The Human Rights Covenants: Tools in the 'Struggle of Enforcement.' (A Look Back ... 25 Years Ago)

UN Chronicle, December 1991 | Go to article overview

The Human Rights Covenants: Tools in the 'Struggle of Enforcement.' (A Look Back ... 25 Years Ago)


People illegally imprisoned have been freed, victims of human rights violations have been compensated and national laws have been improved thanks to two important United Nations treaties--the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Together with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Optional Protocol, the Covenants form the International Bill of Human Rights, a document based on the premise that governments must answer for the way they treat individuals and must be judged by international standards.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Covenants' adoption will be observed by the General Assembly on 16 December.

The Covenants are part of a system which protects human rights worldwide. Governments which have signed them must report to the UN on how they ensure respect for human rights. Under the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, individuals claiming that their rights have been violated can appeal directly to the UN for redress.

The Universal Declaration was adopted by the Assembly in 1948. The Declaration proclaims that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". It spells out the rights and freedoms of all members of the human family, and has become a yardstick by which to measure the degree of respect for and compliance with international human rights standards.

The Declaration's principles were transformed into legally binding norms through the two Covenants and the Optional Protocol. These instruments were adopted by the Assembly on 16 December 1966 and entered into force in 1976. As of 31 March, 99 countries had become parties to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 95 had ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and 52 had ratified the Optional Protocol.

What the Covenants say

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes the right of every human being to: life, liberty and security; privacy; freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and from torture; freedom from slavery; immunity from arbitrary arrest; a fair trial; recognition as a person before the law; immunity from retroactive sentences; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; liberty of movement; peaceful assembly; and freedom of association.

The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes the right to: work and to free choice of employment; fair wages; form and join unions; social security; special protection for families, mothers, children and young persons; adequate standards of living, including food, clothing and housing; health; education; and participation in cultural life.

Both Covenants proclaim the right of all people to self-determination and guarantee the rights they proclaim without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Both assume that human rights may need to be restricted when unfettered exercise would interfere with the rights of others, although nothing in them should be taken to imply that anyone has the right to seek to destroy or unduly limit the rights set out in those instruments.

However, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows a State to limit or suspend the enjoyment of certain rights in case of officially "proclaimed public emergencies which threaten the life of a nation". …

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