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UNESCO's human rights complaints procedure

Individuals, groups of individuals and NGOs may submit complaints to UNESCO concerning violations of human rights, for which UNESCO has a competence.This may happen irrespectively of whether the authors of these communications are themselves victims of such violations or whether they deem to have reliable knowledge of such violations.Complaints may be submitted concerning any member state of UNESCO. It is not necessary that the member state has declared such complaints as admissible or has ratified a separate convention.

Human rights for which UNESCO is competent

The rights falling under UNESCO's competence are essentially the following (each Article mentioned below refers to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as reprinted; the rights concerned also appear in the two UN Covenants of 1966):

  • the right to education (Article 26);
  • the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress (Article 27);
  • the right to participate freely in cultural life (Article 27);
  • the right to information, including freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19).

These rights may imply the exercise of others, the most noteworthy of which are:

  • the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18);
  • the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers (Article 19);
  • the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production (Article 27);
  • the right to freedom of assembly and association (Article 20) for the purposes of activities connected with education, science, culture and information.

The victims of human rights violations are normally teachers, students, researchers, artists, writers, journalists, in short intellectuals who, by virtue of their position, come under UNESCO's fields of competence, or any other person on account of having exercised one or other of the rights set out above.

What to do?

Communications intended for handling should be sent to the

Director of the Office of
International Standards and Legal Affairs of UNESCO
7 place de Fontenoy
F - 75352 Paris 07 SP,
Fax: xx 33-1-456 85575

The letter containing a concise statement of the allegations must be signed and drafted in one of the Organization's working languages (English or French). UNESCO's Secretariat will then send to the author of the letter a form to be completed which constitutes his/her communication and which will be transmitted to the government concerned and examined by the "Committee on Conventions and Recommendations" (CR) responsible for implementing the procedure. In other words, the initial letter to UNESCO is not considered to be the communication formally examined by UNESCO; it is only after the return of the form to UNESCO that a communication is formally deemed to exist.

The CR Committee examines communications in private session. In the first instance, it examines the admissibility of the communications. There are ten conditions governing admissibility ; if one of them is not met, no further action is taken on the communication. Thus, for a communication to be admissible, it must meet the following conditions:

  • the communication must not be anonymous;
  • the communication must originate from a person or a group of persons who, it can be reasonably presumed, are victims of an alleged violation of any of the human rights referred to above. It may also originate from any person, group of persons or organization having reliable knowledge of those violations;
  • the communication must concern violations of human rights falling within UNESCO's competence in the fields of education, science, culture and information and must not be motivated exclusively by other considerations;
  • the communication must be compatible with the principles of the Organization, the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international covenants on human rights and other international instruments in the field of human rights;
  • the communication must not be manifestly ill-founded and must appear to contain relevant evidence;
  • the communication must be neither offensive nor an abuse of the right to submit communications. However, such a communication may be considered if it meets all other criteria or admissibility, after the exclusion of the offensive or abusive parts;
  • the communication must not be based exclusively on information disseminated through the mass media;
  • the communication must be submitted within a reasonable time-limit following the facts which constitute its subject-matter or within a reasonable time-limit after the facts have become known;
  • the communication must indicate whether an attempt has been made to exhaust available domestic remedies with regard to the facts which constitute the subject-matter of the communication and the result of such an attempt, if any;
  • communications relating to matters already settled by the States concerned in accordance with the human rights principles set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants on human rights shall not be considered;

Once the Committee is satisfied that the conditions have been fully met, a communication is normally declared admissible and the merits are considered at the next session. The Committee notifies both the author of the communication and the government concerned of its decision on admissibility.

What happens next?

The Committee then proceeds to examine the substance of the communications. For this purpose and in order to establish a dialogue, the representatives of the governments concerned are invited to provide information or answer questions asked by members of the Committee on either the admissibility or the merits of the communication. Deliberation on the content of the decision to be taken for each decision takes place after the representatives of the State concerned left. Also, members of the Committee representing countries about which a communication has been raised will not be present for the private discussion leading to a decision. Since the Committee is not an international tribunal, it endeavors to resolve the problem in a spirit of international co-operation and mutual understanding. In search for an amicable solution, the Committee works in strictest confidentiality, which is seen vital to the success of its action. The aim of the Committee's work is not to condemn the government concerned, but to improve the situation of the alleged victim.

After the session during which a communication was examined by the Committee, its author and the government concerned are informed of the Committee's decision, which is not subject to appeal. However, the Committee may agree to re-examine a communication if it receives additional information or new facts.

This confidential procedure for the examination of individual communications has been adopted in 1978 by the Executive Board of UNESCO. This procedure is set out in 104 EX/Decision 3.3 of the Executive Board. Between 1978 and 2009, due to this procedure out of 551 cases recognized admissible 352 cases were settled.