Human rights standards: learning from experience

Document Type: Publication
Date: 2006

The report examines the recent evolution of international human rights standard setting processes in the United Nations and some of its specialised agencies, programmes and funds.

It refers to regional standard-setting processes but it does not discuss them in detail.

It covers formal processes that lead to the adoption of instruments that require ratification or accession to become binding; and more informal processes, for example instruments that do not include binding legal obligations but which provide practical guidance to states in their conduct or have moral force.

Standards are defined as internationally negotiated or endorsed human rights documents (instruments), whether these are binding or not binding. Binding documents codify or create legal obligations or duties (“hard law”), while nonbinding documents make recommendations about norms of conduct and policy (“soft law”).

The report also discusses supervisory mechanisms, many of which are also established through intergovernmental negotiations, to monitor the implementation of human rights norms. Some of these mechanisms were created at the same time as the standards they monitor; others were negotiated separately.

Discussions of standards that would directly implicate non-state actors, such as transnational corporations and armed groups, are increasingly common. This is an emerging trend in human rights policy that is likely to develop actively in coming years. Most past standards have focused on the obligations of states, however, and this report – which draws lessons from past experience – does so too.

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