International Human Rights Standards


Human rights are often guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, general principles and other sources of international law, which lay down obligations of Governments to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups. There are other instruments, such as resolutions, guidelines and principles, which are not binding (that is, states are not legally obliged to enforce them) but which are still important tools for calling states to account. 

Below are some of the main human rights treaties, declarations and resolutions relevant to woman defenders of land and environmental rights. There are no human rights treaties specifically on land and environmental rights, but there are important provisions in treaties which are used to defend them, and to protect their defenders. 


United Nations

UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

(Full title - 'UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms'). It underlines the importance of human rights defenders, and provides for their support and protection in their work.  It sets out a range of rights for human rights defenders, such as the right to meet peacefully to promote and protect human rights; to seek and obtain information about human rights; to disseminate information about human rights and to draw attention to whether they are observed; and to obtain justice for human rights violations against them. The Declaration does not create new rights, but instead applies the provisions of existing treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to the case of human rights defenders. See UN Fact Sheet 29 - Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights for more information on the Declaration – page 20 refers specifically to women human rights defenders, and it refers to defenders of land rights and the environment at various points.

Resolution on the Protection of Women Human Rights Defenders

In November 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted for the first time a resolution specifically on the protection of women human rights defenders. It recognises the particular challenges faced by them, because of who they are and the nature of their work,  and calls on states to put in place robust measures to protect them, including publicly acknowledging their important role, introducing  gender-specific laws and policies, and making sure that those responsible for violations and abuses of WHRDs are promptly brought to justice. The resolution has been hailed as historic by civil society groups as states have publicly committed themselves to taking concrete steps to protect WHRDs.

Resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests

Calls on states to protect and respect the right to peaceful protest, and among other points, urges states to pay particular attention to the safety and protection of WHRDs from acts of intimidation and harassment. 

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

It is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Its aim is to “achieve the full development and advancement of women so that they may exercise and enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with men”. Article 14 specifically protects the rights of women living in rural areas against discrimination. Among its provisions, it states that states shall ensure such women have the right to participate in development planning at all levels, to organize self-help groups and co-operatives in order to obtain equal access to economic opportunities, to have equal treatment in land and agrarian reform, as well as in land resettlement schemes, and enjoy adequate living conditions, including in relation to housing, sanitation, and water supply. Civil society organisations have reported the discrimination and persecution of WHRDs, including violence against them, to the UN Committee which monitors implementation of CEDAW.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) The rights contained in the Covenant include the right to life, the right to be free from arbitrary detention, the right to a fair trial and the freedoms of expression and association, as well as to participate in decision-making.

1992 Rio Declaration following the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development,

There are a number of principles which are important in endorsing human rights defenders' right to participate in decision-making on environmental issues, at national and local level. Principle 10 states that environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens; Principle 20 and 22 recognises the vital role of women, indigenous people and other local communities in environmental management and development,and that their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development. In the case of indigenous people and other local communities, states should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR)

Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights protecting the right to food and the right to health are key provisions regarding land and environmental rights, along with the right to adequate housing in the case of land rights.

See UN Fact Sheet 33 Frequently Asked Questions on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for more information


Indigenous peoples

International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples protects a large number of rights for indigenous people in rural areas. It includes a general requirement that governments consult with the peoples concerned whenever giving consideration to measures that may affect them directly (Article 6). It also provides for the assessment of environmental impacts of proposed development activities and makes clear that the rights of indigenous peoples to the natural resources on their lands include the right to participate in 'the use, management and conservation of these resources'.  

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples The Declaration goes beyond the Convention, for example, with regard to participation in decision-making and self-determination. However, the Declaration, unlike the Convention, is not legally binding.

See Manual Básico Sobre La Declaración De Las Naciones Unidas Sobre Los Derechos De Los Pueblos Indígenas (Spanish Only)

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

Under the Convention, states undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law. The specific rights it seeks to protect include civil and political - the right to own property alone as well as in association with others, the right to freedom of thought, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to housing.

Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Also known as the 'Ruggie Principles', they consist of three pillars - the duty of states to protect the human rights of those in contact with businesses; businesses' responsibility to respect human rights throughout their activities; and the need for states and businesses to provide for remedies when abuses take place. The Guiding Principles, although not legally binding on businesses, are considered the first global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of human rights abuses linked to business activity. See Introduction to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for more information.


Additional Information

The OHCHR has produced a range of publications, including a number of fact sheets giving more background on issues related to rights. They include:

Fact sheet 21(Rev.1): The Right to Adequate Housing

Fact sheet 25: Forced Evictions and Human Rights

Fact Sheet 31: The Right to Health

Fact Sheet 34 The Right to Adequate Food

Fact Sheet 35 The Right to Water

The special rapporteurs and treaty bodies in some cases have produced detailed guidelines as well as guidance on their areas of responsibility.    

More information on the current human rights standards relating to the land and environment can be found in two UN reports:

The International Land Coalition has produced a full list of international agreements, including declarations, related to women's land rights.


Inter-American System of Human Rights

The treaties adopted under the Inter-American System can be found in under 'Basic Documents' on the Inter-Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) website. Below are some of those most relevant to woman defenders of land and environmental rights.

American Convention on Human Rights 

The Convention contains the fundamental civil and political rights, such as the right to life, the right to property, the right to be free from arbitrary detention, the right to a fair trial and the freedoms of expression and association, as well as to participate in decision-making.

Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights 

The protocol covers the fundamental economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to a healthy environment. It stipulates that 'States Parties shall promote the protection, preservation, and improvement of the environment'. It also includes the right to food, with the States Parties undertaking to improve methods of food production, supply and distribution.


Others include the:

Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women

which reaffirms the principle of the equality of women and states that 'Every woman is entitled to the free and full exercise of her civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights'.

Inter-American Convention Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms Of Intolerance

Among its provisions, it stipulates that states should prohibit 'The restriction or limitation... of the right of every person, to access and sustainably use water, natural resources, ecosystems, biodiversity, and ecological services that are part of each state’s natural heritage, protected by the relevant international instruments and their own national laws.'

In addition, the Organisation of American States adopted Resolution 1671 of 1999:

Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, Support for the Individuals, Groups, and Organizations of Civil Society Working to Promote and Protect Human Rights in the Americas which recognises and supports the work carried out by human rights defenders and their valuable contribution to the promotion, observance, and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in the America, and urges member states to persist in their efforts to provide human rights defenders with the necessary guarantees and facilities to continue freely carrying out their work.