What is UN Treaty Body reporting?
At the international level, all states have agreed to be bound by one or more of the core international human rights treaties. Within the United Nations, special committees have been set up to oversee, monitor and provide guidance on the implementation of human rights treaties. Every few years, states report to these treaty bodies (UNTBs) about the progress they have made in implementing these treaties.
For example, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) treaty body — a group of 18 independent experts — monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) human rights treaty.
This reporting process involves:
official state reports: relevant information submitted by the state under review
parallel reports: relevant information submitted by civil society (any person or group within civil society) to supplement or counter the official state report
- list of issues: UN committees decide on a list key topics and questions, relevant to the related treaty, that states and civil society should report on.
formal dialogue (or constructive dialogue): This is a substantive discussion between the committee and representatives of the state under review on athe list of issues previously agreed on. The dialogue is held in public and open to civil society participation. It is webcasted live at http://webtv.un.org/
concluding observations: written recommendations issued by the treaty body to the state, outlining the key steps the state should take to comply with its human rights obligations
follow-up process: some UN committees, like the CESCR, establish a process for following-up on the implementation of key concluding observations 24 months after they are issued. Civil society organizations can also submit reports.
What are states obligations regarding economic, social and cultural rights?
States have a number of general obligations in relation to all economic, social and cultural rights (as laid out in Art.2 of the ICESCR). These include:
- Progressive realization and non-retrogression: human rights treaties recognize that not all States are able to immediately guarantee full enjoyment of all ESCR to their citizens (however, they do have obligations to provide a core minimum standard, see below). For this reason, States are mandated to ‘progressively realize’ ESCR by taking positive steps to fulfil a right. In practice, this means that people should have improved enjoyment of their rights over time, better access to services etc. It also means that States should not introduce regressive measures such as budgetary cuts or legislative limitations, which restrict access to a certain right for everybody or specific categories of people.
- Use of maximum available resources: in progressive realizing a right, States should use the maximum of their available resource, both domestic and international (e.g. seeking resources from the international community). For instance, comparing countries’ expenditure towards specific sectors (health, food, education) in relation to their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) may be useful to gain a sense of how much the country is investing in ESCR. See here for more information on undertaking budget analysis around ESCR.
- Minimum core obligations: Governments, no matter what level of resources are at their disposal, are obligated to make sure that people living under their jurisdiction enjoy at least essential levels of protection of each of their economic, social, and cultural rights. Minimum obligations are usually laid out in human rights treaties and in General Comments.
- Non-discrimination and substantive equality: States have the immediate duty to ensure that women are not directly or indirectly discriminated against in access to, or fulfillment of, a substantive right. States must eliminate both formal or de jure discrimination, (discrimination that exists in States’ legal and policy frameworks), and substantive or de facto discrimination (discrimination suffered in practice, when an apparently neutral law, policy or practice disproportionately and adversely affects certain groups because of biological difference and/or socially and culturally constructed gender, ethnic, class, and other intersecting identities or circumstances). Both CEDAW and CESCR have interpreted this obligation as not only requiring states to prevent discrimination but also to take positive steps to remedy past and structural discrimination that goes beyond legal or formal equality to encompass substantive or de facto equality.
Ensuring a comprehensive implementation of the non-discrimination principle requires an understanding of the subordination, stereotyping, and structural disadvantage that women experience. To fully realize women’s economic, social and cultural rights it is necessary to apply a substantive equality approach, which encompasses: redressing disadvantage (based on historical and current social structures and power relations that define and influence women’s abilities to enjoy their human rights); addressing stereotypes, stigma, prejudice, and violence (with underlying change in the ways in which women are regarded and regard themselves, and are treated by others); transforming institutional structures and practices (which are often male-oriented and ignorant or dismissive of women’s experiences); and facilitating social inclusion and political participation (in all formal and informal decision-making processes).
The substantive equality approach requires states to acknowledge the actual impact of policies and practices on women, considering specific circumstances, and taking positive measures to ensure equal access and opportunities for women. Therefore, states must play an active role in developing and facilitating the implementation of comprehensive economic and social policies and programs that take into account different needs and circumstances of women.
Under this approach, it is also critical to integrate an intersectional analysis into the principle of non-discrimination. Discrimination against women is often multidimensional, compounding other forms of discrimination based on sex, gender, ethnic origin, disability, poverty, sexual orientation and gender identity, migrant status, marital and family status, literacy and other grounds, that position them and their experiences differently. Intersectionality is an approach that helps understand the ways in which the denial of the economic, social and cultural rights is experienced by different women and exacerbated by interconnected forms of oppression and exploitation. As a result, intersectional analysis and a substantive equality approach should also be applied in the context of parallel reporting. The templates and case studies available on our website can help strengthen this approach during the parallel reporting process and its related advocacy.
 ESCR-Net (2016) Women and ESCR Working Group briefing paper: the intersection between land and women’s economic, social and cultural rights.
 For a comprehensive explanation of States’ ESCR obligations and examples related to the right to education see pages 135-146 of Murphy, E..2019. Right to Education Handbook, Right to Education Initiative and UNESCO: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000366556?posInSet=2&queryId=N-EXPLORE-1d489ce4-6b89-4ce7-bc52-050515d5ef0c
Why engage in parallel reporting?
Parallel reporting is a strategy that enables civil society to take an active role in holding States accountable to their legally mandated obligations. In essence, parallel reporting helps to ensure that UN treaty bodies are aware of, discuss, and make recommendations to States in relation to important human rights issues that may have been overlooked or omitted in the official State report.
In addition to holding States directly accountable for human rights obligations, there are other ways that engaging with UNTBs through parallel reporting advances human rights:
- The reporting processes of UN treaty bodies constitute an important public, international space where human rights are continually reiterated, interpreted and applied to concrete situations. Parallel reporting can contribute to normative development insofar as new issues can be examined through a human rights lens, and claims regarding these issues can be grounded in human rights.
- Parallel reporting can amplify the voices of groups whose rights are being violated and who otherwise might not get adequate attention and space on a national level.
- Parallel reporting can strengthen the visibility of, and advocacy around a specific issue. Securing international recognition of a situation by the UN and States can lead to attention from media and decision-makers on a national level.
- Parallel reporting also offers a space/process for civil society groups to join forces around key human rights issues, gather relevant and up-to-date data, establish common priorities and develop collective advocacy strategies.
Choosing the relevant Treaty Body
In total, there are ten human rights treaty bodies (see below) composed of independent human rights experts who are nominated and elected by States parties to a treaty.
The following criteria may be helpful when choosing the relevant treaty body:
- Area of focus – Which treaty best addresses the issue you are working on? For instance, women’s rights issues will be more relevant to CEDAW. Most issues related to economic, social and cultural rights fall within the remit of CESCR.
- Connections with allies and partners involved in a specific review process – collective initiatives and submissions tend to be more effective for gaining traction when engaging with UNTBs.
- Stage in the reporting cycle – reporting periods range from two to five years depending on the treaty body and the year of ratification. Find out when your country is being reviewed by a UN treaty body:
- Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
- Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
- International Labour Organization-ILO. Regular reporting: Ratified Conventions
- Human Rights Committee (CCPR)
- Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
- Committee against Torture (CAT)
- Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT)
- Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
- Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW)
- Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
- Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED)
To demonstrate the interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights — and to highlight a State’s progress, or lack thereof, in fulfilling its legal obligations — it could be advantageous for advocates to strategically submit parallel reports to multiple UN treaty bodies. For instance, while women’s economic, social and cultural rights are most directly addressed under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), other core international human rights treaties may also include relevant provisions and/or guidance.
In addition, it would also be useful to consider the advantages of reporting through regional mechanisms, which can be more accessible due to factors such as language and location. For instance, reporting to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) takes place every two years and allows civil society groups to report in a number of African languages. The Commission relies on international law and refers to treaty bodies, as well as to a protocol dealing specifically with women’s rights in Africa (the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa). Also, for some States it could be seen as more legitimate or authoritative than UN institutions and, therefore, bear more political weight.
 Murphy, E., 2019, p. 212
In this guide
- What is UN Treaty Body reporting?
- What are states obligations regarding economic, social and cultural rights?
- Why engage in parallel reporting?
- Choosing the relevant Treaty Body
- How the reporting process works
- Engaging with treaty bodies before, during and after the review cycle
- Follow-up procedures
- Using a human rights-based approach to data collection
- Tips for developing your parallel report
- What kinds data to include?
You can offer and seek support from ESCR-Net members on parallel reporting, before, during and after the review cycle.
Read about how ESCR-Net members have used parallel reporting in their work