human rights

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International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966 is an international human rights covenant produced by the General Assembly of the United Nations. It came into force in 1976 and has legal force as a treaty for the parties to it. As of 1 March 2007 160 states were parties to the ICCPR, of which one is the United Kingdom.

Along with the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, which came into force at the same time, the ICCPR is designed to constitute a detailed codification of human rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes a code of civil and political rights, which include the right to life (Art 6), the prohibition of torture (Art 7), the prohibition of slavery (Art 8), the right to liberty of the person (Art 9), the prohibition of retroactive criminal legislation (Art 15), the right of peaceful assembly (Art 21) and the protection of minority rights (Art 27).

The result is that the parties to the ICCPR are under a legal obligation to respect the human rights contained within it. On becoming a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights a state is automatically bound  to submit periodic reports, usually every five years, to a Human Rights Committee established under the Covenant (Art 40). The purpose of the reports is for each state to report on the measures it has adopted to give effects to the rights recognised by the ICCPR. There is also a complaints procedure by which parties to the ICCPR may complain of non-compliance by another state, as long as both the states concerned have recognised the competence of the Committee to receive these complaints (Art 41). As of March 2007 49 states had made optional declarations under Article 41, including the UK.

However, the main problem with the ICCPR remains enforcement. The 1966 Optional Protocol to the ICCPR provides for the possibility of individual complaints to the Committee. Although 109 parties had signed this Optional Protocol as of March 2007 , the UK was not one of them. The fact that this is optional means that states may appear to be protecting human rights when it actually is not, as the system relies on states submitting reports on their own performance, and abuses will only be subject to complaint by other states or individuals where the state in question has adopted those parts of the ICCR giving rise to these procedures.

Recently, the Human Rights Committee criticised the UK position, noting that the ICCPR is not directly applicable in the UK (ie individuals cannot make a complaint under it) and that the UK is the only Member State of the EU not to be party to the Optional Protocol. Furthermore, the observations of the Committee included statements that the UK should do more in relation to several areas of human rights law, including to remove derogations relating to its armed forces and to review its practices relating to ASBOs. These comments do not appear to have had any great effect, and the UK is not obliged to follow the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee. In this respect, the ICCPR may be considered to be something of a lame duck.


  • Brownlie, I., Principles of Public International Law, 7th Edition (2008), Oxford University Press, pg 565
  • Dixon, M., Textbook on International Law, 6th Edition (2007), Oxford University Press, pg 348
  • Dixon ibid pg 347
  • Dixon ibid pg 348
  • Human Rights Committee, Sixth Periodic Report, CCPR/C/GBR/CO/6 (2008), para 6

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