International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Connect With Us
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

This section will cover some of the aspects in which the ICCPR differs or represents an evolution from the corresponding sections of the Universal Declaration, and will give some very brief examples. (The full text of the document can be found here:

The preamble largely repeats the language of the Universal Declaration itself, repeating that the rights presented in the document are “equal and inalienable” (for more on inalienability, see the box below on “Key Properties of Human Rights” ).

Article 1 inserts a right not contained in the Declaration, the right of “all peoples” to self-determination and to “determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Picture: United Nations Police in East Timor, Source:

The people of East Timor provide one case in which the right to self-determination was successfully invoked. This small country, representing part of an island in the Pacific Ocean between Indonesia and Australia, has a checkered history of colonial occupation. The territory was under Portuguese control for hundreds of years until 1975. Its independence was short-lived as it was soon invaded by its larger neighbor Indonesia and brutally occupied until the late 1990s. In 1999, calls for self-determination from the residents of East Timor resulted in a UN-sponsored election. The vote was overwhelming for independence, but Indonesian authorities violently resisted.

It was not until 2002 that East Timor finally achieved full independence and became a member of the United Nations, a transition that was overseen and supported by the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor.

(For the impact of this on self-determination of minorities and indigenous peoples, see “Self-Determination”).

Article 4 specifies which rights in the ICCPR are non-derogable (see box on “Key Properties of Human Rights” below). These include the right to life and freedom from genocide (Article 6); freedom from torture (Article 7); freedom from slavery and forced labor (Article 8); universal recognition of all individuals as persons under the law (Article 16); and freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18).1

Article 6 extends the protection of human life to a mass scale, explicitly prohibiting genocide (see the section on “Genocide”). This clause also addresses the death penalty. While the ICCPR skirts the issue of the death penalty and does not protect individuals against legally imposed death penalties for “the most serious crimes,” a subsequent protocol to the convention allowed countries to do so if they wished. This omission from the ICCPR reflects the fact that many industrial countries, including the United States, continue to allow the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, in 2007 alone, 1,252 people were executed in 24 countries. Leading states for the use of the death penalty include Iran and China.

Article 8 adds compulsory labor to the Declaration’s prohibition of slavery; Article 20 covers wartime propaganda, which was widely used by the Nazis in World War II, and crimes resulting from “national, racial or religious hatred” (what we would now consider “hate crimes”); Article 24 establishes the the groundwork for special protections concerning the rights of children, which include freedom from discrimination and the right to have a nationality; and Article 27 begins to address the rights of minority cultures (see “rdquo;); article 24 starts to lay the groundwork for special protections of the rights of children that include freedom from discrimination and the right to have a nationality; and Article 27 begins to address the rights of minority cultures (see “Indigenous Rights”) (United Nations, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, n.d.).

To date, 167 nations are parties to the ICCPR. It is worth mentioning that the United States, though it signed the convention in 1977, did not ratify it until 1992 (United Nations, United Nations Treaty Collection, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, n.d.). When the U.S. did ratify the agreement, it noted its reservations about the definition of torture in relation to its practice of legalized state execution and about the treatment of minors in its criminal justice system (United Nations, Declarations and Reservations, n.d.).

Key Properties of Human Rights

Two properties of human rights merit special attention from a legal perspective.

The first is the concept of rights as “inalienable.” Inalienable means that something cannot be transferred or assigned to another (Inalienable, 1999). In practice, this means that you cannot cede your rights even if you wish to do so.

One example where this is relevant involves forced labor and slavery. Imagine a family of six living in rural Thailand that is desperately poor. The family contains three boys and a girl, and the parents have difficulty providing for so many children. Seeing few other choices, the parents decide to sell their daughter for a fixed sum of money, and the girl agrees to go. She is then transported to the capital of Bangkok and set up in the sex trade, thereby incurring a large debt to her “employers.” She is then forced to work as a prostitute for insignificant wages that barely allow her to survive, let alone start paying off her debt. Even if the girl and her family have voluntarily agreed to this form of bonded labor—essentially slavery—they are not permitted to do so according to international law.

The second is the concept of “derogability.” Derogation is the act by which a law or right is eliminated by a subsequent law that “limits its scope or impairs its utility and force”(Derogation, 1999). There may be certain circumstances in which the state feels it necessary to curtail certain individual rights for the greater good. Certain rights, such as the right to free expression, which is guaranteed in Article 19 of the ICCPR, are derogable. This right can be regulated to the extent that it can be demonstrated to serve vital public interests, such as public safety.

In the U.S., for example, it is not permitted for a person to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when he or she knows that there is indeed no fire. This famous example was cited by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case Schenck v. United States (1919). The case involved the use of free speech in wartime and determined that free speech could be limited when “words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”(Schenck v. United States, n.d.).

Certain rights are designated as non-derogable, meaning they cannot be ignored under any circumstances. Hitler made arguments that the elimination of certain “undesirable” elements of society, including Jews, homosexuals, and Gypsies, was necessary to safeguard the national security of Germany. He used this contention to assert the sovereignty of the state and commit genocide against those groups. The ICCPR makes it clear that certain rights, such as the right to life and freedom from genocide, are absolutely non-derogable. The limits of derogability are a subject of continuing debate and discussion, as in the case of torturing of terror suspects during wartime (see “Torture and Inhuman Treatment”).

In a sense, inalienability and non-derogability are two sides of the same coin: certain rights cannot be given away, just as certain rights cannot be taken away. Such rights are completely secure and guaranteed for every human being.

To learn more about international law, please visit

1 Also covered are the right not to be imprisoned solely for violation of a contract (Article 11) and a prohibition against ex post facto criminalization of any act (Article 15).


Next: The Extension of Human Rights beyond the International Bill of Rights