Glossary of Common UN Terminology

Adhesion | Communications procedures | Concluding Observations | Convention | Covenant | Declaration | Instrument, International | International Bill of Human Rights | Member State | Multilateral | Open Treaty (or Open Convention) | Optional Protocol | Protocol | Ratification | Resolution | Signature | State Party | Treaty

Adhesion

An entrance to an open treaty by a state which did not sign it but is willing to comply with it (this procedure more or less combines signature and ratification in a single act).

Communications procedures

A procedure whereby groups or individuals may, under certain conditions, appeal to a UN commission or committee concerning an alleged violation of human rights, after all potential domestic remedies have been tried and failed. A complaint of this kind is referred to as a "communication". The Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for such a mechanism for cases of alleged violation of that convention arising within the countries that have ratified the Protocol. The UN Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities may also receive complaints concerning "a consistent pattern" of gross human rights violations (this is known as the "1503 procedure", from the number of the Resolution of the Economic and Social Council which established the procedure).

Concluding Observations

A set of conclusions emitted by a UN committee at the end of the committee's review of a country's report on its implementation of a covenant or convention. The emitting of "Concluding Observations" is a relatively recent innovation but appears to be becoming standard practice. The "Concluding Observations" may include critical comments and suggestions and recommendations for future action by the country in question.

Convention

Synonymous with covenant or treaty. An international agreement, whether bilateral or multilateral. A convention (covenant, treaty) differs from a Declaration in that a convention is an agreement whereby countries agree to bind themselves under international law to conform to the its provisions. Countries bind themselves in this way through a process of ratification of or Adhesion to the convention.

Note that "convention" is never used here as a synonym of "conference", "meeting", or "rally", as in "an Authors' Convention".

Covenant

See convention.

Declaration

In UN usage, a declaration is a statement recognizing a universally valid principle. Unlike a Convention, a Declaration is a statement of principle rather than an agreement by which countries bind themselves under international law. Declarations also differ from Conventions in that Declarations are not subject to ratification by countries, and do not require countries to submit reports on their compliance.

Historically, declarations have often been adopted unanimously by the General Assembly (e.g. in the case of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 48 countries voted in favour, eight abstained, and none voted against).

Though not legally binding, declarations - and in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - are considered to have an authoritative moral force, and the Universal Declaration is considered to be the clearest and most forceful expression in the international arena of universally recognized human rights principles.

Instrument, International

A loose, general term encompassing conventions, covenants, treaties, declarations, protocols, etc.

International Bill of Human Rights

A term which encompasses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights..

Member State

A State which is a member of the United Nations.

Multilateral

Involving three or more countries; as opposed to bilateral, i.e. involving only two countries (as in multilateral treaties or negotiations).

Open Treaty (or convention)

An international agreement which all countries may sign and ratify if they so wish (as opposed to some treaties that are open only to certain specified countries, e.g. those located in a particular geographical area.)

Optional protocol

In UN usage, an international agreement complementing or supplementing a convention or covenant by adding new elements or requirements. The term "optional" emphasizes that the States which ratified the original convention are not under any formal obligation to agree to the protocol as well, though they are encouraged to do so. Example: The Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Protocol

See Optional protocol.

Ratification

The final approval of an international agreement by the highest authority of a given country, e.g. the Head of State, Cabinet, or Parliament. In Canada, only the federal government has the constitutional power to ratify international agreements.

Resolution

An act or statement passed by a majority of votes. The legal validity of resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly is subject to different interpretations.

Signature

An act by which an authorized representative of a country will sign a convention or covenant to indicate that country's intent to proceed to ratification.

State Party (plural "states party")

A country which has ratified a given covenant or convention.

Treaty

An international agreement concluded between states in written form and governed by international law; see convention.