Human Rights Mechanisms

If a business violates human rights, you could consider using international, regional and/or national human rights bodies as a part of your advocacy strategy. These bodies generally focus on the human rights obligations of governments, including all government agencies and officials (referred to as states under international law). These bodies may be able to address the failure of relevant governments to protect against human rights violations committed by businesses. Some may also be willing to address the human rights responsibilities of businesses.

UN human rights bodies that you could use for your advocacy include:

  • Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, which are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights themes or country-specific issues. These human rights experts can send letters and urgent appeals to governments or other actors, including companies and development banks, to bring alleged violations to their attention. You can submit a complaint about a human rights violation to the relevant thematic expert — including the right to food, adequate housing, or indigenous peoples — explaining all of the important facts and requesting that they send a letter to the business managing the project, and/or one or more of the other key actors along the investment chain.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has general information on communicating with these thematic experts. It also has contact details for the the thematic experts, as well as those who focus on specific countries.

  • Human Rights treaty bodies, including the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Human Rights Committee, which are made up of experts from around the world. You can use these bodies in two ways:
    1. States that have ratified or acceded (formally agreed) to human rights treaties are required to report on their compliance with the treaty obligations to the corresponding treaty body every few years. For example, states that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are required to report to the corresponding committee on the situation in their country regarding, for example, the rights to an adequate standard of living, education and health. States that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are required to report to the Human Rights Council regarding rights to, for example, privacy and freedom of expression.While it is governments that must report to the committees, civil society can also provide information, including by submitting parallel reports about the human rights situation or specific cases of human rights abuses. When the country in which the human rights violation occurred reports to a relevant treaty body, you can consider submitting information about your case. It is also possible to submit information about the case when the home country of a key actor along the investment chain is being reviewed by a relevant treaty body. Make sure to clearly explain the connection between the human rights violation and the failure of the home country government to regulate the overseas activities of the company. The treaty body may then address the issue or case in its review of the country and refer to it in its concluding observations, which you can then use to bolster your advocacy.
    2. If the state has signed up to the Optional Protocol of the the ICCPR or ICESCR, you can submit a complaint, called an individual communication, to the relevant treaty body about the specific violations by the state of its treaty obligations in your case. If the committee decides the complaint is admissible, it generally considers the complaint on the basis of written information by the complainants and the government. If the committee decides that the state is in violation of human rights recognised in the treaty, it asks the government to provide information within a set time period about the steps it has taken to give effect to its findings and recommendations to remedy the violation.

You can find out more information about the Human Rights Commission and about the CESCR on their respective websites. You can find out if the relevant country is a party to ICCPR, ICESCR and the Optional Protocols here.

  • The Universal Periodic Review, under which the human rights records of all member states of the United Nations are reviewed every few years by members of the Human Rights Council, which includes other states. NGOs can submit information through a report, which is considered during the review and may influence the outcome report, including the recommendations. You can find out more here.


These bodies can make critical findings, comments or recommendations about human rights violations that you could use in your broader advocacy strategy. However, they do not make binding and enforceable decisions. Consider the likely responsiveness of the government and other actors along the investment chain to a critical finding by a UN human rights body in deciding whether or not it is worth the effort and resources to pursue this as part of your advocacy strategy. Review your the pressure point analysis you have done on Worksheet 3 to help you decide.

In addition to human rights organizations in your own country, the following international organizations and networks may be able to provide advice and assistance in using UN human rights bodies:

Box 16: Using National and Regional Human Rights Bodies

Many countries have national human rights institutions, some of which are mandated to investigate individual complaints about human rights violations. Some of these national bodies can only investigate complaints against government agencies and officials. Others, such as the Thai Human Rights Commission, have the power to investigate complaints against companies registered in their jurisdiction, including the overseas activities of those companies (See Box 22 for more information.)

Research the mandates, effectiveness and track records of the national human rights institutions that may be relevant to your investment chain to decide whether it’s worth filing a complaint. You will also need to check if the institutions have the power to consider violations of the particular human rights that have been breached in your case. Most have their own website, which will provide you with information about their mandate.

Africa, the Americas and Europe have regional human rights courts and commissions that may be worth using as a part of your advocacy strategy. Individuals and communities can file complaints to these courts to seek justice and remedies for human rights violations committed by a country. This can include violations that government agencies and officials allowed to occur or failed to prevent. It’s generally necessary to first try resolving the grievances at the local or national level, such as in domestic courts. You can find more information about regional human rights bodies at the International Justice Resource Center.