The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was established in 1966 to protect civil and political rights worldwide. The main points of the treaty are free speech, free assembly, religious freedom, and the right to due process.

With over 170 countries signing on, the Covenant is one of the most widely ratified treaties in history. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the Covenant, including a brief history and explanation of some of its key points.

What Is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)?

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force in 1976.

The Covenant establishes a set of civil and political rights for all people, including the right to life, liberty, and personal security, freedom from torture and arbitrary detention, equality before the law, freedom of expression, and access to public information, all of which are intertwined with human rights.

The ICCPR treaty also safeguards the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and religious freedom. States that ratify the Covenant must take steps to ensure individuals on their territories have access to these rights. Furthermore, the Covenant establishes a system for individual and state complaints in cases of alleged violations. 

A recent study found that in 2019, the protection of civil liberties and political rights deteriorated in 64 countries, clearly showing the need for improvement. As of 2022, the Covenant has 173 States Parties and six signatories without ratification, the most notable of which were Cuba and China.

What’s Ratification?

Ratification is the formal process by which a state becomes bound by a treaty. Once a treaty has been signed, it must be ratified by the state before it can come into force. Ratification usually requires the approval of the state’s legislature or parliament. 

Treaties may also require ratification by state legislatures in some cases. The ratification process can be lengthy, but it is intended to ensure that all interests are considered before ratifying a treaty.

Which Rights Are Protected Under the ICCPR?

The Covenant, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNHCR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESC), has a preamble and 53 articles divided into six sections. Part 3 of the Covenant outlines the rights we will discuss now.

The ICCPR protects the following rights:

Physical Integrity Rights

Article 6: The “inherent right to life” of every human being must be safeguarded in accordance with the law, as stated in Article 6. Despite not explicitly outlawing the death penalty, Article 6 limits its use to the “most heinous crimes” and forbids it against minors and pregnant women.

Article 7: Non-consensual medical or scientific experimentation, torture, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, are all outlawed under Article 7 of the International Covenant. It is inviolable, like Article 6, and can never be changed.

Article 8: Under Article 8, slavery and servitude are explicitly forbidden. In addition, the article prohibits the use of forced labor, with the exception of mandatory judicial, military, and civic obligations.

Individual Liberty and Security

Article 9: The right to personal freedom and security is guaranteed under Article 9. It forbids arrest and detention without due process of law, mandates that any deprivation of liberty be in accordance with the law, and requires parties to ensure that those imprisoned have access to the courts to challenge their detention.

Articles 9.3 and 9.4: Articles 9.3 and 9.4 establish procedural safeguards regarding arrest, mandating that detainees be given notice of the charges against them and brought before a judge without undue delay. Pretrial detention is restricted and cannot be "the general rule," per the Covenant document.

Article 10: Article 10 stipulates that all prisoners must be treated with respect and compassion. This includes incarcerated people and those in immigration or psychiatric confinement. This right is in addition to Article 7’s ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

Article 11: The use of incarceration as a penalty for breach of contract is forbidden under Article 11.

Procedural Justice, Fairness, and Rights of the Accused

Article 14: To ensure that the rights of the accused and the right to a fair and public hearing and trial are respected during criminal proceedings, Article 14 imposes specific and detailed obligations related to the process of criminal trials.

Article 15: Article 15 forbids applying criminal penalties retroactively or based on the law’s interpretation after the fact, as well as the imposition of greater punishments if the law’s definition of an offense has changed since the offender’s conviction.

Article 16: ICCPR parties are obligated to treat all citizens equally under the international law, per Article 16.

Liberties of the Individual

Article 12: The right to leave and return to one’s country and the freedom to choose one’s place of residence are all protected under Article 12. The Human Rights Committee expands the scope of this right to apply to citizens and those who have had their citizenship revoked or have been denied nationality.

Article 13: Article 13 explicitly states that permanent residents cannot be expelled without due process and that they have the right to appeal removal orders.

Article 17: The right to privacy is guaranteed by Article 17, which also shields individuals from reprisals that would damage their reputation.

Article 18: Article 18 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Article 19: This article guarantees the right to free speech.

Article 20: Sanctions for inciting hostility or war are mandated in Article 20.

Articles 21 and 22: Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by Article 21, and freedom of association by Article 22. These clauses protect the freedom to organize labor unions and guarantee the right to free speech.

Article 23: The right to marry is guaranteed by Article 23. This clause does not explicitly support or reject same-sex marriage in its current form.

Article 24: Article 24 guarantees every child the right to special protection, a name, and a nationality.

Article 27: Article 27 of the Human Rights Covenant guarantees the freedom to practice one’s religion, use one’s native language, and participate in one’s cultural traditions for members of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities.

Political Rights

Article 3: The principle of nondiscrimination is outlined in Article 3. It is an ancillary right because it can only be invoked in conjunction with another right guaranteed by the ICCPR.

Article 26: This article establishes a revolutionary new standard by establishing a principle of equality that stands on its own, unrelated to the violation of any other right guaranteed by the Convention. This effectively expands the application of the non-discrimination principle beyond that of the ICCPR.

What Is the UN Human Rights Committee?

The Human Rights Committee is an expert body that monitors States Parties’ implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is the primary international organization concerned with basic human rights.

The Committee was formed in 1976 and meets three times a year, in March, July, and November. It has 18 members who are elected for four-year terms by States Parties. Members of the Committee serve in their individual capacities and are not authorized to represent their state and local governments.

The United Nations Human Rights committee members must be knowledgeable about human rights law and have a high moral standing. Members are elected at a meeting of States Parties to the Covenant held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

At its first meeting of the year, the Committee elects its officers (chairperson, vice-chairpersons, and rapporteur) for a one-year term. Members of the Committee may be re-elected only once. To be elected, the candidate must receive the support of a majority of States Parties.

Which Body of the American Government Is Responsible for Ratifying Treaties?

The process of ratifying a treaty is one that involves all three branches of the US government. The first step is for the executive branch, specifically the president, to negotiate and sign the treaty. Once this has been done, the treaty will be sent to the Senate for their advice and consent. 

If the Senate votes in favor of the treaty, it will then go to the House of Representatives for a vote. If both chambers approve the treaty, it will be sent to the president for ratification. In some cases, treaties may also require ratification by state legislatures. 

This whole process can be quite lengthy, but it is designed to ensure that all interests are considered before a treaty is ratified.

What Is the International Bill of Human Rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an international treaty that outlines the fundamental rights to which all humans are entitled. It was drafted by representatives from various countries and cultures with input from various non-governmental organizations, and it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

The Declaration of Human Rights laid the groundwork for subsequent human rights treaties and documents, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These documents combine to form the International Bill of Human Rights.

The International Bill of Rights, like the US Bill of Rights, establishes a broad range of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights for all people. These rights include the right to life, liberty, and personal and national security; the right to be free of discrimination; the right to an education; and the right to work in a fair and secure environment.

Although the International Bill of Human Rights is not enforceable by law, it does serve as a valuable guide for nations to follow in their pursuit to protect and promote human rights.

What Is the Significance of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights? The Bottom Line

The ICCPR is significant because, for the first time in history, it codifies and recognizes all civil and political rights of human beings, which are deeply intertwined with human rights in general.

To summarize, these rights include the freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from slavery and servitude; freedom of expression; freedom of assembly and association; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; equality before the law and equal protection under the law; the right to a fair trial; and the right to privacy.

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also spells out the obligations of States Parties to respect and ensure these rights. The ICCPR is significant not only because it sets out international standards for the protection of civil and political rights but also because it provides a mechanism for holding States accountable for their compliance with these standards. 

The ICCPR’s human rights provisions are fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be human, and they serve as the foundation upon which we can build a just and peaceful world.