Adoption: Usually refers to the initial diplomatic stage at which the official text of a treaty is accepted, in the case of a UN treaty by the General Assembly. After adoption a treaty must usually be ratified by individual governments.
Affirmative action (also positive discrimination, reverse discrimination): Action taken by a government or private institution to make up for past discrimination in education, employment, or promotion on the basis of gender, race, ethnic origin, religion, or disability
African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (African Charter): A Regional human rights treaty for the African continent adopted by the Organization of Africa Unity (OAU) in 1981.
American Convention on Human Rights (American Convention): A human rights treaty adopted by the Organisation for American States (OAS) in 1969. It covers North, Central and South America.
Children’s Convention: See Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Civil and Political Rights: The rights of citizens to liberty and equality; sometimes referred to as first generation rights. Civil rights include freedom to worship, to think and express oneself, to vote, to take part in political life, and to have access to information.
Codification, Codify: The process of bringing customary international law to written form.
Collective Rights: The rights of groups to protect their interests and identities.
Convention: Binding agreement between states; used synonymously with Treaty and Covenant. Conventions are stronger than Declarations because they are legally binding for governments that have signed them. When the a convention, it creates international norms and standards. Once a convention is adopted by the UN General Assembly, Member States can then ratify the convention, promising to uphold it. Governments that violate the standards set forth in a convention can then be censured by the UN.
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT, Torture Convention), (adopted 1984; entered into force 1987): Aims to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman degrading treatment or punishment around the world. Requires states to take effective measures to prevent torture within their borders, and forbids states to transport people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured.
Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Women’s Convention) (adopted 1979; entered into force 1981): The first legally binding international document prohibiting discrimination against women and obligating governments to take affirmative steps to advance the equality of women.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
(CERD, Race Convention) (adopted 1965; entered into force 1969): Commits States parties to the elimination of racial discrimination and the promotion of understanding among all races. Controversially, the Convention also requires its parties to outlaw hate speech and criminalize membership in racist organizations.
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
(CPPCG, Genocide Convention) (adopted 1948; entered into force 1951): Defines genocide in legal terms. All States parties are advised to prevent and punish actions of genocide in war and in peacetime.
Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) (adopted 1990; entered into force 1998): Treaty defining the rights of migrant workers and their families.
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD, Disability Convention) (adopted 2007; entered into force 2008): Protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. States parties to the Convention are required to promote, protect, and ensure the full enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities and ensure that they enjoy full equality under the law.
Convention on the Rights of the Child (Children’s Convention, CRC) (adopted 1989; entered into force 1990): Convention setting forth a full spectrum of civil, cultural, economic, social, and political rights for children..
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) (adopted 1951; entered into force 1954): Defines who is a refugee, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum. The Convention also sets out which people do not qualify as refugees, such as war criminals.
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). Both were adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976.
Cultural relativism: The view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context. In other words, “right” and “wrong” are culture-specific; what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another, and, since no universal standard of morality exists, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs. Contradict the human rights principle of universal standards.
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: Document stating agreed-upon standards but which is not legally binding. UN conferences (e.g., the1993 UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the 1995 World Conference for Women in Beijing) usually produce two sets of declarations: one written by government representatives and one by Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs). The UN General Assembly often issues influential but legally nonbinding declarations.
Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981): Offers broad protections for religious freedom.
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, 2007): Codifies Indigenous historical grievances, contemporary challenges and socio-economic, political and cultural aspirations.” A culmination of generations-long efforts by Indigenous organizations to get international attention, to secure recognition for their aspirations, and to generate support for their political agendas.
Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic Religious and Linguistic Minorities, (1992): Codifies the rights of minorities.
Disability Convention: See Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Entry into force: The process through which a treaty becomes fully binding on the states that have ratified it. This happens when the minimum number of ratifications called for by the treaty has been achieved.
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.
European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention, ECHR): A regional human rights treaty adopted in 1950 by the Council of Europe. All Council of Europe member states are party to the ECHR, and new members are expected to ratify the convention at the earliest opportunity.
Evolving capacity: An innovative principle in the Children’s Convention that as children acquire enhanced competencies, there is a reduced need for direction and a greater capacity to take responsibility for decisions affecting their lives. The Convention recognizes that children in different environments and cultures who are faced with diverse life experiences will acquire competencies at different ages, and their acquisition of competencies will vary according to circumstances. It also allows for the fact that children’s capacities can differ according to the nature of the rights to be exercised. Children, therefore, require varying degrees of protection, participation and opportunity for autonomous decision-making in different contexts and across different areas of decision-making.
Food Security: Term used broadly to describe a situation in which people have continuity of food of adequate quantity and quality and cultural appropirateness, or the methods by which this aim is achieved.
Gender: A social construct that informs roles, attitudes, values and relationships regarding women and men. While sex is determined by biology, gender is determined by society, almost always functioning to subordinate women to men.
General Comment: A written statement by the treaty body that monitors a UN treaty (e.g., Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) that advises States Parties how best to fulfill their obligations under that treaty. They also analyze and interpret the meaning, content and scope of a treaty.
General Assembly: The main deliberative, policymaking, and representative organ of the United Nations. Comprising all 193 Members of the United Nations, it provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the Charter.
Geneva Conventions: Four treaties adopted in 1949 under the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. These treaties revise and expanded original treaties adopted in 1864 and 1929. They address the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers and sailors, prisoners of war and civilians under enemy control.
Genocide Convention: See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Humanitarian law: the body of law, mainly based on the Geneva Conventions, that protects certain persons in times of armed conflict, helps victims and limits the methods and means of combat in order to minimize destruction, loss of life and unnecessary human suffering.
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 framework: The interrelated UN human rights mechanisms that define and protects civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Human Rights Council: The body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its States Parties; replaced the Human Rights Committee in 2006.
Human trafficking: The trade in human beings, most commonly for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labor, or commercial sexual exploitation. It can also include trade in the extracting organs or tissues or for providing a spouse in the context of forced marriage. Can occur within a country or trans-nationally.
Illegal alien: An alien (non-citizen) who has entered a country without government permission or stayed beyond the termination date of a visa.
Inalienable: Refers to the principle that human rights that belong to every person and cannot be taken from a person under any circumstances. Human rights automatically belong to each human being. They are not given to people by their government or any other authority, nor can they can be taken away.
Individual right: Refers to rights inherent to individual human beings. Contrasts with collective rights which refers to rights of groups as a whole to protect their interests and identities
Indivisible: Refers to the principle that each human rights is of equal importance. 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.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs): Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or other natural or human-made disasters and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.
Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs): Organizations sponsored by several governments that seek to coordinate their efforts; some are regional (e.g., the Council of Europe, the Organisation of American States), some are alliances (e.g., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization); and some are dedicated to a specific purpose (e.g., the World Health Organisation, International Labour Organisation).
International Bill of Human Rights: The combination of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its Optional Protocol, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
International Court of Justice (ICJ): The principal judicial branch of the UN. Its main functions are to settle legal disputes submitted to it by UN Member States and to provide advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by duly authorized international branches, UN agencies, and the UN General Assembly. Commonly referred to as the World Court.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)(Adopted 1966; entered into force 1976): The ICCPR declares that all people have a broad range of civil and political rights. One of the components of the International Bill of Human Rights .
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR): (Adopted 1966; entered into force 1976): The ICESCR declares that all people have a broad range of economic, social, and cultural rights. One of the components of the International Bill of Human Rights.
International Criminal Court (ICC): Established by the Rome State, which entered into force in 2002, the ICC is the first ever permanent, treaty-based international criminal court to promote the rule of law and ensure that the gravest international crimes do not go unpunished.
International humanitarian law: the body of law, mainly based on the Geneva Conventions, that protects certain persons in times of armed conflict, helps victims and limits the methods and means of combat in order to minimize destruction, loss of life and unnecessary human suffering.
International Labor Organisation (ILO): An intergovernmental organization 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.
Legally binding: Establishing lawful accountability. In human rights law refers to a Covenant, convention or treaty.
Member States: Countries that are members an intergovernmental organizations (e.g., the United Nations, the Council of Europe).
Migrant: The UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants defines a migrant worker as a “person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.”
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
Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs): Organizations formed by people outside of government. NGOs monitor the proceedings of human rights bodies such as the Human Rights Council of the United Nations 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, the Scouts); 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 have official consultative status at the UN
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): See United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Optional Protocol: A treaty that modifies another treaty (e.g., adding additional procedures or provisions). It is called “optional” because a government that has ratified the original treaty can choose whether or not to ratify the changes made in the protocol.
Race Convention: See Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
Ratification, Ratify: Process by which the legislative body of a state confirms a government’s action in signing a treaty; formal procedure by which a state becomes bound to a treaty after acceptance.
Refoulement: A key facet of refugee law, that concerns the protection of refugees from being returned or expelled to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.
Refugee: A person who is outside their home country because they have suffered (or feared) persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or because they are a member of a persecuted social category of persons or because they are fleeing a war.
Refugee Convention (See 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees)
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.
Resident Alien: An non-citizen admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Lawful permanent residents are legally accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the United States.
Signing, Sign: In human rights the first step in ratification of a treaty; to sign a Declaration, Convention, or one of the Covenants constitutes a promise to adhere to the principles in the document and to honor its spirit.
Special Rapporteur: A person chosen by a UN human rights body to report on a particular theme (e.g., on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; on violence against women) or on the human rights situation in a particular country.
States Party(ies): Those countries that have ratified a Covenant or a convention and are thereby bound to conform to its provisions.
Torture Convention: See Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Treaty: Formal agreement between states that defines and modifies their mutual duties and obligations; used synonymously 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 articles of that treaty become part of its domestic legal obligations.
Treaty bodies: Oversee implementation of the core international human rights treaties. The treaty bodies consist of independent, impartial members who are elected by the states parties to the treaty. Also called “treaty monitoring bodies.”
United Nations Charter: Initial document of the UN setting forth its goals, functions, and responsibilities; adopted in San Francisco in 1945.
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child: The body of 18 Independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two Optional Protocols by its State parties
United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM): Created in 1976 by the UN General Assembly, INIFEM promotes of the human rights of women and ensures their participation in all levels of development planning and practice.
United Nations Development Program (UNDP): Formed by the General Assembly in 1965, this body administers and coordinates most of the technical assistance provided through the UN system to help countries achieve sustainable human development, especially poverty eradication.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): Created in 1945, UNESCO included human rights in its mandate to promote international cooperation in the fields of education, science, and culture, while seeking to forge universal agreements on emerging ethical issues and to serve as a clearinghouse for the dissemination and sharing of information and knowledge.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): A UN agency of the that coordinates its environmental activities, assisting developing countries in implementing environmentally sound policies and practices.
United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): UN agency mandated to protect and support refugees and assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.
United Nations Millennium Declaration: In September 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted this global agenda for the 21st century, defining values, thematic issues, and goals to guide the daily activities of the UN and its programs.
United Nations Programme for Development (UNDP): Advocates for change and connects countries to knowledge, experience, and resources to help people build a better life. Provides expert advice, training, and grant support to developing countries, with increasing emphasis on assistance to the least developed countries.
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): Established in 1993, the OHCHR has formal responsibility for UN human rights activities. It serves as the Secretariat of the Human Rights Council, the committees that monitor human rights treaties, and other UN human rights organs
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (Adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948): Primary UN document establishing human rights standards and norms. All UN member states have agreed to uphold the UDHR. Although the UDHR was intended to be nonbinding, through time its various provisions have become so respected by states that it can now be said to be customary international law. One component of the International Bill of Rights.
Universal, Universality: A principle that all human rights are held by all persons in all states and societies in the world.
Universal Periodic Review (UPR): A mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council that periodically examines the human rights performance of all 193 UN Member States. The first international human rights mechanism to address all countries and all human rights.
Women’s Convention: See Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women..
World Health Organization (WHO): Created in 1946, this UN agency works for “the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health” by coordinating international action, technical assistance and training of health providers.
Sources: Adapted from Julie Mertus and Nancy Flowers, Local Action/Global Change, Ed O’Brien et al, HumanRights for All, and Frank Newman and David Weissbrodt, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process.