSTOMARY INTERNATIONAL LAW: Law that States must follow even though it is not written down anywhere. When enough States have begun to behave as though something is law, it becomes law “by use”; this is one of the main forms of international law. For example, laws of war were customary law before they were written down in the Geneva Conventions and other treaties. 


DAYS OF GENERAL DISCUSSION (also referred to as Thematic Days of Discussion and General Days of Discussion): Events organised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The purpose of the Days of General Discussion is to try and help everyone to better understand the Convention on the Rights of the Child. After the discussion the Committee makes recommendations.

People from Governments, the United Nations, non-governmental organisations, NGOs/charities and experts can join in. The Day of General Discussion takes place during the September meeting of the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, Switzerland.

DECLARATION: Document that shows what countries have agreed on, but is not legally binding (see earlier). UN conferences, like the 1993 Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the 1995 World Conference for Women in Beijing, usually produce two sets of declarations: one written by governments and one by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The UN General Assembly often issues important declarations.


UN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COUNCIL (ECOSOC): Helps the General Assembly in promoting international economic and social development. ECOSOC has 54 members, all of whom are elected by the General Assembly for a three-year term. The president is elected for one year. The Council meets once a year in July for four weeks. Since 1998, it has held another meeting each April with finance ministers at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Viewed separate from the special bodies under its command, ECOSOC collects information, advises member nations, and makes recommendations. Also, ECOSOC helps with policy.

ECONOMIC, SOCIAL and CULTURAL RIGHTS: These rights are about our basic human needs such as food, shelter, education, health care, and work. They include the rights to education, good housing, food, water, good health, the right to work and rights at work, as well as the cultural rights of minorities and indigenous peoples.

ENVIRONMENTAL, CULTURAL and DEVELOPMENTAL RIGHTS: Sometimes called third generation rights, these rights recognise that people have the right to live in a safe and healthy environment and that groups of people have the right to cultural, political, and economic development.



GENERAL ASSEMBLY: The General Assembly is the main discussion group at the United Nations. It is composed of people from all Member States, each of which has one vote. It is where decisions are made.

Decisions on important questions, such as those on peace and security, admission of new members and money matters, require a two-thirds of the people to agree. Decisions on other questions are by a normal majority (more than half of the people to agree).

The General Assembly issues declarations and agrees to conventions on human rights issues, debates relevant issues, and punishes states that harm human rights. The actions of the General Assembly are covered by the United Nations Charter.

GENERAL COMMENTS: People checking that Conventions are being followed issue general comments to make them as clear as possible. The Committee on the Rights of the Child talks about the Convention on the Rights of the Child through General Comments on particular subjects. These comments are available here

GENERAL MEASURES OF IMPLEMENTATION: Ways chosen by the Committee on the Rights of the Child that States can use to make sure the CRC works. The measures are divided into administrative and legislative measures.


HUMAN RIGHTS: These are the rights possessed by all people, because they are human, to live a life of freedom and dignity. They mean all people can expect certain things from other people and from society (for example, people can expect not to be called names by other people).

Human rights are called universal, inalienable and indivisible. Inalienable means that it is impossible for anyone to give up their human rights, even if he or she wanted to, since every person has those rights automatically, because they are human. It also means that no person or group of persons can take human rights away from someone else.

The indivisibility of human rights means that none of the very important human rights are more important than any other; they are linked to each other. These rights show our deepest commitments to making sure all persons are safe in their enjoyment of those aspects of life that we need to live well.

HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL: In June 2006, the Human Rights Council replaced the Commission on Human Rights as the main UN body in charge of protecting the main rights and freedoms.

The Human Rights Council (HRC) was created on 15th March 2006 by General Assembly Resolution A/Res/60/251. It held its first meeting on 19-30 June 2006. The new Human Rights Council is expected to be more fair, respected and efficient in criticising human rights crimes worldwide than the Commission on Human Rights.

View a chart of the UN system

HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL MEMBERS: On 9 May 2006, the first 47 members of the Human Rights Council were elected.

The United States, which voted against the creation of the Human Rights Council, did not apply. They were unhappy human rights abusers were allowed to be elected to the Council.

As part of the Council’s creation, some members won three-year terms and others were given one-year terms and allowed to run for re-election again in 2007. Under Council rules, members serve three-year terms and cannot run for re-election after two terms that run one after the other.

In May 2007, fourteen new countries were elected to serve on the Council after two rounds of voting among Member States at the UN Headquarters in New York. Those elected will serve three-year terms.

Find out more about Human Rights Council members, and their plans, here and information about the election process here

HUMAN RIGHTS TREATIES, COVENANTS and CONVENTIONS: These are part of international law. They all refer to legally binding agreements between States. These agreements say what States which signed the treaty, covenant or convention have to do.

They apply in times of peace and war. Human rights treaties concern how States must behave towards persons in their own country (rather than towards other States).


INDEPENDENT EXPERT: Experts appointed or elected to do something within the UN system.

This could be in different bodies of the UN, for instance, each observing body of the Treaty Bodies is composed of Independent Experts. The Committee on the Rights of the Child is made up of 18 Independent Experts, appointed as part of Special Procedures, who are persons of ‘high moral character and recognised competence in the field of human rights’. You can read more about treaty bodies and Special Procedures later.

Members are elected for a term of four years by States Parties, following article 43 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Members may be re-elected if nominated. They may focus on a particular country or issue. See the current list (2007)
Other Independent Experts may be appointed by the UN Secretary-General to do something specific.

For example, the Study on Violence Against Children, for which Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was Independent Expert. The nature of their ‘independence’ means that they are not representing the views or opinions of the UN or any government, but are meant to present an overall view of a given situation.

INDIVIDUAL COMPLAINTS: There are three main ways for complaining that a part of a human rights treaty has not been respected. Complaints are made before the human rights treaty bodies:

Note: not all committees are allowed to consider such complaints. Only the Human Rights Council, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Committee Against Torture and the Committee for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women can do so.

There are also procedures for complaints which fall outside of the treaty body system - through the special procedures and the 1503 procedure (which is currently being revised)  of the Human Rights Council and through the Commission on the Status of Women.

INSTRUMENT: Legal tool used to decide on, explain and spread international human rights standards, for example the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

INTERGOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (IGOs): Organisations paid for by several governments that try to group their efforts; some are regional (e.g., the Council of Europe, the Organisation of African Unity, Organisation of American States (OAS), some are alliances (e.g., the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO); and some are dedicated to a specific purpose (e.g., the UN Centre for Human Rights, and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO).





MECHANISM: Something that checks an instrument(s) is being used properly. The mechanism is usually created by the instrument that it oversees. E.g. the Committee on the Rights of the Child was created by Article 43 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Other examples include the Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteurs, and complaints procedure 1503.

MEMBER STATES: Countries that are members of the United Nations.


NATIONAL COALITIONS: NGOs that work together on activities such as reporting to the Committee on the Rights of the Child where they present one joint Alternative Report to the Committee. National Coalitions work closely with the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child which provides them with technical support, training, etc. Read more

NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTIONS: Administrative bodies set up to protect or oversee human rights in a given country. There are about 90 such bodies, not all following United Nations standards.

Such bodies can be grouped together in two broad areas: human rights commissions and ombudsmen. While most ombudsman organisations are built around a single person, human rights commissions are made up of several people.

They ideally represent different social groups and ideas. They are sometimes set up to deal with specific issues such as discrimination, although some are bodies which deal with lots of different subjects. Special national organisations exist in many countries to protect the rights of a particular vulnerable group such as children. You can find more information about children’s commissioners here

NONGOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (NGOs): Organisations formed by people outside of government. NGOs follow the meetings of human rights bodies such as the Human Rights Council and are the “watchdogs” of the human rights that they are interested in.

Some are large and international (e.g., the Red Cross, Amnesty International); others may be small and local (e.g., an organisation to speak for people with disabilities in a particular city). NGOs are very important in influencing UN policy, and many of them have consultative status (see earlier) at the UN.

NGO GROUP FOR THE CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD: A group of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which work together to help make the Convention on the Rights of the Child work.

It was originally formed in 1983 when members of the NGO Group were actively involved in the drafting of the Convention. One key role of the NGO Group is to facilitate the participation of NGOs and NGO Coalitions in reporting to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Find out more

NGO SUBGROUPS (eg. Subgroup for the Human Rights Council): NGO Group members form Subgroups and Taskforces and work on subjects or issues related to specific articles of the CRC.

These special subject areas include child labour, sexual exploitation, children in armed conflict and displacement, to name a few. Subgroups are a very important part of the NGO Group's work in making children's rights very important in the UN system, and other international organisations. Through these Subgroups members are able to discuss subjects, and work together.

The aim of the Subgroup for the Human Rights Council so far has been to ensure that the Human Rights Council addresses the specific rights and situations of children worldwide in its regular work and sessions on human rights.

By trying to include its concerns in the Council's programme of work, the NGOs have helped create better support and understanding between international politics and children's rights locally. Read also about the NGO Subgroup on Children and Violence and the Subgroup on the Human Rights Council


OMBUDSMEN: An ombudsman is an official, usually appointed by the government, parliament or other organisations like the European Union. He or she is supposed to speak on behalf of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by individuals

In some jurisdictions, the Ombudsman is called, at least officially, the 'Parliamentary Commissioner' (e.g., the West Australian state Ombudsman). As well as for a government, an ombudsman may work for a corporation, a newspaper, an NGO, or even for the general public.

In the case of children, such roles may be called both ‘Children’s Ombudsman’ or ‘Children’s Commissioner’.

OPTIONAL PROTOCOL (OP): An optional protocol to a treaty is an agreement that countries can ratify or join. They are meant to further a specific purpose of the treaty or to help in making it work.


PLENARY SESSION: Those sessions which happen when no other meetings are taking place. All (or more likely, most) members are present.



RATIFICATION/RATIFY: Ratification, acceptance and approval all happen when a country says it will be bound by a treaty. Most treaties say how a country can do this.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Addressed to countries by any of the Committees in the treaty-body system. They usually explain the Committee's view of what the country has to do under the Convention.

RESERVATION: to a treaty (covenant, convention) means that a State Party does not agree to go along with one or more of its provisions (parts). Reservations are, in principle, intended to be used only temporarily, when States are unable to realise a treaty provision but agree in principle to do so.

Reservations can be made when the treaty is signed, ratified, accepted, approved or acceded to. Reservations must not go against the purpose of the treaty. Also, a treaty might not allow reservations or only allow certain reservations to be made.

RESOLUTION: A formal text adopted by United Nations and regional mechanisms, or other inter-governmental bodies. It is not exclusive to the UN system, and is also issued by regional mechanisms. Although any UN body can issue resolutions, in practice most resolutions are issued by the Security Council or the General Assembly. The legal status of UN resolutions has been a matter of intense debate.


SIGNING/SIGN: In human rights the first step in ratification of a treaty. To sign a Declaration, Convention or one of the Covenants means the country promises to go by the principles in the document.

SPECIAL PROCEDURES: The name given to the mechanisms created by the Commission on Human Rights to investigate either specific countries or subjects. The special procedures are a way for the Commission to be constantly involved in issues of concern throughout the year.

Although they may be created in any way, special procedures are usually either a person, called a Special Rapporteur or representative or an independent expert, or a group of people, called a working group.

Orders given to Special Procedure mechanisms vary. Their role is to examine, monitor, advise, and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories (called country mandates), or on major subjects.

They are thus divided into thematic or country mandates (orders). Various activities can be undertaken by Special Procedures including working on studies, providing advice on technical help, and responding to complaints from people.

All Special Procedures have to report on their activities to the annual session of the Human Rights Council (formerly Commission), which takes place each year. The working methods of the Special Procedures are currently under review by the Human Rights Council.

SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR: A Special Rapporteur, representative, Independent Expert or member of a Working Group is appointed by the Chairperson of the Human Rights Council.

This happens after they have talked about it with the five regional groups, made up of Member States of the Council.

The Special Procedures are independent, are not paid and serve for a maximum of six years.

Special Rapporteurs may have a particular subject to focus on (e.g. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography) or country to focus on (e.g. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar).

See a list of United Nations Special Rapporteurs, inlcuding 17 frequently asked questions about them. Read the latest reports of the Special Rapporteurs relevant to children (
SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE: Part of Special Procedures, Special Representatives report directly to the Secretary General of the United Nations, and may investigate a particular country or subject. Read why we need a Special Representative to the Secretary General violence against children

SUB-COMMISSION on the PROMOTION and PROTECTION of HUMAN RIGHTS: The main organisation working under the former Commission on Human Rights. It was the UN’s main mechanism and international discussion group concerned with the promotion and protection of human rights. On 15 March 2006 the UN General Assembly voted to replace the Commission on Human Rights with the UN Human Rights Council.

However, all orders, mechanisms, functions and responsibilities of the Commission on Human Rights, including the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, were taken on by the Human Rights Council in 2006.

The Sub-Commission's main functions are to do studies on human rights issues, to make recommendations about preventing discrimination of any kind relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms and to protect racial, national, religious and linguistic (language) minorities.


TREATY: Formal agreement between States that sets out and changes how they must be towards each other; used along with Convention and Covenant. When Conventions are adopted by the UN General Assembly, they create legally binding international obligations for the Member States who have signed the treaty.
When a national government ratifies a treaty, the law of that treaty become part of its country’s law.

TREATY BODIES: The committees created through the main international human rights treaties to observe whether States Parties are respecting the treaties. Seven treaty bodies have been set up for the core UN human rights treaties to observe county’s efforts to implement their law.

There will be nine once the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance come into force, as they will each create their own committees.

TREATY-BASED HUMAN RIGHTS BODIES (see also Charter-based human rights bodies): These bodies exist as a result of specific legal instruments (eg the Committee on the Rights of the Child is born out of the Convention on the Rights of the Child).

They have narrower instructions than Charter-based bodies, they address only those countries that have ratified the legal instrument in question, and try and make decisions only when everyone is agreed. The human rights documents posted on the website of the High Commissioner are organised into two sections: Charter-based bodies and Treaty bodies.

A crucial difference between the two is that charter-based systems aim to promote human rights, while treaty-based systems try to make sure standards are followed.


(UDHR): Adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Primary UN document creating human rights standards. All member countries have agreed to support the UDHR. Although the declaration was intended to be non binding, through time its rules have become so respected by States that it can now be said to be Customary International Law.

UNIVERSAL PERIODIC REVIEW: A system of the Human Rights Council where the human rights records of all UN Member States regardless of their size, wealth, or military or political importance will be regularly examined.

Although the UPR’s way of working is still being debated, Human Rights Watch said it was “one of the most significant innovations in this new Human Rights Council.” Read the Joint NGO Statement on the Universal Periodic Review and the Universal Periodic Review Debate at the Human Rights Council.
Find out which countries will be the first to be reviewed,



WORKING GROUP: A grouping of NGOs/researchers working on activities that would be difficult to develop under traditional mechanisms. The goal may be to create a document, for example, or to create a standard, or solve a problem related to a child rights system or network. For example, the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.

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Last updated 21/05/2008 11:28:36

Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.

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