UN Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights has the authority to review “situations which reveal a consistent pattern of violations of human rights” and present recommendations to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).  Since 1970, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights can consider individual communications, under a procedure known and the 1503 Procedure.  The 1503 Procedure is limited in scope.  It enables two UN bodies, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection on Human Rights and the Commission on Human Rights to investigate specific types of complaints- those which appear to show consistent or widespread patterns of gross and reliably attested human rights abuses.  The 1503 Procedure, however, applies broadly to any country in the world, not only UN members.

The 1503 Procedure, as amended in 2000, allows the complaints to remain confidential, unless the national government indicates that they should be made public.  At the same time, the 1503 procedure allows the authors of a complaint to have their names deleted and identities not revealed to the government.

Note that the Commission on Human Rights is not the same body as the Human Rights Committee.  The Human Rights Committee is a treaty-monitoring body that enforces the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The mandate of the Commission on Human Rights is to examine, monitor and report on human rights situations worldwide.  Most of the work of the Commission on Human Rights concerns reporting and monitoring mechanisms, rather than direct complaint mechanisms.  The 1503 Procedure, although it is a complaint mechanism, functions more like reporting in that its purpose is to provide information on patterns of human rights violations and not to redress individual wrongs.

The Economic and Security Council also created by resolution the 1235 Procedure, which should not be confused with the 1503 Procedure.  The 1235 Procedure allows the Commission on Human Rights to create an ad hoc working group of its own members for public study of gross violations of human rights.  Based on its own study the Commission makes recommendations to the Economic and Security Council.  Individuals cannot use the 1235 Procedure, although NGOs can access this mechanism.

The 1503 Procedure is similar to the procedure under the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) complaint procedure under the Commission on the Status of Women.  The major distinction, however, is that the purpose of the complaint procedure under the CSW is to identify global trends and patterns of abuse of women’s rights, while the 1503 Procedure focuses on widespread human rights abuses in specific countries. 

The 1503 complaint procedure is summarized below.


The ”1503 Procedure”

Type of Mechanism

Complaint- information procedure

Scope of the Procedure

Consistent patterns of gross human rights violations/ situations that affect a large number of people over a protracted period of time

Who can Submit a Complaint?

Individuals or NGOs; not necessarily the victim of the violation but with “direct and reliable” knowledge. 

Role of Advocates

NGOs can initiate a complaint and can later offer supplementary information.

Available Remedies

No individual remedies, but the procedure may lead to a decision that gross human rights violations have occurred and should be remedied.

How to Submit a Complaint

There is no formal procedure for submitting a complaint under the 1503 Procedure, however, the communication must meet a number of admissibility criteria to be considered:

The complaint must be in writing.

The names of the authors of the complaint (individuals or an NGO) should be included.  If the author chooses to remain anonymous, this must be stated in the complaint. 

The complaint must show the existence of a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested human rights violations.  Thus, the complaint should include a detailed description of the facts, evidence of the violation and state which rights have been violated. 

The complaint should include a statement of purpose, which explains the reasons for the submission.

The complaint should contain information about the exhaustion of domestic remedies.

The complaint should not contain abusive language, be politically motivated or be based solely on information from the mass media.

The United Nations Fact Sheet 7 includes general information about the submitting a complaint under the 1503 Procedure and the criteria of admissibility.

Where to Send Communications

Commission/Sub-Commission Team (1503 Procedure)
Support Services Branch
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations
1211 Genève 10
Tel: + 41 22 917 9000
Fax: + 41 22 917 9011
Email:  1503.hchr@unog.ch

How the Complaint Procedure Works

After receiving a communication, the Centre for Human Rights will contact the State against which the complaint was made.  The State has 12 weeks in which to submit as response on the admissibility of the complaint.  The Centre for Human Rights summarizes the communications for the Human Rights Commission and the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

Before a meeting of the Sub-Commission, a smaller five-person working group meets once a year to review the communications and the States’ replies.  At this stage, cases in which there is no evidence of a “consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights” are screened out.  The working group will forward a small number of cases for further consideration to the Sub-Commission.

The Sub-Commission can reject the case, refer the case for further investigation to a working group or refer the case to the Human Rights Commission.  First the case is reviewed by a five-person group of the Commission and, if necessary, then by the full Commission.  The Commission can: (1) end consideration of the case, if no human rights violations occurred; (2) postpone consideration of the case; (3) initiate a study of the situation or (4) create an ad hoc committee to investigate the situation.  Although the 1503 Procedure is confidential, in its annual report, the Commission publishes the names the countries that were under consideration and the recommended actions to be taken.

Advantages/ Disadvantages

NGOs can submit complaints, although participation in the review process is extremely limited.  The 1503 Procedure is useful for drawing attention to serious underlying problem but not for cases of violations of individuals’ human rights.  The procedure if useful if a victim wants the UN to investigate the situation in her country, but not her particular case.  The strict confidentiality of the procedure protects victims but does not allow the procedure to be used for publicity or for advocacy purposes.

Adapted in part from Women’s Human Rights Step by Step, Women Law & Development International and Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project (1997).

Additional Resources

The United Nations Fact Sheet 7 includes general information about the 1503 Procedure of the Commission on Human Rights.  Most UN Fact Sheets can be accessed on the web.

More information about the Revised 1503 Procedure as well as States that have been examined under this mechanism is also available on the UN website. 

Frontline, an Irish NGO, has created a Human Rights Defenders Manual, which includes detailed information on using the 1503 Procedure in cases of specific human rights violations.


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