When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they established a standard for how every human being should be treated. In that specific document, there aren’t any guidelines on how to ensure that happens or what to do if those rights are violated. Human rights only become a reality when legal structures to protect them are put into place. That’s why the world needs human rights tribunals, which are specialized courts that deal with cases concerning human rights issues.
In the years following the UDHR, the UN established accountability for serious international crimes through event-specific tribunals, like the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Now, there is a permanent International Criminal Court. It’s up to the Member States to push for prosecution of crimes. In certain circumstances, the UN still establishes special tribunals (like the Special Tribunal for Lebanon) to deal with specific events.
How human rights tribunals work
Many human rights tribunals are established within states. Depending on where the specific human rights tribunal is located and its structure, it will often refer to that state’s leading human rights document. As an example, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, established in 1977 through the Canadian Human Rights Act, reviews cases based on whether a person or organization has participated in “discriminatory practice” under the Act. The CHRT is funded by the Parliament of Canada. The Canadian Human Rights Commission, while a separate entity, refers cases to the CHRT. Local or provincial human rights tribunals like the CHRT tend to deal with more day-to-day discrimination and human rights issues.
Bringing a case
Oftentimes, a tribunal will require a person to first file a complaint with a human rights commission. This is the case with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal; the Commission will investigate to see if the complaint is well-founded. Issues include, but are not limited to:
- Employment discrimination and poor treatment based on personal characteristics such as race, sex, gender identity, religion, and age
- Housing discrimination based on the above personal characteristics
- Service discrimination based on personal characteristics
- Discrimination in publications (flyers, notices, articles, etc)
If the Commission believes that the complaint is well-founded, it will then refer the complaint to the Tribunal. With some commissions, they will actually represent the person making the complaint. Once the Tribunal accepts a case, they offer a resolution through either mediation or a full hearing. Mediation is not always an option for every tribunal; the process varies.
The hearing for a human rights tribunal is very similar to regular court. There’s testimony, witnesses, and arguments from both the defense and prosecution. The members of the Tribunal must determine if discrimination has occured.
What a tribunal has the power to order
In resolving a case, human rights tribunals have the authority to make certain orders. These can include compensation for the person(s) who made the complaint; a change in the discriminatory policy; protection against retaliation for the complainant, and so on. The end goal is to offer remedies that will both address the discrimination or violation that’s already occurred, and protect human rights in the future.
The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal
While the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is limited within a certain area and to a certain document, human rights tribunals can extend beyond borders and stand outside of state authorities. As an example, there’s The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal. Headquartered in Rome, it is an independent international human rights tribunal. It applies internationally-recognized human rights law to its cases, and is frequently referred to as a “public opinion” tribunal. In its history, it has held sessions on the crimes committed against Rohingyas, Kachins, and other groups in Myanmar; the human rights impact of fracking and climate change; and violation of human rights of migrants and refugees. Between 5-11 judges hear testimony and arguments from both the prosecution and defense, and suggest remedies.
Why we need human rights tribunals
Human rights tribunals can be specific to certain geographies and regional documents, or more internationally-focused and independent. Tribunals of both kinds are essential to maintaining the protection of human rights. Without these specialized court systems, human rights issues can go neglected. Regular courts are often not equipped with the right expertise, and frequently too busy with other types of cases. It’s also very important for human rights tribunals to be as independent as possible. This ensures they are free from political and economic ties that could influence the types of cases they take and their rulings. Independent tribunals and judges are able to focus entirely on the facts and human rights framework without external pressures.
Human rights tribunals aren’t without their critics. In Canada, especially, where there are quite a few commissions and tribunals, critics frequently complain about the more informal rules of evidence; the fact that tribunals don’t award costs to unsuccessful complainants; long hearing delays; and more. However, tribunals frequently aren’t structured exactly like traditional courts. As an example, in Canada, tribunals are part of administrative law, not criminal law. Commission and tribunals also draw attention to human rights issues and educate the public on how human rights law works. Without dedicated court systems like tribunals, human rights could easily be confined to the realm of treaties and never manifest into reality.