How to file a complaint at the international level for a human rights violation?

If you are thinking about using an international human rights mechanism to file a complaint for a concrete human rights violation, you should carefully consider which mechanism suits best your needs. There are a number of international mechanisms that can receive complaints, yet they all have their advantages and limitations. These are listed in detail below.

Yet before examining which mechanism fits best your case, you should start preparing by gathering the following information and answering the following questions:

  • List all the facts in chronological order: What has happened? Which individuals or groups were involved? When precisely did what happen? Who has observed the incident?
  • Who is the victim? Starting from your list of facts, identify the person or people who’s rights have been violated.
  • Who is the perpetrator? Again looking at your facts, identify all the actors that have committed a human rights violation.
  • Which human right has been violated? Going through the facts you have listed, you need to find out which right has been violated. Often several rights may be applicable to your case.

    Example: A man has been arrested at a demonstration against a new law. He was beaten up by policemen at the police station and then locked into a cell where he has been kept for two weeks by now without being charged of having broken a law. The following rights may have been violated in this case: freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, right to physical integrity, right to fair trial.

    It is important that you identify exclusively rights that have a legal basis and that are part of human rights law.

    Examples of human rights: The right to life and physical integrity, the right to food or the right to health are human rights.

    Examples that are not human rights: There is no human right to happiness, no human right to receive a free meal every day, and no human right not to be disturbed during the night by neighbours’ noise.

    Each human right comes with a set of conditions and criteria that need to correspond to the facts you have listed. You may find these conditions in international human rights conventions or in cases that have been dealt with earlier by international human rights mechanisms (so-called case law, where yesterday’s cases influence what today has become law).
  • Is the right you have identified applicable to the State you have identified as the perpetrator?

    You do not need to check this point if you are filing a complaint to Special Procedures or to the Complaint Procedure Human Rights Council!

    Human rights that are part of international customary law are applicable to all states. Human rights that are listed in an international treaty are only applicable to a state if the latter has ratified the treaty. Even if a state has ratified the treaty that guarantees the human right you are aiming at, you still need to check whether the state has not issued a reservation with regard to the article where your right is listed.
  • Who is the source for your information?: Where did you get the information regarding the facts? Why can the source(s) be considered credible?

To learn more about international human rights law, including customary law, treaties, ratification and reservations, see our page on international law.

Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council

Some (but not all) special procedures can receive individual complaints which are called "communications". For thematic special procedures, communications can refer to violations committed in any country of the world, yet the violation has to relate to the right(s) that fall under the competence of the mandate contacted. For country-based procedures, communications can refer to a violation of any human right committed within a specific country. No previous action at the domestic level is required before contacting special procedures. Among all the mechanisms listed, the special procedures are probably the most appropriate ones if urgent action is required, since they can react quickly (issuing so-called urgent appeals). Action of special procedures does not produce a legally binding result, but relies more on the contact made by the mandate holder with the government. Mandate holders can also make cases public, which usually receive high attention. Special procedures only give feedback on communications received if they require a follow-up. Yet it is possible (and even recommended) to stay in contact with the mandate on an ongoing basis. You may also request a meeting with the special procedures assistant or the mandate holder himself.

  • Applicability to states: All states.
  • Applicable law:
    for thematic procedures: Rights that fall within the scope of the mandate.
    - for country-based procedures: Any human right.
  • Exhaustion of domestic remedies required: No.
  • Possibility to simultaneously seize other international mechanisms: Any other procedure.
  • Rapidity of reaction: Can be quick, the most appropriate mechanism for urgent matters.
  • Nature of the result: No legally binding result. Yet allegations raised by a high-level UN representative can create political pressure.
  • Feedback: Usually no feedback, unless follow-up information is required.
  • Publicity: Public action possible.
  • Who can submit a complaint?: Individuals or organisations acting on behalf of an individual. No requirement for written consent of the victim.
  • Submit your complaint to: urgent-action(at) or specific country and thematic mandates.

For a detailed explanation on how to submit a communication to special procedures, see NGOs and Special Procedures. On the functioning of this mechanism in general, see Special Procedures.

Complaint Procedure of the Human Rights Council

The complaint procedure has been established to address gross and systematic violations of any human right in any country of the world. Action may though only be taken if the complaints received point to a pattern of grave human rights violations - one single complaint is not enough to trigger the mechanism. Domestic remedies must have been exhausted before the complaint procedure can be seized, and no complaint can be filed if another international mechanism has already been seized in the same matter. The complaint procedure may take a long time, and a complainant does not get feedback due to the confidential nature of the mechanism, which may be very frustrating for victims or their families. The Human Rights Council is in fact free to decide whether to keep the situation under review and request further information from the concerned state, to appoint an independent expert to monitor the situation and report back to the Council, to request the OHCHR to provide technical cooperation to the concerned state, to take up public consideration of the situation or to discontinue considering it. Whether a complaint has made it to the Council and whether the latter takes action on that basis is often unclear for outsiders. Yet this mechanism may still be useful in situations where human rights violations are committed on a large scale and require political action. This procedure can also be used as a fall-back solution, wherever a special procedures mandate does not exist and/or where a state has not ratified the relevant human rights treaty and accepted the relating complaints procedure.

  • Applicability to states: All states.
  • Applicable law: All human rights - addresses situations of grave and systematic violations.
  • Exhaustion of domestic remedies required: Yes.
  • Possibility to simultaneously seize other international mechanisms: Only special procedures.
  • Rapidity of reaction: Takes time.
  • Nature of the result: Not clear.
  • Feedback: No feedback.
  • Publicity: Confidential.
  • Who can submit a complaint?: Individual victims or groups of victims, as well as individuals or organisations claiming to have direct and reliable knowledge of the violations. No requirement for written consent of the victim.
  • Submit your complaint to: cp(at)

More information on the functioning of the complaint procedure is available in our FAQ section and on the official website of the complaint procedure.

Treaty Bodies Complaints Procedures

Treaty bodies are Committees composed of independent experts who monitor the implementation of nine human rights treaties. Each of these treaties provides for the possibility for individuals to submit a complaint if they believe their right guaranteed in the treaty has been violated. This possibility is though only open to you if the perpetrating state has 1) ratified the treaty that protects the relevant right and 2) accepted the competence of the Committee to receive individual complaints. A state can accept this competence either through ratifying an additional optional protocol to the treaty (CESCR, CCPR, CEDAW, CRC and CED) or through issuing a declaration under the article providing for the competence of the treaty body to receive individual complaints (CERD, CAT, CMW and CED). Before filing a complaint to a treaty body, you must have exhausted domestic remedies, and a Committee will not accept your complaint has already been submitted to another international complaints mechanism. Petitions with treaty bodies usually take time, yet if successful, they yield a result that is binding.

  • Applicability to states: Only to states that have ratified the relevant treaty and have accepted the competence of the treaty body to consider individual complaints (through ratifying an optional protocol or making a declaration in that sense).
  • Applicable law: All the rights guaranteed within the relevant human rights treaty.
  • Exhaustion of domestic remedies required: Yes.
  • Possibility to simultaneously seize other international mechanisms: Only special procedures.
  • Rapidity of reaction: Takes time (several years). Yet possibility for the treaty body to request interim measures to prevent irreparable harm. Some treaty bodies also have the possibility to conduct inquiries.
  • Nature of the result: Binding.
  • Feedback: Petitioner is informed of registration of his case and can comment on State's observation regarding admissibility of the case as well as its merits.
  • Publicity: Conclusions or views are published.
  • Who can submit a complaint? : Victim(s) and individuals or groups acting on their behalf (varies from one treaty body to another). Requirement for written consent of the victim, except for special circumstances.
  • Submit your complaint to: Model complaint form, tbpetitions(at), Fax for urgent matters: +41 22 917 90 22

Specific conditions for the submission of communications to treaty bodies vary from one treaty to another, and it is thus important to carefully check requirements before submitting a complaint. The nine treaties and their relevant treaty bodies are the following:

Treaty / Convention Treaty body / Committee Competence of the treaty body to receive individual complaints Specific conditions, Instructions on how to submit a complaint, jurisprudence / case law.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) Optional Protocol entered into force on 5th May 2013 Fact Sheet 16, ESCR-Net, CETIM
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Human Rights Committee (CCPR) If the state has ratified the Optional Protocol Instructions, Instructions II, Model Complaint Form, CCPR Centre, Case law. If complaint submitted on behalf of victim, an intimate personal link is required!
International Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) If the state has made a declaration under article 14 Instructions, Instructions II, Model Complaint Form, Fact Sheet 12, Case law, Need to file complaint within 6 months of exhaustion of domestic remedies!
Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) If the state has ratified the Optional Protocol

Secretariat, Instructions, IWRAW, Model complaint form, Rules of Procedure, Fact Sheet 22, Case law

Convention against Torture Committee against Torture (CAT) If the state has made a declaration under article 22 Instructions, Instructions II, Model Complaint Form, Fact Sheet 17, Case law
Convention on the Rights of the Child Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) entry into force of Third Optional Protocol on 14th April 2014

NGO Group for the CRC, Fact sheet 10, CRIN'S Guide

Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) pending entry into force after 10 declarations under article 77 Fact Sheet 24
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) If the state has ratified the Optional Protocol Instructions, IDA, IPU Handbook, Guidelines
Convention on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) If the state has made a declaration under article 31 Instructions, Fact Sheet 6, ICAED

There are also a number of very useful resources on the treaty body system as a whole we recommend you check when considering submitting a complaint:

Resources on complaints to treaty bodies
  • Handbook for Civil Society explaining the functioning of the UN Human Rights System (see chapter VIII).
  • Bayefsky: Very comprehensive website on the treaty body system that includes detailed instructions for submitting complaints by treaty body.
  • Treaty body database by OHCHR: Very comprehensive database. To find case law, select the relevant treaty, and "jurisprudence" under "Type".
  • 23 FAQ by OHCHR: instructions on how to submit a complaint (not all relevant treaties listed yet)

Comprehensive information on treaty bodies is available on the OHCHR's website and in our publications section.

International Criminal Court

First permanent International Criminal Court, the ICC is a international juridictional entity competent to judge the most serious crimes such as genocide, crime against humanity, war crime and crime of aggression. Its seat is at The Hague in the Netherlands and gathers 122 States.

The ICC can only intervene if the States parties don't have the appropriate jurisdiction. The Court completes in a way the national jurisdiction. But the Court trials only individuals and not States. The Prosecutor can be seized for many cases. First of all, only States having ratified the Rome Statute can submit a complaint to the Prosecutor. Then, the Security Council can refer to it a case, and finally the Prosecutor can decide himself to open an inquiry. The individuals are not competent to submit a complaint to the Court. However, they may submit communications to the Prosecutor. Finally, no person would be judged for a crime committed before the entry into force of the Statute. For States having joined the Court after 2002, the retroactivity is not applied from before their ratification.

The NGOs may play a key role in the process of submitting informations to the Court or by offering assistance to the victims by helping them along the process.

  • Applicability to states : Only to States that have ratified the Rome Statute (1998). See the list of States parties.
  • Applicable law: Genocides, humanity crimes, war crimes, crime of aggression.
  • Exhaustion of domestic remedies required: Yes (exception : the State doesn't have the appropriate jurisdiction or doesn't want to seize the case
  • Possibility to simultaneously seize other international mechanisms:
  • Rapidity of reaction: Takes time (several years).
  • Nature of the result: Binding.
  • Feedback:
  • Publicity: Audiences can be followed through the Webcast, press releases and news bulletin are sent to the persons registered to the mailing list (and to the accredited journalists), but also many publications, annual reports and fundamental texts available on the ICC's website.
  • Who can submit a complaint? States parties to Rome Statute, Security Council or the Prosecutor. The individuals and the NGO's can submit communications into a file to the Prosecutor Office. The file must containt all information and details and if it is possible, proofs. Then, the Prosecutor decide to start or not an inquiry.
  • Submit your complaint to : International Criminal Court, Information and Evidence Unit, Office of the Prosecutor, Post Office Box 19519, 2500 CM The Hague, The Netherlands.

Exhaustion of domestic remedies

Some mechanisms require that domestic remedies be exhausted before they accept a complaint. This is in particular the case of the Complaint Procedure of the Human Rights Council, the treaty bodies, regional mechanisms as well as the International Criminal Court.

Having exhausted domestic remedies means that you have already taken all possible action within the domestic legal system, through courts or other complaint mechanisms (in some countries, the National Human Rights Institution). If your efforts to seek redress at the national level have not yielded a result (because your complaint has not been admitted, or because the decision has not been in your favour) domestic remedies are considered exhausted and you may file your complaint to one of the international mechanisms mentioned above.

The requirement to exhaust domestic remedies can be waived if domestic remedies have to be considered inaccessible or ineffective and thus do not offer reasonable prospects of redress for the complainant. If you think this is the case, you have to argue in detail why you consider domestic remedies to be inaccessible or ineffective.

In any case, when submitting a complaint to an international mechanism, it is crucial to detail what action you have taken in the domestic legal system (When did you file a complaint to which instances? When did the instances give you a reply? What was the outcome?). You also need to explain why there is no further action possible at the domestic level (for instance, because national laws explicitly state that a complaint cannot be taken to any further domestic instance).