FAQ: The Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR)
What is the ICCPR?
The ICCPR is a key international human rights treaty, providing a range of protections for civil and political rights. The ICCPR, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, are considered the International Bill of Human Rights. The ICCPR obligates countries who have ratified the treaty to protect and preserve basic human rights such as the right to life and to human dignity, equality before the law, freedom of speech, assembly and association, religious freedom and privacy, freedom from torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention, gender equality, fair trial and minority rights. The Covenant compels governments to take administrative, judicial and legislative measures in order to protect the rights enshrined in the treaty and provide an effective remedy. The Covenant was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966 and went into force in 1976. As of August 2012, 167 countries have ratified the Covenant.
Why does the U.S. have to comply with the ICCPR?
The U.S. ratified the ICCPR in 1992. Upon ratification, the ICCPR became the “supreme law of the land” under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives treaties the status of federal law. The U.S. is obligated to comply with and implement the provisions of the treaty just as it would any other domestic law, subject to Reservations, Understandings and Declarations (RUDs) entered when it ratified the treaty. Though the U.S. retains the obligation to comply with the ICCPR, one of the RUDs attached by the U.S. Senate is a “not self-executing” Declaration, intended to limit the ability of litigants to sue in court for direct enforcement of the treaty.
Does the ICCPR apply only to the federal government and its officials?
No. The ICCPR applies to all government entities and agents, including all state and local governments in the United States. The ICCPR thus applies to government actions in all states and counties and also applies to private contractors who carry out government functions. When the U.S. Senate ratified the ICCPR, it included an Understanding that recognized our federal system of government, and specifically stated that the treaty “shall be implemented by the Federal Government to the extent that it exercises legislative and judicial jurisdiction over the matters covered” by the treaty, “and otherwise by the state and local governments” but with support from the Federal Government for the fulfillment of the Covenant.
What is the Human Rights Committee?
The Human Rights Committee was established to monitor the implementation of the ICCPR. It is composed of 18 independent experts with recognized competence in the field of human rights. Committee members are elected for a term of four years and must be from countries that have ratified the Covenant. The current members of the Committee come from: Algeria, Argentina, Costa Rica, Egypt, France, Georgia, Germany, Israel, Japan, Mauritius, Romania, South Africa, Suriname, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
What is the function of the Human Rights Committee?
The Human Rights Committee meets three times a year for sessions lasting three weeks, normally in March at United Nations headquarters in New York, and in July and October at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland. Countries that ratified the ICCPR are obliged to report to the Committee every four years. Three to five countries are invited to present their reports at each session. The Committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the country in the form of "concluding observations." The Committee also publishes its interpretation of the ICCPR provisions, in the form of General Comments on thematic issues.
Has the United States submitted reports about its compliance with the ICCPR?
Yes. On December 30, 2011 the U.S. submitted its 4th periodic report. The previous 2 reports were submitted jointly by the Bush administration in October 2005, as one was 7 years overdue. The first report was submitted in 1994 under the Clinton administration. While using an inter-agency process, the U.S. Department of State is responsible for drafting the reports and coordinating U.S. Government responses and appearance before the Human Rights Committee. Typically, the State Department will also bring high level representatives from other governmental agencies to attend the treaty review session.
What will happen at the Human Rights Committee review session?
The Human Rights Committee will review the United States report in two public meetings that will be held at the United Nations in Geneva in October 2013. Representatives from the U.S. Government will address the Committee and answer questions by Committee members. Some of these questions will be based on a list of issues and questions that the Committee identified in Geneva during its March 2013 session.
What will happen after the Human Rights Committee reviews the U.S. report?
At the end of its session, the Human Rights Committee will issue a list of observations and recommendations regarding U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The concluding observations on the last U.S. report advise progress to be made and evaluated at the next review. Among its recommendations, the Committee often identifies areas of concern and asks for additional information from the U.S., within one year, on measures taken to address these concerns. While the recommendations are not legally binding, they place an important moral obligation on the U.S. Government, which has committed to complying with the treaty. The recommendations are also used to assess progress toward implementing the ICCPR and to identify areas for improvements.
What is the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like human rights and civil liberties groups in the treaty compliance process?
NGOs are encouraged to participate whenever the Committee considers a country's compliance with the treaty. Many groups submit information in the form of "shadow reports," and provide Committee members with a list of suggested questions and areas of concerns regarding the country report. The Committee relies in part on factual information and analysis provided by NGOs to counter information submitted by the government in its report. As the Concluding Observations are not legally binding and have no enforcement mechanism, NGOs play a key role in highlighting these recommendations and ensuring their implementation.
How have the ACLU and other NGOs been involved in the review process?
ACLU is co-leading coordination of the US Human Rights Network’s ICCPR Task Force. This coalition works to expand knowledge of the ICCPR review process among U.S. civil society, including providing information on how to participate in the U.N. treaty review process and how to utilize recommendations received to improve human rights throughout the United States. Since the U.S. Government submitted their most recent report on December 30, 2011, ACLU, along with civil society partners, helped organize a consultation between the U.S. Government and civil society members, advocacy seminar and a CLE. ACLU will continue to promote ICCPR engagement efforts as the review approaches.
In the last review cycle, ACLU provided the Committee with a list of issues and questions to which the U.S. should be required to respond and submitted a shadow report documenting U.S. failure to comply with the ICCPR both at home and abroad. The report focused on five substantive areas: national security, immigrants’ rights, racial justice, women’s rights and religious freedom. The ACLU also participated in an NGO presentation to the Committee about the U.S. report at the March and July 2006 sessions.
The ACLU plans to engage in similar events throughout the course of 2013, in preparation for the U.S. review before the Committee scheduled for October 2013. On December 10, the ACLU Human Rights Program submitted suggested questions and recommendations for the Human Rights Committee to pose to the United States during its review in October. The submission focused on 6 critical priority issues for the ACLU that highlight the accountability gap between U.S. human rights obligations and current law, policy and practice: anti-immigrant measures, killings on the U.S.-Mexico border, accountability for torture and abuse during the Bush Administration, domestic violence, solitary confinement, and the death penalty. The Human Rights Program also will be drafting a national “shadow report” highlighting priority areas of concern, and co-sponsoring briefings and consultations with broad participation from U.S. civil society in order to hold the U.S. Government accountable for full implementation of ICCPR obligations on the local, state and federal levels.
How can I join organizing efforts around the ICCPR?
Throughout the course of 2012, the U.S. Human Rights Network ICCPR task force will coordinate civil society responses and advocacy prior to and during the U.S. appearance before the Human Rights Committee. NGOs will have a unique opportunity to contribute to this effort by documenting and providing information about civil and political rights violations in their states and communities, organizing local events, publishing materials raising public awareness about the importance of this key human rights treaty, and using the treaty’s frame – and the more general human rights framework – to enhance overall efforts to protect human rights and civil liberties on the national, state and local levels. Join civil society’s ICCPR listserv for updates and information on how to join these efforts.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):
U.S. Government Reservations, Understandings and Declarations Upon Ratification:
Human Rights Committee website:
General Comments of the Human Rights Committee:
USHRN ICCPR Listserv Join Request:
4th Periodic Report on the ICCPR from the U.S. Government:
Concluding Observations 2006:
ACLU Shadow Report 2006, “Dimming the Beacon of Freedom: U.S. Violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”:
Last Updated: August 2012