United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted

A significant milestone was reached in providing international guarantees for human rights when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Summary of Event

The unanimous adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by the General Assembly of the United Nations (U.N.) on December 16, 1966, represented a significant step toward the creation of a world in which human rights are protected and guaranteed by governments. The covenant itself does not guarantee that human rights will be promoted and preserved, but it did break new ground in encouraging governments to respect such rights. It represented an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary improvement over preexisting mechanisms for the promotion of human rights at the global level. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
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Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
[kw]United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted (Dec. 16, 1966)
[kw]Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted, United Nations (Dec. 16, 1966)
[kw]Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted, United Nations Covenant on (Dec. 16, 1966)
[kw]Political Rights Is Adopted, United Nations Covenant on Civil and (Dec. 16, 1966)
[kw]Rights Is Adopted, United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political (Dec. 16, 1966)
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
United Nations;human rights
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
[g]North America;Dec. 16, 1966: United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted[09050]
[g]United States;Dec. 16, 1966: United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted[09050]
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[c]Human rights;Dec. 16, 1966: United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted[09050]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 16, 1966: United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted[09050]
Roosevelt, Eleanor
Cassin, René
Malik, Charles Habib

Although many believed that the covenant did not go far enough, in actuality it went about as far as it could in promoting human rights without alienating the governments whose cooperation was essential. Nearly two decades of discussion and debate about the role of human rights in a system of sovereign states preceded the actual adoption of the covenant. The U.N. Charter of 1945 specifically identified the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms as a principal purpose of the United Nations.

The U.N. Charter represented an effort to lay groundwork for a more humane future in which respect for human rights would characterize global society. The charter contained a specific provision for the creation of the Commission on Human Rights Commission on Human Rights, U.N.
Human rights;commissions by the Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC). Together, ECOSOC and the commission were charged with the task of proposing ways to encourage greater respect for human rights. In the U.N. Charter, governments obligated themselves to work separately and jointly with the United Nations to attain this end.

By January of 1947, the Commission on Human Rights, including such notable members as René Cassin, Charles Habib Malik, and Eleanor Roosevelt, held its first session in New York. Discussion ensued about how best to proceed with the creation of a universal bill of human rights. These discussions resulted in a twofold strategy that involved the promulgation of a nonbinding Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved by the General Assembly in 1948, and the negotiation of two legally binding covenants, one on civil and political rights and the other on economic and social rights.

Predictably, negotiations on the covenants took far longer to conclude than did those on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even though the Universal Declaration was more a statement of moral aspiration than a legally binding document, it did enumerate the panoply of rights individuals should, in principle, enjoy. The fact that many governments later incorporated provisions of the declaration into their constitutional and legal systems advanced the cause of human rights and paved the way for a binding covenant on civil and political rights.

Eighteen years of discussion and debate finally resulted in the adoption of the international covenants. These two conventions were drafted by the Human Rights Commission in consultation with national governments, the U.N. General Assembly, ECOSOC, and various nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s). The Human Rights Commission, in 1954, submitted drafts of the Covenants to the General Assembly for its further consideration. More than a decade of deliberation on the drafts then ensued in the General Assembly’s Third Committee Third Committee, U.N. for Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Affairs. Debate centered on a number of controversial issues, including such questions as which rights should be included under the rubric of civil and political rights or that of economic and social rights, whether governments could exclude themselves from the provisions of either covenant, and whether, in times of exigency, governments could ignore their obligations under the covenants.

By far the most significant question concerned the type of enforcement measures to be adopted to ensure that governments abided by their commitment to observe human rights. Some wanted effective enforcement measures included in the covenants. Others opposed this, believing that few governments would consent to direct infringements on their sovereignty. Some proposed that a separate optional protocol be negotiated that would include more significant enforcement mechanisms, including the right of individual appeals. Others believed that governments should be required only to submit periodic reports on the progress they made in implementing the covenants. Still others believed that only appeals by governments against the human rights behavior of other governments should be permitted, not individual appeals.

It was decided that the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights would include a provision requiring governments to make periodic reports to a human rights committee Human Rights Committee, U.N. regarding measures adopted by the governments to further attainment of the rights enumerated in the covenant.

Stronger enforcement provisions were contained in a separate optional protocol, which states could choose to ratify if they desired to submit to more extensive external scrutiny and investigation. The optional protocol provided that individuals claiming to be victims of a violation, by a state party to the covenant, of any rights enumerated in the covenant, may, after exhausting all locally available legal remedies, alert the Human Rights Committee to the violation. Such violations are subject to further investigation and to an eventual report of findings by the committee.

Eleanor Roosevelt addresses the United Nations in 1947.

(Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

The General Assembly, by adopting the covenant in 1966, recognized the sensitivity of states to infringements on their sovereignty but also provided measures that could be endorsed voluntarily to publicize human rights violations, and presumably to deter their frequency. The covenant further underscored the duty of contracting parties to protect the right to life and to eliminate torture, inhuman punishment, and slavery. No person, it held, should be imprisoned because of an inability to fulfill a contractual obligation, be judged guilty of crimes in an ex post facto situation, or be denied the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. Everyone, the covenant asserted, has a right to freedoms of thought, conscience, and religion.


The immediate effects of the adoption of the covenant were not particularly impressive. A decade passed before the thirty-five ratifications that were necessary for the covenant to enter into force were deposited with the U.N. secretary-general. The covenant and the optional protocol both entered into force in March of 1976, the protocol having been ratified by ten states.

The sluggishness of governmental response can be attributed to concerns about how the covenant and protocol might impinge on domestic policy discretion, especially in view of the requirement that the domestic legislation of parties to the covenant should be brought into compliance with the covenant’s provisions. Many governments preferred to review their domestic legislative and constitutional situations prior to ratification to ensure that problems of noncompliance would not arise. Once the covenant took force, the pace of ratifications increased. By 2005, 154 countries had ratified the covenant and 105 had ratified the protocol. Thus, about three-fourths of the world’s states were bound by the covenant, although many had reservations restricting their obligations or had failed to recognize the capacity of the Human Rights Committee to hear state-to-state complaints.

Many people live in democratic countries where respect for human rights is already well developed. For them, the covenant represents further protections. For many other people, however, significant violations of rights continue to occur, especially in the context of civil wars, where brutal actions by governments and opposition forces limit the capacity of individuals to enjoy their human rights. Nor have states party to the covenant been aggressive in pointing out the failures of other states, perhaps out of concern that they too might be subject to closer external scrutiny. All this suggests that the goal of the covenant, that there should be a universal and genuine respect for human rights, has yet to be realized in full. Still, progress has been made.

Numerous specific human rights treaties have built on the covenant’s foundations, including the Helsinki Agreement and other agreements concerning racial discrimination, religious discrimination, the rights of children, and the rights of migrant workers. A second optional protocol to the covenant on the elimination of the death penalty was adopted in 1989, although only fifty-six countries, slightly more than one-quarter of the world’s governments, have ratified it. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was thus a milestone in the evolution of human rights law at the international level. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
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Further Reading

  • Buergenthal, Thomas, Dinah Shelton, and David P. Stewart. International Human Rights in a Nutshell. 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2002. Describes the essential contents of regional and international human rights agreements, ranging from the U.N. Charter to European, inter-American, and African documents on human rights. Includes a section on the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Excellent discussion of the place of the covenant in the broader field of human rights. Index.
  • Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. 2d ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. This philosophical inquiry into the meaning of human rights and the policy contexts in which human rights operates is recommended for advanced students. References, index.
  • Eide, Asbjörn, and August Schou, eds. International Protection of Human Rights. New York: Interscience, 1968. Collection drawn from the Proceedings of the Seventh Nobel Symposium, held in Oslo in 1967. Topics cover regional efforts to attain human rights, the natural law tradition, and implementation schemes for human rights covenants. Some individual selections contain references. No bibliography or index.
  • Falk, Richard. Human Rights and State Sovereignty. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981. A prominent proponent of human rights takes on the central issue in effective enforcement of human rights agreements, that of sovereignty. Often innovative and provocative, the argument is also highly theoretical. Illustrations, tables, maps, footnotes, index.
  • Forsythe, David P. Human Rights and World Politics. 2d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. A nicely written and readable treatment of the political context of human rights. Covers both domestic politics and international relations. Illustrations, tables, endnotes, bibliography, appendix, index.
  • Henkin, Louis. The Rights of Man Today. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1978. A very readable treatment of the historical development of human rights. Accessible to general readers. Footnotes but no bibliography or index.
  • _______, ed. The International Bill of Rights: The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981. Collection of excellent essays on human rights that probe various aspects of the covenant, including legal analysis of its provisions and historical assessment of its negotiation and implementation. Best for more serious students of human rights. Extensive notes, copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its optional protocol, and index.
  • Osmanczyk, Edmund Jan. The Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements. Edited by Anthony Mango. 4 vols. 3d ed. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 2003. Provides brief but detailed entries on a variety of international organizations and agreements applicable on a global level.

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