International bill of rights – scope and implementation speech

By Cecilia Meadowcroft-Grijalva

28 years after the International Bill of Rights Drafting Committee’s 1st session,[1]John P. Humphrey’s 1975[2] speech on “The International Bill of Rights: Its Scope and Implementation” provides a critical reflection on the Bill’s progress and limitations. Humphrey’s assessment covers many aspects of the Bill. His speech, however, focuses on two major issues concerning the effectiveness of the Bill of Rights. The first is the politicization of the Human Rights Commission and the effect it has had on case selection; the second concerns the urgent need for clarification in respects to the terms used in both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) when defining instances in which the limitation of human rights is permissible. I will begin however by giving a brief explanation of what the International Bill of Rights consists of.

Currently the International Bill of Human Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its two Optional Protocols.[3]As Humphrey reminds us in his speech, it is important to note that the “Covenants only apply to the states that ratify them”[4] and that during times of public emergency those states can diverge from their obligations.

In his speech Humphrey argues that the United Nations has witnessed a growing disinterest in individual complaints of human right violations. The organization’s apathy is due primarily to the way in which the Human Rights Commission’s,[5] a mechanism for investigating human rights violations, selects its cases and evaluates them.[6]  Resolution 1503, adopted May 27 1970, mandated that instances of Human Rights violations could be submitted by the “victims, or by others representing the victims.”[7] Yet due to the increasing politicization of the Human Rights Commission, its members interests lie only in allegations brought forth by states or bodies of the United Nations, whose members are states.[8] Despite the fact that resolution 1503 was meant to open up the commission to such considerations, the commission deliberately avoids complaints filed by non-governmental organizations. In respect to the cases that are selected, the actions taken on them are often governed by the political climate and “the hazard of voting patterns.”[9] Furthermore the Human Rights Commission’s mandate does not cover the prosecution of human rights violations of the individual. The individual notes Humphrey “is still a pariah at Turtle Bay.”[10] Therefore, Humphrey advocates for the creations of a UN mechanism by which the complaints of the individuals can be heard.

The clauses written into both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which permit the limitations of rights of the individual in certain circumstances, are subject to misinterpretation and abuse. Article 8 of the ICESCR declares that limitations on trade union rights are permitted in the “interest of national security, public order and the rights and freedoms of others.”[11] The articles in ICCPR relating to freedom of expression (article 19), the freedom of assembly and association (articles 21-22) and the freedom of movement (article 12)— rights necessary to a democratic society— are all subject to restrictions if deemed “necessary to protect national security, public order [and] public health or morals”[12] Humphrey describes theses clauses as the “achilles heel”[13] to the entire efficacy of the Covenants. The ambiguity surrounding the term “public order” which is mentioned in both convents is especially alarming to Humphrey.[14] The (ICESCR), and (ICCPR) have no judicial apparatus to interpret or to clarify the definition of the term“public order.”[15] The term is left to be interpreted by the state parties. Vague criterion is like an open wound, at risk of infection, open to the dirt of abuse. The term could be used loosely to the detriment of democracy. Clashing political parties could be interpreted as causing “public disorder.” The state could then silence any objections to the governing establishment on the grounds of protecting so called “public order.”

To conclude, within this speech Humphrey discusses the imperfections found within The Universal Declaration of Human Rights[16] and delves into the discussion of the efficacy of the covenants implementation measures.[17] However, it is only in the longer sections of the speech, dedicated to the issues of the politicization of the Human Rights Commission’s and his concerns over the much needed clarifications of the terms meant to define the permissible limitations of rights, that Humphrey invokes Greek gods, the opinion of a member of the General Assembly, and Fuzier-Herman. In other words, it is safe to assume that the two major concerns discussed in this blog were the issues that truly and passionately concerned John P. Humphrey.

[1] Drafting Committee on an International Bill of Human Rights, 1st session, 9 June – 25 June 1947 New York.

[2] No information is given as to whom this speech was intended for, nor on what date it was presented. This date however was found in the footnotes of the speech, “time of Writing (1 November 1975)”, on page 1.

[3] UN OHCHR Factsheet No. 2 The International Bill of Human Rights

[4] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.12

[5] Created in 1946 by ESCOSOC, the commission was the core human rights body for the UN.

[6] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.12-11

[7] Maximilian, Spohr. “United Nations Human Rights Council”. Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law Online. 14, no. 1: 2010.172

[8] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.11

[9] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.11

[10] Ibid. Turtle Bay is a neighbourhood in New York City. The Manhattan neighborhood is the site of the headquarters of the United Nations.

[11] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.15

[12] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.16

[13] Ibid.

[14] MG 4127 C. 18 F. 363 –The International Bill of Rights- its Scope and Implementation, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.17

[15] When discussing the ambiguity surrounding the term “public order” in his footnotes, Humphrey quotes Fuzier-Herman et Demogue, Code Civil Annoté, 1935, Article 6: “il est à peut prés impossible a définir L’ordre public”

[16] If you wish to read more on his thoughts on the weakness of the Declaration please go to page 4 of the document.

[17] This discussion begins on page 17, should curiosity spike you.

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