According to the OHCHR, General comments are a treaty body’s interpretation of the provisions of its respective human rights treaty provisions and thematic issues. As such, the purpose of a General comment is to interpret and clarify substantive provisions, not only with regard to the reporting duties of State parties but also when it comes to providing guidance and suggesting approaches to the implementation of the treaty provisions or thematic issues in question.Yet, General comments can also deal with wider, cross-cutting issues, such as for example the role of national human rights institutions, the rights of persons with disabilities, violence against women and the rights of minorities, etc.
As a human rights treaty body, the Committee on the rights of persons with disabilities has since its establishment adopted 7 General comments to this day. These General comments are meant to be an extension and explication of the rights within the CRPD Convention, filling the rather abstract rights with a detailed meaning. In other words, while the General Comments of the CRPD Committee as such are not legally binding instruments, they are highly authoritative interpretations of individual human rights or of the legal nature of human rights obligations enshrined in the Convention. The CRPD General Comments provide orientation for the practical implementation of the rights in the CRPD Convention and form a set of criteria for evaluating the progress of Member States in their obligations to properly implement these rights on a national, regional and federal level.
Their highly authoritative character based on the provisions of the Convention is recognized in International law in Article 31 of the 1965 Vienna Convention on Law of Treaties, stipulating that treaties need continuous contextual interpretation. Through the ratification of the Convention, States accept that the treaty bodies play a key role in the interpretation of the enshrined rights and therefore also in the monitoring of the proper implementation of the latter in the respective countries.
Referring to General comments, as the authoritative interpretation of a Convention right, in arguments in lawsuits or complaints should thus be recognized by States as being part of their obligations stemming from the CRPD Convention. As it has been elaborated on in several General Comments of the CRPD, States should establish complaint mechanisms allowing to facilitate this process. Decision-makers, whether on a political or administrative level, have an obligation to implement to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of the Convention and that automatically includes the interpretation by the treaty body of these rights, namely the General Comments. However, due to the fact that International human rights law has no central enforcement mechanism itself, whether State parties in the end respect, protect and fulfill the rights of the Convention, including the linked General comments, depends on their commitment to human rights in their respective countries. It is clear that using General comments in various lawsuits and complaints is most likely going to lead to more awareness raising around the right itself but also a better implementation thereof.
This article was written by Stig Langvad, CRPD Committee member (2010-2018), and Marite Decker, Human Rights Adviser.