How To Complain About Human Rights Treaty Violations

The Four Principal UN Human Rights Treaties Containing Complaint Mechanisms - Overview

a) The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

i) Object

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) seeks to guarantee a broad range of universal human rights across a wide range of human endeavour. The preamble to the CCPR recognizes that the rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person. The CCPR sets out certain "civil and political" rights.

The Human Rights Committee is the treaty body associated with the CCPR.

ii) Adoption and Entry into Force

The CCPR was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966, together with an Optional Protocol allowing individuals to submit complaints. Both the CCPR and the Optional Protocol entered into force on 23 March 1976. For any state ratifying the Covenant or the Optional Protocol after 23 December 1976, the instruments enter into force for that state three months after the date of deposit of its instrument of ratification. The UN Secretary-General, Office of Legal Affairs, acts as depository.

A Second Optional Protocol associated with the CCPR was subsequently adopted which provided for the abolition of the death penalty. It was adopted on 15 December 1989, and entered into force on 11 July 1991. For any state ratifying the Second Optional Protocol after 11 April 1991, it entered into force for that state three months after the date of deposit of its instrument of ratification.

iii) Obligations Undertaken by States Parties

When a state becomes a party to the CCPR it undertakes to immediately guarantee to all individuals in its territory or under its jurisdiction, without any discrimination, all the rights specified in the CCPR (article 2(1)). These include both collective rights (such as self-determination), and individual rights (such as freedom of expression).

States parties also undertake to:

States parties also undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of the rights guaranteed in the CCPR (article 3).

iv) Summary of Substantive Rights

The following rights are guaranteed by the CCPR:

Rights not protected

At the same time, there are some significant omissions which are covered in other international instruments directed at similar rights. Examples of rights not specifically protected by the CCPR include the right to property, to acquire a nationality (except in the context of children), and the right to strike.

v) The Second Optional Protocol
The Second Optional Protocol was adopted on 15 December 1989, and it entered into force on 11 July 1991. States parties to the second Optional Protocol undertake:

The Second Optional Protocol is a treaty in its own right, which is open to ratification or accession by all states parties to the CCPR (article 7).

The rights guaranteed by the Second Optional Protocol apply as if they were additional provisions to the CCPR (article 6).

The only kind of reservation that is permitted to the Second Optional Protocol is one providing for the application of the death penalty in time of war pursuant to a conviction for a most serious crime of a military nature committed during wartime (article 2).

vi) Limitations on Rights

The rights set forth in the CCPR can only be limited to the extent specifically provided for in the CCPR (article 5(1)). The Human Rights Committee, the treaty body associated with the CCPR, considers whether limitations imposed by a state are justified in the context of its examination of state party reports (article 40) and consideration of communications under the Optional Protocol.

Some of the articles in the CCPR, which set out the substantive rights, also set out carefully defined circumstances in which states parties are entitled to restrict the exercise of those rights in order to accommodate other societal interests.

The societal interests that are accommodated in this way by the CCPR are as follows:

vii) Derogations

In addition to the permissible limitations on certain specific rights, the CCPR sets out limited circumstances in which states parties are entitled to derogate from - meaning suspend - the enjoyment of the rights contained in the CCPR in times of official public emergency (article 4).

Before a state party may take measures derogating from its obligations under the CCPR, the following conditions must be fulfilled:

In accordance with article 4 of the CCPR, some rights guaranteed by the CCPR are non- derogable. They cannot be restricted, even in cases of public emergency. The non-derogable rights are as follows:

The obligation of states parties to the second Optional Protocol not to execute any person within their jurisdiction (article 1(1)) is also non-derogable (article 6 to the second Optional Protocol).

viii) Reservations

When ratifying or acceding to a treaty, a state may formulate conditions which are referred to as reservations, understandings or interpretative declarations, by which it limits the obligations it is prepared to assume. Such statements are deposited with the depository, (the UN Secretary General, Office of Legal Affairs) who forwards them to all other states parties for comment. In considering the extent of the obligations undertaken by any state party to the Covenant it is therefore necessary to consider whether the state party has made any reservations.

However, not all reservations are valid and succeed in limiting a state's obligations under the treaty. In general, a reservation will not be valid if it is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty.

States parties sometimes object to the reservations formulated by new states parties as incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty. No reservation has yet been rejected by virtue of the objection of other states parties.

Nevertheless, in the course of considering communications and state reports, the Human Rights Committee itself must frequently decide on the application and scope of reservations. In some cases the Committee has expressed the view that a reservation is invalid as against the object and purpose of the treaty. This occurred, for example, in the Committee's consideration of the reservation of Trinidad and Tobago to the Optional Protocol which purported to exclude persons under sentence of death from availing themselves of the procedure. The Committee has laid down the competence to evaluate, and if necessary reject, reservations in its General Comment No. 24. Hence, if the Committee receives a complaint which might be affected by a reservation, it may still consider the complaint if it believes that the reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the CCPR.

The Committee's concluding observations on a state party's reports should be examined for possible comments on that state party's reservations.

ix) The Monitoring Body/Treaty Body: The Human Rights Committee

The CCPR provides for the establishment of a Human Rights Committee to monitor the implementation of the Covenant's provisions by states parties.

The Human Rights Committee is composed of 18 independent experts, nominated and elected by state parties to the CCPR, but intended to serve in their personal capacity.

The Human Rights Committee is engaged in the following tasks:

The Committee meets three times a year, with each session lasting three weeks. These sessions are normally held in March (at the United Nations Office Headquarters in New York), July and October/November (at the United Nations Office in Geneva). Prior to each session, a working group of the Committee meets for one week.

Staff and facilities for the performance of the Committee's functions are provided by the Secretary-General of the United Nations (article 36) through the Secretariat of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Committee submits an annual report of its activities to the UN General Assembly (article 45). The report contains the concluding observations which the Committee makes about states parties in the context of reports, the decisions reached on individual cases, and any General Comments.

x) Number of Ratifying States

Over three-quarters of UN member states are now parties to the CCPR, more than half are parties to the Optional Protocol, and one-quarter are parties to the Second Optional Protocol. This figure changes frequently and can be updated online.