FAQ: The Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR)

Document Date: July 11, 2013

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 that have ratified the treaty to protect and preserve basic human rights, such as: the right to life and 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; the right to a fair trial; right family life and family unity; 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 to provide an effective remedy. The Covenant was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966 and came into force in 1976. As of December 2018, 172 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 ratified treaties the status of federal law. The U.S. must 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 government 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” 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. As of January 2019, members of the Committee come from: Albania, Canada, Chile, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Guyana, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Mauritania, Paraguay, Portugal, Slovenia, South Africa, Tunisia, and Uganda.

What is the function of the Human Rights Committee?

The Human Rights Committee meets three times a year for sessions lasting three weeks at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland. Countries that have 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 which is open to the public and is usually live streamed. The Committee examines the report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the country in the form of “concluding observations.” The Committee also publishes general comments which are its interpretation of the content of the treaty’s human rights provisions.

Has the United States submitted reports about its compliance with the ICCPR?

Yes. The U.S. submitted several reports including its initial report in 1994, 2nd and 3rd periodic reports in 2005 and the most recent 4th periodic report was submitted in December 2011. 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 as well as state and local governments to attend the treaty review session.

What happens now that 4 years have passed since the U.S. was last reviewed before the Committee?

On April 2, 2019, the Committee released the List of Issues Prior to Submission of the Fifth Periodic Report of the United States of America. Since the U.S. agreed, in 2017, to receive a List of Issues Prior to Reporting from the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the U.S. is now expected to begin forming its Fifth Periodic Report in earnest.

What happened at the most recent Human Rights Committee review session?

On March 13 and 14, 2014, the Human Rights Committee conducted its review of the United States report in two public meetings held at the United Nations in Geneva. While originally scheduled for October 2013, these meetings were pushed back due to the U.S. government shutdown. Representatives from the U.S. addressed the Committee and answered questions by its members. Part of the review was based on a list of issues and questions that the Committee identified in Geneva during its March 2013 session. The government’s replies to the List of Issues are available here.

At the end of its March session, the Human Rights Committee issued a list of observations and recommendations regarding U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The Concluding Observations on the 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., to be supplied within one year, on measures taken to address them. You can read the U.S.’s One-Year Follow-Up Response here. While the recommendations are not legally binding, they place an important moral obligation on the U.S. government, which has committed itself to complying with the treaty. The recommendations are also used to assess progress toward implementing the ICCPR and to identify areas for improvement.

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 nation’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 concern regarding the country report. The Committee relies in part on factual information and analysis provided by NGOs to counter information submitted by the government. As the Committee’s 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?

The ACLU is co-chair 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. During the review cycle in 2013, the ACLU prepared for the U.S. review by providing the Committee with a list of issues and questions to which the U.S. should be required to respond. In September 2013, the ACLU Human Rights Program submitted a shadow report highlighting priority areas of concern, and co-sponsored briefings and consultations with broad participation from U.S. civil society organizations. This was in order to hold the government accountable for full implementation of ICCPR obligations on the local, state and federal levels. In February 2014, the ACLU submitted an updated report to reflect the major developments that occurred since the submission of the original shadow report. The US Human Rights Network and other groups submitted additional information as part of the one year follow-up process.

On January 14th, 2019, the ACLU submitted a Suggested List of Issues to the Committee highlighting ICCPR violations in the context of: 1) Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border; 2) Extraterritorial Use of Force (targeted killings); 3) National Security Agency Surveillance; 4) Solitary Confinement; and 5) Death Penalty. More than 50 civil society submissions were made to the Committee and can viewed here.

How can I join organizing efforts around the ICCPR?

The US Human Rights Network ICCPR Task Force is coordinating 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 that raise public awareness about the importance of this key human rights treaty, and using the treaty’s framework – 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 the ICCPR listserv for updates and information on how to get involved with these efforts.

Important Links:

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 2014:

ACLU Shadow Report 2013:

ACLU Shadow Report Update 2014:

Concluding Observations 2006:

ACLU Shadow Report 2006, “Dimming the Beacon of Freedom: U.S. Violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”:

109th Session of the UN Human Rights Committee (October 14-November 1, 2013):

2018 Webinar: Intro to the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR): An Opportunity for Engagement:

2019 ACLU Suggested List of Issues to the U.N. Country Report Task Force…

2019 U.N. Human Rights Committee List of Issues

Last Updated: April 2019

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