Accede: an act by which a State signifies its agreement to be legally bound by the terms of a particular treaty. It has the same legal effect as ratification, but is not preceded by an act of signature. The formal procedure for accession varies according to the national legislative requirements of the State. Then, the instrument of accession, a formal sealed letter referring to the decision and signed by the State’s responsible authority, is prepared and deposited with the appropriate body.
Adoption: the formal act by which the form and content of a proposed treaty text are established. Treaties negotiated within an international organization like the United Nations are usually adopted by a resolution of a representative organ of the organization whose membership more or less corresponds to the potential participation in the treaty in question (the United Nations General Assembly, for example).
Affirmative Action: action taken to make up for past discrimination in education, work, or promotion on the basis of gender, race, ethnic origin, religion, or disability.
Article: international legal instruments generally include a Preamble (stating the reasons for and underlying understandings of the drafters and adopters of the instrument) and a series of ‘articles’, which lay out the obligations of those States choosing to be bound by it and procedural matters involving the treaty. The term ‘provision’ is often used as an alternative when referring to the content of particular articles.
Civil and Political Rights: the rights of citizens to liberty and equality that can include freedom to worship, to think and express oneself, to vote, to take part in political life, and to have access to information.
Codify: the process of bringing customary international law to written form.
Collective Rights: the rights of groups to protect their interests and identities.
Commission on Human Rights: was a body formed by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN to deal with human rights; one of the first and most important international human rights bodies it was replaced in 2006 by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Charter: the term ‘charter’ is used for particularly formal and solemn instruments, such as the treaty founding an international organization like the United Nations.
Convention: a formal, binding agreement between States, used synonymously with Treaty and Covenant. Conventions are normally open for participation by the international community as a whole, or by a large number of States. Once a convention is adopted, States can then Ratify it, promising to uphold it.
Covenant: binding agreement between states, used synonymously 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 becomes binding on states although it is not written, but rather adhered to out of custom. When enough states have begun to behave as though something is law, it becomes law “by use”; this is one of the main sources of international law.
Declaration: a document stating agreed upon standards but which is not legally binding. The term is often deliberately chosen to indicate that the parties do not intend to create binding obligations but merely want to declare certain aspirations. However, while the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, was not originally intended to have binding force, its provisions have since gained binding character as customary law.
Deposit: after a treaty has been concluded, the written instruments which provide formal evidence of a State’s consent to be bound are placed in the custody of a depository. The depository must accept all notifications and documents related to the treaty, examine whether all formal requirements are met, deposit them, register the treaty and notify all relevant acts to the parties concerned.
Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC): a UN council of 54 members primarily concerned with population, economic development, human rights, and criminal justice. This body receives and issues human rights reports in a variety of circumstances.
Economic, Social, Cultural Rights: rights that concern the production, development, and management of material for the necessities of life. The right to preserve and develop one’s cultural identity. Rights that give people social and economic security, sometimes referred to as security-oriented or second generation rights. Examples are the right to food, shelter, and health care.
Entry into Force: a treaty does not enter into force when it is adopted. Typically, the provisions of the treaty determine the date on which the treaty enters into force, often at a specified time following its ratification or accession by a fixed number of states. A treaty enters into force for those states which gave the required consent.
Environmental, Cultural, and Developmental Rights: sometimes referred to as third generation rights, these rights recognize 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.
Genocide: the systematic killing of people because of their race or ethnicity.
Human Rights: the rights people are entitled to simply because they are human beings, irrespective of their citizenship, nationality, race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, or abilities; human rights become enforceable when they are Codified as Conventions, Covenants, or Treaties, or as they become recognized as Customary International Law.
Human Rights Community: a community based on human rights, where respect for the fundamental dignity of each individual is recognized as essential to the functioning and advancement of society.
Inalienable: refers to rights that belong to every person and cannot be taken from a person under any circumstances.
Indigenous Peoples: people who are original or natural inhabitants of a country. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, for example, are the indigenous peoples of Canada.
Indivisible: refers to the equal importance of each human rights law. A person cannot be denied a right because someone decides it is “less important” or “nonessential.”
Interdependent: refers to the complementary framework of human rights law. For example, your ability to participate in your government is directly affected by your right to express yourself, to get an education, and even to obtain the necessities of life.
Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs): organizations sponsored by several governments that seek to coordinate their efforts; some are regional (e.g. the Organization of African Unity), some are alliances (e.g the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)); and some are dedicated to a specific purpose (e.g., the the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)).
International Labor Organization (ILO): established in 1919 as part of the Versailles Peace Treaty to improve working conditions and promote social justice; the ILO became a Specialized Agency of the UN in 1946.
Legal Rights: rights that are laid down in law and can be defended and brought before courts of law.
Member States: countries that are members of the United Nations.
Moral Rights: rights that are based on general principles of fairness and justice; they are often but not always based on religious beliefs. People sometimes feel they have a moral right even when they do not have a legal right.
Natural Rights: rights that belong to people simply because they are human beings.
Nonbinding: a document, like a Declaration, that carries no formal legal obligations. It may, however, carry moral obligations or attain the force of law as Customary International Law.
Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs): organizations formed by people outside of government. NGOs monitor the proceedings of human rights bodies such as the Commission on Human Rights and are the “watchdogs” of the human rights that fall within their mandate. Some are large and international (e.g. the Red Cross, Amnesty International); others may be small and local (e.g. an organization to advocate for people with disabilities in a particular city; a coalition to promote women’s rights in one refugee camp). NGOs play a major role in influencing UN policy, and many of them have official consultative status at the UN.
Optional Protocol: the term ‘protocol’ is used for an additional legal instrument that complements and add to a treaty. A protocol may be on any topic relevant to the original treaty and is used either to further address something in the original treaty, address a new or emerging concern or add a procedure for the operation and enforcement of the treaty—such as adding an individual complaints procedure. A protocol is ‘optional’ because it is not automatically binding on States that have already ratified the original treaty; States must independently ratify or accede to a protocol.
Political Rights: the right of people to participate in the political life of their communities and society. For example, the right to vote for their government or run for office.
Protocol: a treaty which modifies another treaty (e.g., adding additional procedures or substantive provisions).
Ratify: an act by which the legislative body of a State confirms a government’s action in signing a treaty; the formal procedure by which a state becomes bound to a treaty after acceptance.
Reservation: the exceptions that States Parties make to a treaty (e.g. provisions that they do not agree to follow). Reservations, however, may not undermine the fundamental meaning of the treaty.
Self-Determination: determination by the people of a territorial unit of their own political future without coercion from powers outside that region.
Sign: in human rights an act by which a State provides a preliminary endorsement of the instrument. Signing does not create a binding legal obligation but does demonstrate the State’s intent to examine the treaty domestically and consider ratifying it. While signing does not commit a State to ratification, it does oblige the State to refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose.
State: often synonymous with “country”; a group of people permanently occupying a fixed territory having common laws and government and capable of conducting international affairs.
States Parties: countries that have ratified or acceded to a particular treaty, and are therefore legally bound by the provisions in the instrument.
Treaty: formal agreement between states that defines and modifies their mutual duties and obligations; used synonymously with Convention and Covenant. When a national government Ratifies a treaty, the articles of that treaty become part of its domestic legal obligations.
United Nations Charter: initial document of the UN setting forth its goals, functions, and responsibilities. It was adopted in San Francisco in 1945.
United Nations General Assembly: one of the principal organs of the UN, consisting of representatives of all member states. The General Assembly issues and adopts on human rights issues, debates relevant issues, and censures states that violate human rights.