While international mechanisms like the United Nations’ human rights protocols are no cure-all, we can use them to help protect us and to legitimate our struggles.


Activating international United Nations (UN) mechanisms grabs the world’s attention. As government violates our human rights and ignores our calls to stop abuses, international pressure might help persuade them to change.

The UN’s array of organizations and acronyms can seem far removed from our day-to-day struggles for justice, but there are a number of international mechanisms that exist to support us in pressuring government and other key actors to protect our rights and defend our work. The trick is to understand what these mechanisms can and can’t do, and how we can activate them.

Remember: these mechanisms are not a cure-all, just another tool in our toolbox.

First, we seek guidance. We find out which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are already interacting with the UN, and ask for their support. The UN’s human rights office has a civil society section, with resources and staff to answer our questions, while independent organizations like the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) publish handbooks, produce regular
updates, and provide training on how to use the UN to strategically to support grassroots struggles. You can also find out online what
the UN has said previously about your country or the issue you work
Second, analyze how susceptible your government is – or is not –
to UN pressure. Would the voice of international authorities give
your local movement the additional weight it needs to be heard in
the media? Would local politicians feel compelled to respond to
forthright criticism from their peers in the UN sphere? Are local
courts likely to reference international guidance and precedents in
their decisions? Playing the UN game requires varying amounts of
time and trouble, so you should make sure that its outcomes will be
worth the effort.

Third, identify which mechanisms to activate and how to do so. A
UN expert (or “Special Procedures” as they are officially known)
might well speak out about a human rights abuse if short, accurate,
and well-documented information is sent in a timely manner. In
Australia, for example, local NGOs used a press release by a group
of UN experts to tip the scales in their struggle against repressive
protest laws favouring big business over grassroots movements.

Alternatively, you might persuade other countries to make
recommendations related to your cause when your country comes
up for its five-year UN Universal Periodic Review. In 2009, various
countries used the Universal Periodic Review to criticize Mexico’s
lack of protection for threatened activists. Its government
subsequently created a protection program. When this wasn’t
properly implemented, civil society ensured that 40 percent of
member states spoke out about it, pressuring Mexico at their
subsequent review.

If your country has ratified key treaties, it will be regularly assessed
as to how well it is implementing its obligations, in regards to, say,
women’s equality or children’s rights. In fact, if it has agreed to
optional protocols, you might even be able to take a case of an
individual violation to one of the UN committees, which will act as a
quasi-judicial body tasked with evaluating whether international law
has been breached in that specific case.

If you’re working in big international coalitions and have the stamina
for protracted advocacy efforts, the UN’s different mechanisms can
be used in conjunction — often together with its preeminent but
highly politicized human rights body, the Human Rights Council — to
really put an issue on the international agenda and propel a range
of governments to address it at home. Examples include the push
for accountability in Sri Lanka and the gradual but crucial
recognition of equal rights for everybody regardless of their sexual
orientation or gender identity.

You may also want to evaluate whether regional mechanisms such as
the Inter-American or African Commissions on Human Rights can
contribute to your efforts.

Finally, whatever mechanism you pursue to get the world’s

attention, you’ll need to be prepared for your next challenge: How
will you use the weight of the United Nations to push for the
change you want to see on the ground?


It is vital not to skip any of the
steps laid out here. Analysis and
preparation are key to getting
results and ensuring you don’t
waste energy or put yourself at
further risk. Each mechanism has
its own distinct way of working,
so use the suggested resources
to find out more and ensure you
follow the correct protocols.
Finally, some activists have faced
threats and reprisals for having
activated international
mechanisms. Be sure to carry
out a security analysis, take
precautions, and consult the
ISHR’s Reprisals Handbook.


– Pyramid of Shoes
– Stop Prawer Plan
– Civil disobedience
– Jail solidarity
– Foster safer spaces
– Put your target in a decision
– Seek safety in support
– Solidarity, not aid
– Use the law, don’t be afraid of it
– Pillars of power
– Spectrum of allies

Campaign strategy, Human rights, International solidarity,
Indigenous rights, State violence, Education, Dictatorship


Working with the United Nations Human Rights Programme: A
Handbook for Civil Society
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2008

Directory of Human Rights Bodies
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Simple Guide to the UN Treaty Bodies
International Service for Human Rights, 2015

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