International Conventions

A Convention is an international agreement between countries. These are usually developed by the United Nations or other international organizations. Governments that ratify Conventions are obliged to them into their own laws and make sure that these laws are applied and respected. Such instruments (treaties) can be seen in addition to the International Bill of Rights and the core human rights treaties. There are nine core international human rights treaties. The United Nations human rights treaties are at the core of the international system for the promotion and protection of human rights. Each of these treaties has established a committee of experts (the treaty bodies) to monitor implementation of the treaty provisions by its States parties. Some of the treaties are supplemented by optional protocols dealing with specific concerns. An Optional Protocol to a treaty is an instrument that establishes additional rights and obligations to a treaty

International Treaty Bodies: (human rights expert committees)

What is a Human Rights Treaty Body? (2min. Video)

Since 1948, States have adopted nine international human rights treaties and several Optional Protocols. These include a treaty that addresses civil and political rights, and one that covers economic, social and cultural rights. Some of the treaties relate to the rights of specific groups, such as children, migrant workers and their families, and persons with disabilities. Other treaties focus on preventing and tackling specific human rights violations, for example torture, enforced disappearances, racial discrimination, and discrimination against woman. Many of the Optional Protocols include procedures for individual complaints and inquiries.

The nine UN human rights conventions are:

  1. International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of racial discrimination 
    • The Convention on the Elimination of All Racial Discrimination was adopted by the General Assembly on 21 December 1965 by resolution 2106 (XX), and it entered into force on 4 January 1969. The Convention consists of a preamble and 25 articles. By the Convention, States parties condemn racial discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms. The Convention establishes a Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is to report annually to the General Assembly on, inter alia, measures undertaken by States parties to give effect to the provisions of the Convention, and which may handle disputes between States parties concerning the Convention.

  2. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  3. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 
    • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were adopted by the General Assembly by its resolution 2200 A (XXI) of 16 December 1966. The preambles and articles 1, 3 and 5 of the two International Covenants are almost identical. The preambles recall the obligation of States under the Charter of the United Nations to promote human rights; remind the individual of his responsibility to strive for the promotion and observance of those rights; and recognize that, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want can be achieved only if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his economic, social and cultural rights.
      Article 1 of each Covenant states that the right to self-determination is universal and calls upon States to promote the realization of that right and to respect it.
  4. Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Woman 
    • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations by its resolution 34/180 on 18 December 1979. The Convention entered into force on 3 September 1981 as the first global and comprehensive legally binding international treaty aimed at the elimination of all forms of sex- and gender-based discrimination against women. As of December 2008, it had been accepted by 185 State parties. Although preceded by a number of general human rights treaties explicitly providing that the rights they establish shall be available to women and men on an equal basis, as well as those which address particular forms of discrimination against women, the rationale for the Convention is clearly stated in its Preamble which indicates “despite these various instruments extensive discrimination against women continues to exist”.
      The Convention’s aim is the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women both de jure and de facto, resulting from the activities or omissions on the part of States parties, their agents, or committed by any persons or organizations in all fields of life, including in the areas of politics, economy, society, culture, civil and family life. Its goal is the recognition and achievement of the de jure and de facto equality of women and men, which is to be achieved by a policy of elimination of all forms of discrimination against women incorporating all appropriate legislative and programmatic measures.
  5. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment 
    • The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Torture Convention”) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1984 (resolution 39/46). The Convention entered into force on 26 June 1987 after it had been ratified by 20 States. The definition of torture which appeared in the Torture Declaration was considered not to be precise enough and was criticized on various points. The discussions resulted in a more elaborate – and also more complex – definition which appears in article 1, paragraph 1, of the Torture Convention.
  6. International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families 
    • The UN Convention on Migrant Workers’ Rights is the most comprehensive international treaty in the field of migration and human rights. It was adopted in 1990 and it entered into force in 2003. The convention sets a standard in terms of access to human rights for migrants. However, it suffers from a marked indifference: only forty states have ratified it and no major immigration country has done so. This highlights how migrants remain forgotten in terms of access to rights. Even though their labor is essential in the world economy, the non-economic aspect of migration – and especially migrants’ rights – remain a neglected dimension of globalization.
  7. International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from forced Disappearance 
    • The International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance entered into force on 23 December 2010. The Convention is divided into three parts. Part I (articles 1 to 25) proclaims that no one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance (article 1, paragraph 1), defines “enforced disappearance” for the purposes of the Convention, and identifies the obligations incumbent upon States Parties, including the obligation to take appropriate measures to investigate the relevant acts (article 3) and to take the necessary measures to ensure that enforced disappearance constitutes an offence under its criminal law (article 4). It also imposes, inter alia, obligations upon States concerning jurisdiction and prosecution of such crime.
  8. Conventions on the Right of the Child

    • The Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force on 2 September 1990. States parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child have committed to respect and ensure the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of children. The Convention provides for the realization of these rights by setting standards for health, education, legal, civil, and social services for children. Three optional protocols to the Convention have been adopted by the General Assembly. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography was adopted on 25 May 2000 and came into force on 18 January 2002. It requires States parties to prohibit the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
  9. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities 
    • The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly by its resolution 61/106 of 13 December 2006 and entered into force on 3 May 2008. By the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, States Parties undertake to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. The Convention outlines specific steps to be taken by States Parties, including the implementation of laws and administrative measures, to ensure the enjoyment of these rights and to promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.


The Optional Protocols to the conventions are to be found within the individual links above.


What are the United Nations human rights expert committees?

  • When a State ratifies an international human rights treaty, it assumes the legal obligation to implement the treaty’s provisions and abide by them. It also agrees to report periodically to the relevant committee on what progress it has made. For each treaty there is a committee that reviews these reports and monitors how successfully States are implementing the rights in the treaty.
  • The members of the committee are unpaid independent experts, nominated and elected by States. It is important that a committee’s membership is drawn from different parts of the world, and from different cultural and legal backgrounds, and that there is balanced gender representation
  • Membership ranges from 10 to 25 experts, depending on the committee.


What role do governments play in the process?

  • It is important that States submit timely and informative reports. Officials from the respective ministries of the State under review are likely to be involved in preparing the information to submit to the committee. The United Nations Human Rights Office provides guidance on this and there are substantive guidelines on how to prepare the report.


How involved are other parties in the process?

  • All committees welcome submissions from civil society groups, national human rights institutions, and United Nations bodies (for example UNICEF, ILO, UNHCR, and UN Woman). They can provide the committees with information and analysis at different stages of the review cycle. This helps the committee members get a more detailed understanding of the human rights situation in the country so they can base their findings on multiple sources, not just the State’s own evaluation of how it is doing.


Individual complaints

  • Most committees can also consider complaints by individuals who believe their rights have been violated.


The following general conditions need to be met:

  • The State must have ratified the treaty in question.
  • The State must have agreed to be bound by the complaints process (often established in an Optional Protocol)
  • The individual (or group of individuals) must have exhausted all the legal steps in their own country – the complaints process is the final option.

More specific conditions, known as admissibility criteria, apply depending on the treaty in question.

How can you file a complaint?

  • If all above conditions are met, you can lodge a complaint with a specific committee. You don’t need a lawyer, but legal advice may be helpful in drafting and submitting your complaint.
  • You can also submit on behalf of an alleged victim, with her/his written consent. Sometimes consent is not needed; for example if the alleged victim is in prison without access to the outside world, or is a victim of enforced disappearance.
  • You can find out more about the complaints procedure here:
  • A searchable database of the case law is also available at



Malaysia has so far only ratified three of the above mentioned nine United Nations (UN) Conventions: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The other six are still left to be ratified, which puts Malaysia in the bottom 10 countries in the UN on upholding such agreements (number 187 out of 195).

In addition, when  Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010, it declared that it would not be bound by Articles 15 and 18; “Freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”, and “Liberty of movement and nationality for persons with disabilities”. Other obligations under the treaty have been codified in the 2008 Persons with Disabilities Act. Persons with Disabilities (PWD’s) are among the most vulnerable groups in the society.

Malaysia has a National Human Rights Commission (“SUHAKAM”) with the power to accept individual complaints of human rights abuse and to raise human rights issues towards the Government. The Commission’s findings and recommendations, however, are not binding and the current Government tends to not answer or follow up on the Commission’s reports.