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Keeping track of civil and political rights in your country: The UN Human Rights Committee

Is your government living up to its obligations to protect civil and political rights? The UN has a body of independent experts with this mandate, and there are several ways you can include it in your advocacy work. Here is IFEX’s 5-minute guide to get you started.

This is part of a series of IFEX explainers aimed at strengthening the ability of civil society to engage in global spaces for free expression advocacy. To visit the hub page and see the whole set, click here.

A statue of the Goddess of Justice balancing the scales outside a courthouse in Rennes, France, 19 September 2017
A statue of the Goddess of Justice balancing the scales outside a courthouse in Rennes, France, 19 September 2017

LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images


What is the Human Rights Committee?

It's all about the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The ICCPR is a treaty that came into force in 1973, and the Human Rights Committee is a body of 18 independent experts that monitors its implementation. Although candidates are nominated by the States they are nationals of, and elected by States that are ICCPR signatories, they serve in their personal capacity, not as representatives of their governments. They are elected for a four-year term.

Only States that are signatories of the ICCPR assume a legal obligation to implement the rights recognised in the treaty, and only they are subject to monitoring by the Human Rights Committee. You can check the full list here. And remember, the ICCPR's provisions are legally binding!

Note: It's not exactly intuitive, but the acronym most used for the Human Rights Committee is "CCPR". Sometimes, HRCtte or just Committee are used.

The ICCPR's Articles 19 and 20 expand on the definition of the right to freedom of expression that appears in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and include specific language concerning acceptable limitations on it.

ICCPR's Article 19

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

A State that is a signatory to the ICCPR should submit regular reports to the Human Rights Committee, usually every four to six years. The first report is due one year after the ICCPR comes into force for that State. It should include an overview of how the State is complying with the ICCPR as a whole. Subsequent reports are shorter and tend to focus on responding to observations made by the experts of the Human Rights Committee.


The A-B-C-Ds of the Human Rights Committee's work

The group meets three times a year for a period of three weeks, usually in March, July, and October, in Geneva.

It has four main functions, and civil society organisations can participate in – or at least benefit from – most of them.

A. It monitors progress on political and civil rights in a country and makes recommendations to States: The Reporting Cycle
B. It takes action in response to individual complaints claiming violations of the rights under the ICCPR
C. It issues expert opinions on specific articles of the ICCPR: General Comments
D. It considers Inter-States' complaints


We'll address the role for NGOs within each of these four functions.


A. It monitors progress on political and civil rights in a country and makes recommendations to States: The Reporting Cycle

There are several stages in the process signatory States agree to, and each comes with its own opportunities.

Step 1 — Adoption of the so-called List of Issues (LOI) or List of Issues Prior to Reporting (LOIPR). During each of its three annual sessions, the Human Rights Committee adopts a list of issues for each State ahead of its upcoming session (usually about a year in advance).

• NGOs can participate in this process by submitting a list of issues in advance to the session. Later, NGOs can provide inputs on the list of issues decided on by the Human Rights Committee.

Step 2 — The States' Reports and NGOs' "Alternative Reports". This is the most important step for NGOs to engage in. During each of its three annual sessions, the Human Rights Committee reviews States' reports on their compliance with the ICCPR, generally focused on information that was requested in previous reviews and on the List of Issues. States are encouraged to prepare their reports in cooperation with other actors, including civil society groups – but this might not always happen. In some cases, a State may fail to provide any report at all.

• NGOs, UN entities, and national human rights institutions can provide their own reports, referred to as "Alternative Reports”. NGOs – individually or as a group – can submit written contributions on the civil and political rights in a country or on a specific article of the convention, such as the right to freedom of expression. Deadlines for submission are published on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and are usually about a month before the start of the session in which the State will be reviewed. NGO written reports should not exceed 10,000 words and should be written in English, French, or Spanish. English is the most recommended language, as these documents are not translated.

Step 3 — State review. During each of its three annual sessions, the Human Rights Committee's 18 experts evaluate between five and seven countries on their compliance with the ICCPR, based on all the reports they have received. Each country review lasts one day. State representatives are present in the room to provide answers to the experts' questions. In some cases, answers are provided during the session; in others, the State submits its responses in written form after the official session.

• NGOs can attend and observe the review. NGOs cannot make oral statements during this session.

• NGOs can however provide oral statements to the Human Rights Committee's experts in formal meetings. These are usually scheduled for the day before the session starts, and can be very effective. We recommend that you prepare a compelling statement that tells a story, preferably delivered by someone directly affected by the rights violation, and that you include concrete recommendations as well as questions for the experts to raise during the State review. To register, contact [email protected] and [email protected]

• NGOs can also coordinate among themselves (in many cases in cooperation with the Centre for Civil and Political Rights, based in Geneva) to organise an informal meeting (without interpretation) with the experts about a particular State. This usually happens the day before or on the morning of the State review.

• NGOs can also try an even less formal approach to the experts, outside of scheduled meetings. You can familiarise yourself with the experts here.

Step 4 — The report: Concluding Observations. Following a three-week session of State reviews, the Human Rights Committee publishes a report called "Concluding Observations." This is usually released about a week after the end of the session. In the report, it presents its opinion on the progress made by each State on the implementation of the ICCPR, and makes specific recommendations to them.

• NGOs can then use this report to raise awareness, advocate, monitor and put pressure on States to respect civil and political rights.

• An NGO that has participated in this process can assess its own success based on to whether its issues of concern and recommendations are included in the report.

Step 5 — Follow-up. One year after the review of a State by the Human Rights Committee, the State is asked to submit a report on recommendations included in the Concluding Observations that were identified as urgent.

• NGOs are allowed to also provide a report on the progress made by the State on these urgent recommendations, so the Human Rights Committee can have another perspective of what has been done. Otherwise, they can use the report of the State to monitor their commitment on the recommendations made by the Human Rights Committee.

You can review the list of countries to be reviewed and deadlines for submissions here.


B. It responds to individual complaints claiming rights violations under the ICCPR

Note that a complaint submitted by an individual is only possible if the State in question is also party to the First Optional Protocol.

NGOs and legal support groups can support an individual from a State that is party to the First Optional Protocol of the ICCPR to submit a communication directly, if his or her rights under the treaty have been violated by the State. To be admissible:

• The communication must be submitted by the individual whose rights have been violated or with the written consent of the individual. The communication cannot be anonymous.

• The communications must show that domestic remedies have been exhausted (or prove everything has been tried to do so).

• The "same matter" (same author, same facts and same substantive right) cannot already be under consideration by another international investigation or settlement procedure. (Exceptions to this are when the matter has been submitted to the Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure, to special rapporteurs or to working groups of the Human Rights Council).

• The communication has to be sent to:
Petitions and Inquiries Section
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
[email protected]

• There is a special format for an individual to use to submit complaints, which can be downloaded here. You can also check the guidelines here. Have a look to the Human Rights Committee jurisprudence here.

Once accepted, the Human Rights Committee will consider the complaint during one of its sessions. Their deliberation is closed, but its final decision (called "Views") and follow-up are public and binding. During the process, the parties might be allowed to make oral statements to the Human Rights Committee (guidelines here). Be warned: It can take several years for a case to be considered.


C. It issues expert opinions on specific articles of the ICCPR: General Comments

An important role of the Human Rights Committee is to help interpret the articles of the ICCPR. The so-called “General comments” provide guidance on their implementation.

In 2011, the CCPR issued the landmark General comment No. 34 on the right of freedom of opinion an expression. This interpretation can be very useful for supporting NGO advocacy work in your country!

This text strengthens the interpretation of ICCPR Article 19; it clarifies the boundaries for legitimate restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, and it looks at the obligation of States to not only protect the right, but proactively prevent any violation of it and to promote its enjoyment, including freedom of the media. It also takes into account the impact of the internet, and in doing so recognises the rights not only of traditional journalists, but also of bloggers and "others who engage in forms of self-publication".

• NGOs can also participate in this process. When a general comment is going to be developed, there is a call for civil society to share inputs.


D. It considers Inter-States' complaints

A State Party may submit a communication alleging that another State Party is not fulfilling its obligations under the ICCPR. To date, however, this tool has not been used. There is no role for NGOs in this process.


The last word: Strategic tips and useful resources

IFEX's top 6 tips for engaging with the Human Rights Committee

1. Timing is everything! You can make use of Human Rights Committee-related events such as the publication of the List of Issues (LOI), the review sessions, the dissemination of Concluding Observations and the follow-up reports by organising campaigns, advocacy actions and communication strategies at the national and local level. Review sessions are particularly good at attracting media attention.

2. There's strength in numbers. Consider collaborating with other NGOs in your country. This can strengthen your voice – not only in Geneva, but in your own country.

3. Know your stuff. When preparing an Alternative Report, review the State's previous reports, Concluding Observations and follow-up recommendations, as well as previous lists of issues. You can find all this information in this database.

4. The session is just the beginning. Use the Concluding Observations as a starting point for advocacy and awareness-raising. For example: closely monitor the steps the State is taking to address the issues it flags; engage in a dialogue with the State about them; organise conferences, seminars and workshops around them.

5. Think beyond the Human Rights Committee. Your long-term strategy can include a number of other UN mechanisms monitoring compliance with human rights, such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the special procedures, as well as regional mechanisms. Once you've learned how to engage with one, you can more easily engage with others. Also, information collected for one body can feed into the others.

6. Do not forget to include a gender dimension to your reports and contributions to the Human Rights Committee. Do violations of political and civil rights in your country affect women or LGBTQI individuals the same way? Are solutions, and therefore recommendations, the same for all?


More resources and information

"Working with the United Nations Human Rights Programme: A Handbook for Civil Society. Chapter IV" (2008). OHCHR
"UN Human Rights Committee. Participation in the reporting process. Guidelines for NGOs". By CCPR Centre. 2015.
"General comment No. 34 on the right to freedom of expression (2011)". Human Rights Committee.
"The relationship of the Human Rights Committee with NGOs". CCPR/C/104/3.
OHCHR: Universal human rights database
OHCHR: Jurisprudence by the UN treaty bodies database.
Guidelines for submitting individual complaints

Note that the Human Rights Committee is one of ten existing UN human rights treaty bodies, and only monitors the ICCPR. Other expert committees include the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee against Torture, the Committee on Enforced Disappearances and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. You can check all the existing treaty bodies here. You can also watch this video to learn more about treaty bodies.

Other relevant UN bodies monitoring State compliance with human rights include the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the special procedures.

Check more ways to defend and promote the right to freedom of expression on the IFEX 5-minute explainers hub page.

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