International human rights instruments are the treaties and other international texts that serve as legal sources for international human rights law and the protection of human rights in general. There are many varying types, but most can be classified into two broad categories: declarations, adopted by bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, which are by nature declaratory, so not legally-binding although they may be politically authoritative and very well-respected soft law;, and often express guiding principles; and conventions that are multi-party treaties that are designed to become legally binding, usually include prescriptive and very specific language, and usually are concluded by a long procedure that frequently requires ratification by each states' legislature. Lesser known are some "recommendations" which are similar to conventions in being multilaterally agreed, yet cannot be ratified, and serve to set common standards. There may also be administrative guidelines that are agreed multilaterally by states, as well as the statutes of tribunals or other institutions. A specific prescription or principle from any of these various international instruments can, over time, attain the status of customary international law whether it is specifically accepted by a state or not, just because it is well-recognized and followed over a sufficiently long time.
International human rights instruments can be divided further into global instruments, to which any state in the world can be a party, and regional instruments, which are restricted to states in a particular region of the world.
Most conventions and recommendations (but few declarations) establish mechanisms for monitoring and establish bodies to oversee their implementation. In some cases these bodies that may have relatively little political authority or legal means, and may be ignored by member states; in other cases these mechanisms have bodies with great political authority and their decisions are almost always implemented. A good example of the latter is the European Court of Human Rights.
Monitoring mechanisms also vary as to the degree of individual access to expose cases of abuse and plea for remedies. Under some conventions or recommendations – e.g. the European Convention on Human Rights – individuals or states are permitted, subject to certain conditions, to take individual cases to a full-fledged tribunal at international level. Sometimes, this can be done in national courts because of universal jurisdiction.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights together with other international human rights instruments are sometimes referred to as the international bill of rights. International human rights instruments are identified by the OHCHR and most are referenced on the OHCHR website.
According to OHCHR, there are 9 core international human rights instruments and several optional protocols. The core instruments are:
Several more human rights instruments exist. A few examples: