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On the 36th anniversary of the ICCPR, an opportunity to protect free speech

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 23 March 2012 - On the occasion of the 36th anniversary of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entering into force, ARTICLE 19 calls for Burma, Bhutan, China, Cuba, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates to ratify the Covenant and guarantee the protection of the rights enshrined in it on their territories, especially the right to freedom of expression.

On 23 March, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) will celebrate its 36th birthday. The ICCPR imposes legally binding obligations on State Parties to respect a number of human rights, including freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is among the most important of the rights guaranteed by the ICCPR, in particular because of its fundamental role in the underpinning of democracy and in achieving protection of other rights. Freedom of expression is a necessary condition to the realisation of the principles of transparency and accountability, particularly in countries transitioning from authoritarianism.

ARTICLE 19 finds it essential that all states ratify the ICCPR, implementing its provisions into domestic law and providing redress for its citizens. In particular, we call on Burma, China, Cuba, Bhutan, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates to ratify the treaty, as these states frequently violate the rights guaranteed under the ICCPR, including the right to freedom of expression.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the ICCPR and opened it for signature, ratification and accession on 16 December 1966. The Covenant, which entered into force on 23 March 1976, acknowledges that “the recognition of the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Currently, 167 states are party to the ICCPR, while 24 UN member states have not yet ratified or acceded to the ICCPR: Antigua and Barbuda, Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, China, Comoros, Cuba, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, São Tomé and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Tonga and the United Arab Emirates. In total, these 24 states are home to over 20 per cent of the world's population.

Seventeen of these states have not even signed the ICCPR – a particularly concerning revelation concerning three non-signatories, Burma, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, which are home to over 110 million people. Signature indicates the willingness of a state to continue in the treaty-making process, qualifying it to proceed to ratification, acceptance or approval. Most importantly, signature obligates the state to refrain, in good faith, from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty. The seven states that have signed but not ratified or acceded to the ICCPR are China, Comoros, Cuba, Nauru, Palau, Saint Lucia and São Tomé and Principe. Despite becoming a signatory in October 1998 – almost 12 years ago, China still has not ratified or acceded to the Covenant.

States that ratify or accede to the ICCPR are granted a time-frame within which to seek domestic approval for the treaty and to enact the necessary legislation to give it effect. All ratifying states have a duty to implement the rights contained in the Covenant into domestic law, providing a means by which citizens can seek redress for violations of those rights.

ARTICLE 19 also reminds all ICCPR state parties of their obligations under the Covenant. State parties have an obligation to recognize the rights enshrined in the Covenant without discrimination, as well as to adopt legislation to effect those rights. Such legislation must ensure the enforcement of those rights and guarantee an effective remedy for citizens whose rights have been violated. State parties must, therefore, guarantee through domestic legislation the protection of, among others, the following fundamental rights:

-The right to hold opinions,
-The right to freedom of expression, which includes seeking, receiving and imparting ideas of all kinds on all media,
-The right to peaceably assemble,
-The right to freedom of association,
-The right to take part in the conduct of public affairs,and
-The freedom to enjoy one's own culture, profess and practice one's own religion and use one's own language.

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