Enforcement Mechanisms In The United Nations
last updated 28 May 2013
When a nation ratifies a treaty it undertakes both negative obligations (to refrain from actions that violate human rights) and positive obligations (to take affirmative actions to guarantee that human rights are protected).  In order to ensure that governments are fulfilling both negative and positive obligations, the United Nations system includes a variety of enforcement mechanisms. 
Enforcement mechanisms are usually categorized by the type of UN body that receives communications or carries out the monitoring process.  There are four broad categories of enforcement mechanisms: (1) charter-based mechanisms, such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women; (2) convention or treaty-based mechanisms, such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; (3) mechanisms contained in UN specialized agencies, such as the International Labor Organization or the World Health Organization; and (4) rapporteurs appointed by the General Assembly, such as the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.  Each mechanism monitors either a specific human rights issue or adherence to a particular treaty.
The classification of enforcement mechanisms into these categories clarifies the workings of the UN structure. For women's rights advocates, however, it is generally more useful to understand the type of procedures available under each of the UN enforcement bodies, rather than the structural aspects of the mechanism.
Individuals or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can bring information about human rights violations, or non-compliance with human rights obligations, to the UN bodies mentioned above through two procedures: complaint mechanisms and reporting/monitoring mechanisms. Each procedure has its own requirements, limitations, and outcomes. 
In choosing to seek enforcement of human rights obligations, advocates should carefully evaluate two factors. First, investigate which mechanisms are available to them based on the treaty ratification of their national government. Only those nations which have ratified a treaty are bound by its contents. For information about particular nations, see the  status of ratification on the country page of interest. Second, consider what the desired remedy or outcome for the victims of human rights violations is. Each body and mechanism provides a slightly different result. Additionally, there are also specific differences between the procedures, such as whether the communication remains confidential, that must also be considered.
Advocates should consider the remedies available at the international level, under the UN, as part of a larger strategy to combat violence against women.  For many reasons, the international enforcement mechanisms should only be addressed after attempting to obtain redress through the national legal system. Firstly, the UN enforcement bodies that accept direct complaints require exhaustion of domestic remedies before a case can be considered admissible.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the remedies available under international law may not always be advantageous to the individual victim.  UN mechanisms are often very slow and time-consuming and confidentiality of the complainant cannot always be ensured. Victims of violence may have limited resources in which to invest in a lengthy procedure. Furthermore, safety for the victim should be a paramount concern, and the UN is limited in its ability to intervene and protect individual victims of human rights violations.