United Nations Human Rights Committee

The United Nations Human Rights Committee is a United Nations body of 18 experts established by a human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Committee meets for three four-week sessions per year to consider the five-yearly reports submitted by the 172 States parties to the ICCPR on their compliance with the treaty, and any individual petitions concerning the 116 States parties to the ICCPR's First Optional Protocol.[1] The Committee is one of ten UN human rights treaty bodies, each responsible for overseeing the implementation of a particular treaty.[2]

The UN Human Rights Committee should not be confused with the more high-profile UN Human Rights Council, or its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. Whereas the Human Rights Council (since June 2006) and the Commission on Human Rights (before that date) are UN political bodies: composed of states, established by a UN General Assembly resolution and the UN Charter, and discussing the entire range of human rights concerns; the Human Rights Committee is a UN expert body: composed of persons, established by the ICCPR, and discussing matters pertaining only to that treaty.


The ICCPR states the basic rules for the membership of the Human Rights Committee. Article 28 of the ICCPR states that the Committee is composed of 18 members from states parties to the ICCPR, "who shall be persons of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights", with consideration "to the usefulness of the participation of some persons having legal experience." Also according to Article 28, the members serve in their individual capacity, rather than as representatives of their countries. As stated in Articles 29 and 30 of the ICCPR, they are elected by a meeting of the states parties to the ICCPR held at UN Headquarters. Based on Article 32, they serve four-year terms, with one-half of their number elected every second year.[3]

The current membership follows:[4]

1.Ms. Tania María Abdo Rocholl Paraguay2017–2020
2.Mr. Yadh Ben Achour Tunisia2019-2022
3.Ms. Ilze Brands Kehris Latvia2017–2020
4.Mr. Christopher Arif Bulkan Guyana2019-2022
5.Mr. Ahmed Amin Fathalla Egypt2017–2020
6.Mr. Shuichi Furuya Japan2019–2022
7.Mr. Christof Heyns South Africa2017–2020
8.Mr. Hernán Quezada Cabrera Chile2019–2022
9.Mr. Bamariam Koita Mauritania2017–2020
10.Ms. Marcia. V. J. Kran Canada2017–2020
11.Mr. Duncan Laki Muhumuza Uganda2019–2022
12.Ms. Photini Pazartzis Greece2019–2022
13.Ms. Vasilka Sancin Slovenia2019–2022
14.Mr. José Manuel Santos Pais Portugal2017–2020
15.Mr. Yuval Shany Israel2013–2020
16.Ms. Hélène Tigroudja France2019–2022
17.Mr. Gentian Zyberi Albania2019–2022
18.Mr. Andreas B. Zimmermann Germany2018–2020

Recent elections

On June 14, 2018, the States parties to the ICCPR met and elected nine members of the Committee, to replace those whose terms would expire at the end of 2018. There were sixteen candidates for the nine positions, not counting two who were withdrawn shortly before the election and one whose nomination was late. Those elected were Mr. Yadh Ben Achour* (Tunisia), Mr. Christopher Bulkan (Guyana), Ms. Photini Pazartzis* (Greece), Ms. Hélène Tigroudja (France), Mr. Hernán Quezada Cabrera (Chile), Mr. Gentian Zyberi (Albania), Ms. Vasilka Sancin (Slovenia), Mr. Shuichi Furuya (Japan), and Mr. Duncan Muhumuza Laki* (Uganda). Asterisks denote sitting members who were re-elected. Pierre-Richard Prosper of the United States was not elected, in reportedly "a first-ever defeat of a US candidate for the UN Human Rights Committee."[5][6][7]

Meetings and activities

The Committee meets three times a year for four-week sessions (spring session at UN headquarters in New York, summer and fall sessions at the UN Office in Geneva). The categories of its work, outlined below, include state reporting, individual complaints, general comments, and inter-state communications.

State reporting under the ICCPR

The Human Rights Committee is the body responsible for overseeing and advising States parties on the implementation of ICCPR treaty principles, within that state. Similar to all of the major UN human rights treaties, Article 40 of the ICCPR requires States parties to submit an initial report within one year of the ICCPR's entry into force for that state, and thereafter as requested by the Committee (which has requested that States report periodically, every five years). Under Article 40, the reports are to address "the measures they have adopted which give effect to the rights recognized [in the ICCPR] and on the progress made in the enjoyment of those rights." The state's delegation appears before the Human Rights Committee in Geneva or New York to discuss the report, in a public process usually referred to as an 'examination' but officially termed a 'dialogue with the State Party'. At the end of a session (in which several states are considered) the committee issues 'concluding observations' on each state, using the report, the dialogue, and any other relevant information submitted by, for example, national human rights institutions or non-governmental organisations. These observations are used to commend the state for any progress in the implementation of ICCPR principles and to identify areas where improvement is expected. With 172 States parties as of September 2016[8] the workload of the committee is heavy and thus the committee relies on each state at the national level to implement ICCPR principles, while acting as a periodic monitoring system.

Process of State reporting under the ICCPR

On ratifying the ICCPR, a state is then bound to report under Article 40 of the ICCPR, and has rights under Article 41 to make inter-state complaints for possible breaches of ICCPR principles. The principal purpose of the report is to promote state compliance with the treaty principles and it should be an "honest appraisal of their conformity to the treaty obligations".[9] Article 40(1) states that the report should set out "the measures [that the State has] adopted which give effect to the rights recognised herein and on the progress made in the enjoyment of those rights".[10]

States are requested in the initial report to address in detail every Article in Parts I, II and III of the Covenant, particularly legal norms (the constitutional and legal framework for the implementation of Covenant rights); and explain with examples, access to remedies for any violations of Covenant rights. These reports therefore tend to be comprehensive. In periodic reports however, the Committee is concerned with the discussion of provisions identified in their concluding observations, progress on enjoyment of ICCPR rights and Articles of which there has been significant development since the last submission.[11] The Covenant does not offer prescriptive guidelines on how to prepare a state report. The Committee instead issued general guidelines on structure in UN Doc. CCPR/C/66/GUI/Rev.2 (2001).[12]


Once the report has been written by the state, the procedure for consultation is as follows:

  1. The State party submits its report to the Human Rights Committee;
  2. The Human Rights Committee presents the State party with a list of issues and questions based on the concerns raised by the report (at which point there is opportunity for input from the United Nations system—NHRIs and NGO reports, also called 'shadow reports');
  3. The State party may submit written replies to a list of issues and questions;
  4. The use of constructive dialogue between the Committee and the State party delegation during session (another opportunity for input from the United Nations system, NHRIs and NGOs whom may utilise);
  5. The Human Rights Committee issues its concluding observations on the report, inclusive of further recommendations for the State to consider in future;
  6. Lastly, procedures are used to follow up on implementation of the Human Rights Committees' recommendations.[13]

Aims and objectives of the State reporting system

The aims and objectives of the state reporting system under the ICCPR were discussed in General Comment 1 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). CESCR concluded the State Reporting System was to be more than a procedural requirement, but additionally meet further aims and objectives.[14]

"The process of reporting provides an opportunity for an individual State party to conduct a comprehensive review of the measures it has taken to bring its national law and policy into line with the provisions of the treaties to which it is a party."[15]

NGO reports

During the process of state reporting, NGOs may indicate their interest to the secretariat on a particular state's report and then prepare a submission to be considered alongside the state report. The input of non-governmental organisations allows for an assessment on the state of civil, social and political rights and takes into account such assessments in the view of organisation that may to be affected by ICCPR principles. The utility of NGO input has been noted by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna 1993 in its concluding Declaration, in the protection of human rights and in humanitarian services.[16] NGO reports also give the public an opportunity to assist in the assessment of the government's overall adherence to the Covenant or on particular matters. These reports may be assessed prior to the meeting or in some circumstances an NGO may be admitted to the meeting. Consequentially, the NGO may take a record of the meeting, facilitating dissemination of information back to the state concerned.[17]

Nature of the State reporting process


The process is not intended to be entirely negative, with States able to highlight in their reports progress which has been made examples of good practices. The process also allows for evaluation of internal structures of implementation and identification of further assistance the state may require. The mechanism provides an opportunity for constructive dialogue between the state and the committee rather than acting as adversarial proceedings.


As a consent-based process, ensuring rights under the ICCPR internationally is fraught with difficulty. The mechanism relies on member states to implement standards by way of incorporation of ICCPR principles into municipal law or implementation through conduct. Where implementing ICCPR principles into domestic law would conflict existing policy or law, a state may ignore such a principle. New Zealand for example, has been considered slow in incorporating ICCPR principles for the reason of Parliamentary Supremacy; it may not restrict future Parliaments by strictly adopting all principles into law. A further issue is in delay between making reports and consideration by the HRC. There have been many attempts for this reason, to reform the treaty body system and make systems more effective, coherent and coordinated.

Commentators have stated that one motivation to submit these reports may be to avoid identification by other states as having failed to implement ICCPR principles, or risk the embarrassment of being blacklisted. The publication of State Reports on the internet allows for individual access to a country's progress as well as the response from the HRC. Public accessibility to reports has been further aided with a United Nations General Assembly resolution (57/300)[18] to make available in the UN information centre of each state, copies of recent state reports, summary records and concluding observations.[9] This stigma that may result from non-compliance does not prevent some reports being excessively late, and in some cases, erroneous. The non-invasive nature of the process means the committee is precluded from enforce recommendations made during the reporting process, therefore the power lies with the state in deciding whether the observe these observations.

Effectiveness of the State reporting system

The effectiveness of the use of state reporting has been questioned and as a result, a further mechanism for review was created in 2007; the UPR. The review was introduced to "complement" existing older mechanisms; particularly the State Reporting System.[19] The Reports system has been regarded as weak for the fact it its success depends on the willingness of states to cooperate. Though in theory, reports should be an honest appraisal, constructive criticism of perceived failures to adhere to Covenant principles is unlikely.[20] Further criticisms exist towards the length of the reports required as well as the onerous requirements, duplication of subject matter between various treaty reports and the lack of resources of the committee to process reports timely.


In the reporting process, challenges typically arise in delays of reporting or consideration, non-reporting. In its 2006 Annual Report, the committee listed a number of countries overdue in reporting, for example Gambia (21 years overdue) and Equatorial Guinea (17 years overdue) and the aforementioned duplication of report requirements among treaty bodies. In his September 2002 report the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on 'Strengthening the United Nations; an agenda for further change'[21] suggests one solution to the duplication issue may be to streamline reports. As "the content and timeliness of reports affects the quality of decision-making throughout the system"[21]:17 delays are critical and therefore, standardisation of reporting requirements will provide an efficient system and improve the state reporting process overall. A further suggestion of Annan was for "an integrated treatment of interrelated issues"[21]:17 through a single document to address adherence to ratified treaties.

In attempting to address issues around the state reporting process, a number of undertakings have been attempted. One such example is of the World Conference on Human Rights in its Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,[22] which sought to implement a system whereby Human Rights officers are assigned to states, working at the regional level, for the purpose of disseminating information, training and aiding implementation on a technical level.

Future alternatives

In response to state frustration over the workload in preparing these reports, the HRC in July 2010 proposed a new optional reporting procedure called the ‘List of Issues Prior to Reporting’ (LOIPR).[23] The LOIPR system implements a new procedure whereby the committee sends the state a list of issues to address and the resulting report satisfies the requirements of Article 40 of the ICCPR. This system remains in the pilot stage until 2015 where the procedure will be reviewed “in terms of its practicality, effectiveness and capacity to improve the examination of the human rights situation in the State parties”.[23]:2 It is intended LOIPR will allow for time to be used more efficiently and provide focus to the report. A further advantage of the procedure will be that a state will not have to submit both a periodic report and LOIPR report (though initial reports will be required). LOIPR remains an optional report and states may elect to continue with the periodic reports system or may be required by the committee to prepare a full report.

Individual complaints to the Committee

States that are party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR (currently 116 countries) have agreed to allow persons within their jurisdiction to submit complaints ("individual communications") to the Committee claiming that their rights under the ICCPR have been violated.[24] The ICCPR is one of eight UN human rights treaties with individual complaints procedures available; two other treaties state such procedures that are not yet in force.[25]


Before considering the merits (substance) of an individual communication, the Committee must be satisfied that it is admissible.[26] The Committee may review a number of factors in determining admissibility and may conclude that, for an individual communication to be admissible, it must:

  • be submitted by an individual victim whose rights have been personally violated, or be submitted with sufficient authorization of such an individual, or otherwise justify the reasons for being submitted on behalf of another. The Communication cannot be anonymous;
  • relate to a right actually protected under the ICCPR;
  • relate to events that occurred after entry into force of the First Optional Protocol for the state in question (with some exceptions, developed by the Committee);
  • be sufficiently substantiated;
  • show that domestic remedies have been exhausted;
  • not be under consideration by another international investigation or settlement procedure;
  • not be precluded by a reservation to the ICCPR by the state in question; and
  • not be frivolous, vexatious, or otherwise an abuse of process.[26][24]

Individual communications that contain the necessary prima facie elements are referred to the Committee’s Special Rapporteur on New Communications and Interim Measures, who decides whether the case should be registered. At that point, the case is transmitted to the State party, which is requested to submit its observations within six months, under Article 4 of the First Optional Protocol.[27] Once the State replies to the complaint, the complainant is offered an opportunity to comment, within a set time frame. If the Committee concludes that a violation of the ICCPR has taken place, in its follow-up procedure the Committee invites the State to provide information within 180 days on its steps to implement the Committee's recommendations. The State’s response is transmitted to the complainant for comments. If the State party fails to take appropriate action, the Committee keeps the case under consideration. Thus, the Committee maintains a dialogue with the State party and the case remains open until satisfactory measures are taken.[26]

The Committee considers individual communications in closed session, but its decisions ("Views") and any follow-up are public.[24] Given the large number of complaints, several years may elapse between submission of a complaint and the Committee’s decision on it.[26]

Information on the process and how to use it, including examples and guidelines for submitting complaints, is available from some NGOs[28][29][30][31] and the United Nations.[26][32]


All Committee decisions on individual complaints are available in online compilations published by UN,[33] NGO,[34] and academic[35] sources.

The Committee has received thousands of complaints since its inception.[36] A few of its decisions that are notable are listed below, in reverse chronological order. Among more recent decisions that attracted press and academic attention, in two October 2018 decisions the Committee concluded that France's ban on the niqab, the full-face Islamic veil, violated human rights guaranteed under the ICCPR, in particular the rights to manifest one's religion or beliefs and to protection against discrimination.[37][38][39]

Case nameCommunication
Mellet v. Ireland2324/20132016Law prohibiting termination of pregnancy
Shikhmuradova v. Turkmenistan2069/20112015Enforced disappearance and unfair trial of former Foreign Minister Boris Şyhmyradow
Raihman v. Latvia1621/20072010State's modification of person's name
Bergauer v. Czech Republic1748/200820101945 "Beneš decrees" disenfranchising ethnic Germans and Hungarians
Kulov v. Kyrgyzstan1369/20052010Detention of opposition leader, and conviction after an unfair trial
Marinich v. Belarus1502/20062010Conviction of opposition leader accompanied with unfair trial, unlawful detention, inhuman conditions of detention
Milinkievič v. Belarus1553/20072009Seizure and destruction of election leaflets
Zundel v. Canada1341/20052007Denial of citizenship and deportation based on Holocaust denial
Arenz v. Germany1138/20022004Declaration by political party that Scientology is incompatible with membership
Svetik v. Belarus927/20002004Conviction for calling for abstention from voting in election
Mátyus v. Slovakia923/20002002Apportionment; establishment of voting districts disproportional to population
Ignatāne v. Latvia884/19992001Annulment of candidacy for election based on language test
Diergaardt v. Namibia760/19972000Policy prohibiting use of Afrikaans language
Ross v. Canada736/19972000Firing of teacher for controversial, allegedly religious opinions
Waldman v. Canada694/19961999Different levels of public funding for religious schools of different religions
Polay v. Peru577/19941998Unlawful trial and imprisonment
Faurisson v. France550/19931996Law prohibiting Holocaust denial
Ballantyne v. Canada359/1989, 385/19891993Quebec laws requiring use of French language
Toonen v. Australia488/19921992Criminalization of sexual contacts between men
Bithashwiwa v. Zaire241/1987 and 242/19871989Arrest and banishment of persons including politician Étienne Tshisekedi
Baboeram v. Suriname146/1983, et al.1985"December murders" of prominent government critics
Sendic v. UruguayR.14/631981Unlawful arrest, detention, torture, and trial of political activist

General Comments

The Committee has issued 36 "General Comments," each of which provides detailed guidance on particular parts of the ICCPR, most recently (on October 30, 2018) issuing General Comment 36 on ICCPR Article 6, on the right to life (replacing General Comments 6 and 14, of 1982 and 1984, respectively).[40] Of its seventy paragraphs, twenty address capital punishment, in a section headed "The death penalty." One commentator has stated that its description of how the right to life applies during situations of armed conflict and its statement of the relationship between international human rights law and international humanitarian law are noteworthy.[41]

In December 2014 the Committee issued General Comment 35 on ICCPR Article 9, "liberty and security of person."[42]

In July 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted a 52-paragraph statement, General Comment 34 on ICCPR Article 19, concerning freedoms of opinion and expression. Paragraph 48 states:

Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3, as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favor of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.

Inter-State Communications

The Covenant provides for inter-State complaints "that enables one State Party to charge another with a violation to the treaty."[43] "[N]o interstate complaint mechanism has yet been submitted" (up to 2009).[43] This is still a matter of jurisdiction and it is optional to the committee of whether or not they will accept such complaint or not.


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