The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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Human Rights Committee

The Human Rights Committee (HRC) was established per Articles 28 to 39 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966 and entered into force on 23 March 1976. It monitors the implementation of the ICCPR.

Composition

The Committee has eighteen members elected by the States party to the ICCPR, from a list of persons of “high moral character and recognized competence” (Art. 38 of ICCPR). Each State can nominate two persons. The terms are four years long, renewable once. The Committee may not include more than one national of the same State, and consideration must be given to equitable geographic distribution of membership and to the representation of “the different forms of civilization and of the principal legal systems” (Art. 40).

The HRC’s headquarters are in Geneva, and its members meet three times a year. It submits an annual report to the UN General Assembly and to the UN Economic and Social Council, which is made public.

The Committee’s mandate is restricted to States party to the ICCPR (168 States Parties) and is optional for States in many cases (unlike the activities, e.g., of the UN Human Rights Council, which concern all UN Member States).

Mandate

The Human Rights Committee has three mechanisms that allow it to monitor the ICCPR’s implementation:

  1. It examines periodic country reports submitted by States Parties, which present the national efforts that States have taken to promote the respect for human rights and the Covenant in general. These reports are mandatory for all States.
  2. Under optional Article 41 of the ICCPR, the HRC can receive and consider complaints from parties alleging that another State Party is not fulfilling its obligations under the Covenant—as long as both the alleging party and the alleged violator have declared that they recognize the HRC’s competence with regard to such complaints.
  3. In the case of States having ratified the first Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, the HRC can also receive and consider communications from individuals who claim to be victims of a violation by the participant State under whose jurisdiction they exist.

Country Reports

Country reports are the foundation of the UN system of human rights protection. States that are party to the ICCPR “undertake to submit reports on the measures they have adopted which give effect to the rights” set forth in the ICCPR. They must submit such reports one year after the entry into force of the Covenant for that State, and then every five years.

The reports are submitted to the UN Secretary-General, who transmits them to the Committee for consideration. The Secretary-General may also, after consultation with the Committee, transmit copies of relevant parts of the reports to the specialized agencies of the UN whose field of competence covers given parts. After the Committee has studied the reports, it hears the States concerned, through both written and oral observations made by the State, explaining the measures it has taken as well as any difficulties and delays in the implementation of the ICCPR.

Unlike the other two mechanisms used by the HRC, country reports are mandatory for all 168 States Parties to the Covenant.

NGOs can submit written documents to the Committee and may go to its public meetings. The questions that the Committee asks the States during the public hearings may be based on information received from nongovernmental sources.

State Communications

A State Party may file a written communication alleging that another State Party is violating its human rights obligations under the Covenant. This article (Art. 41) is optional, meaning that it only applies to States Parties that have expressly recognized the Committee’s competence to receive and consider State communications.

For the Committee to consider such a communication, two conditions must be met: both the State submitting the communication and the one allegedly committing the violations must have made the declaration accepting the Committee’s competence with regard to such communications, and the injured persons must have exhausted all available domestic remedies. However, in the case of the latter condition, this “shall not be the rule where the application of the remedies is unreasonably prolonged” (Art. 41.1.c). Furthermore, the Committee will only begin to examine a State communication if the matter is not “adjusted to the satisfaction of both States Parties concerned” within six months after the State that is the object of the communication received the complaint (Art. 41.1.b).

The Committee must make its good offices available, with a view to finding a friendly solution. After twelve months, during which time it can receive written and oral explanation from the States concerned, the HRC submits a report to the States concerned. The report either contains a brief statement presenting the facts and the solution that was reached or, if no solution was reached, a brief statement including the written and oral submissions made by the States concerned.

Finally, if a matter is not resolved to the satisfaction of the States concerned, the Committee may, with the States’ prior consent, appoint an ad hoc Conciliation Commission, which continues the work begun by the Committee (Art. 42). When it has fully considered the matter, and in any event no later than twelve months after having been apprised of the matter, the Conciliation Commission submits a report for communication to the States concerned.

The State complaint mechanism does not work very well and is particularly limited, because only the following forty-nine States have accepted the Committee’s competence to receive and consider State complaints: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Congo, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, and Zimbabwe.

Individual Communications

There is the possibility for individuals (or their legal representatives, but not juridical persons such as members of NGOs) to transmit communications to the HRC with regard to violations of the rights under the ICCPR by their State Party. However, the HRC’s competence to receive individual petitions is limited to the 115 States that have ratified the first Optional Protocol to the ICCPR—which was adopted and entered into force along with the Covenant—establishing this option. ▸ List of States Party to International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Conventions (no. 7: First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR)

Several conditions must be met before the Committee can consider an individual communication:

  • the victim must be a national of a State party to the Protocol;
  • the victim must have exhausted all available domestic remedies (Arts. 2 and 5 of Protocol 1 to ICCPR);
  • the communication must not be anonymous, must not abuse the right of submission of such communications, and must not be incompatible with the provisions of the Covenant (Art. 4); and
  • the matter must not be under investigation under another procedure of international investigation or settlement (Art. 5 of Protocol 1 to the ICCPR).

The procedure takes six months: the HRC first examines the complaint and then requests explanations from the State concerned. The response is transmitted to the victim. Following this exchange, the Committee forwards its “views” to the State concerned and the individual (Art. 5.4 of Protocol 1 to the ICCPR). This decision has no mandatory force of law.

The HRC is also responsible for monitoring the second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. This Protocol was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 15 December 1989 and entered into force on 11 July 1991. It currently has eighty-one States Parties.

The 115 States that have ratified or accessed the first Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, allowing individuals to send communications directly to the Committee, are Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Democratic Republic of), Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Finland, France, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Korea (Republic of), Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova (Republic of), Mongolia, Montenegro, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Sweden, Tajikistan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, and Zambia.

Human rightsIndividual recourseUN High Commissioner for Human Rights/Human Rights Council

List of States Party to International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Conventions (nos.6, 7, 8)

Human Rights Committee

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

52 rue Paquis

1202 Geneva, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 917 91 59

Fax: (41) 22 917 90 12

For Additional Information: Lewis-Anthony, Sian, and Martin Scheinin. “Treaty-Based Procedure for Making Human Rights Complaints within the UN System.” In Guide to International Human Rights Practice , edited by Hurst Hannum, 43–63. Ardsley, NY: Transnational, 2004.

Steiner, Henry. “Individual Claims in a World of Massive Violations: What Role for the Human Rights Committee?” In The Future of United Nations Human Rights Treaty Monitoring , edited by P. Alston and J. Crawford, 15–54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.