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Author Geoffrey Robertson says that the United Nations Human Rights Committee has failed its purpose. He identifies eight reasons for this failure.

In 1976, the UN passed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This covenant, which had been in the drafting phase for nearly thirty years, was meant to present, in treaty form, the ideals encapsulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To this end, the UN Human Rights Committee came into being. The purpose of the Committee was two-fold:

  1. To study reports submitted every five years by state parties to the convention, and to make general comments on these reports,
  2. To serve as the body to which individuals and groups could complain against states regarding the infringement of the rights spelled out in the convention.

However, according to author Geoffrey Robertson, the Committee has been a failure. Outside of a few cases, the Committee's influence has been negligible. Robertson identifies eight reasons for the Human Rights Committee's failure, and suggests ways that those failures may be overcome.

Evidence of Ineffectiveness

Is the Human Rights Committee really a failure? Yes, says Robertson. He provides the following evidence.

The Committee was established, in part, to serve as a forum in which individuals could file complaints against states for human rights abuses. However,

  • In twenty years of existence, the Committee had registered only 765 complaints. This is set against the backdrop of the two-billion individuals (from over 100 states) who could notionally call on the Committee for protection.
  • From the 765 complaints, the Committee only rendered 263 “views” in 199 cases (the Committee is only able to communicate its views, which carry no obligation for states),
  • In only 15 per cent of the cases have states implemented the Committee's views or offered any remedy to the applicant.

States that are not party to the convention are under no obligation to report to the Committee. However, even member states do not appear to take the Committee very seriously. In order to be required to allow individuals to communicate with the Committee, a state has to ratify the Optional Protocol. States such as the U.S., China and even Britain have not ratified the Optional Protocol. Additionally, even member states often ignore the Committee.


Perhaps one of the most potent symbols of the Committee's failure involves Libya. Libya submitted its report to the Committee in 1995. The report was dishonest to the point of absurdity. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's leader since 1969, had just given the order for expatriate dissidents to be assassinated, and was thwarting justice over the Lockerbie bombing.

How did the Committee respond?

It took three years for the Committee to issue its verdict. It complimented Libya on its treatment of women and expressed polite concern over the murder and torture of oppositionists. Not surprisingly, Libya ignored the Committee's comments.

Then, in a move that Robertson says completely discredited the Committee, Libya was elected to the chair of the Committee in 2003.

Eight Reasons for Failure

Why has the Human Rights Committee failed its mission? What could help the Committee become effective? Robertson offers eight insights.

1. Government Mouthpiece

The eighteen “experts” that make up the Committee are more often government mouthpieces than independent experts. Some of the Committee members are actually in government service as ambassadors or cabinet ministers. This biases the Committee toward defending state actions rather than censuring them.

Until the Committee is made up of truly independent experts, there is little hope of serious state accountability.

2. Meets Infrequently

The Committee meets three times a year for only three weeks each. Robertson says that expecting the Committee to be able to do a year's worth of work in nine weeks is ludicrous.

If the Committee is to become effective, it will need to have sufficient time to carry out its commitment to monitoring and problem-solving.

3. No Hearings or Adversarial Proceedings

The Human Rights Committee holds no hearings. There are no live witnesses nor cross-examination. There is no provision for oral argument nor adversarial proceedings. All work is done on paper and, outside the input from some NGOs, based on state self report.

If the Committee has any hope of actually monitoring state behavior, it will have to have ways to gather information and hear perspectives outside state reports.

4. Depends on UN Secretariat

The Committee is a UN “organ,” not a quasi-judicial body—much less a court. It depends totally on the UN Secretariat for structure, budget and status. The UN's penchant to avoid member criticism is reflected in the work of the Committee.

The Committee must be able to criticize states—in more than polite “comments.” To do this, it needs to be independent of UN apron strings.

5. Not Focused on Individual Rights

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights focuses on state duties toward individuals and not individual rights against states. It has no power as a court to protect individual rights. It cannot compel or even pressure states to abide by their Covenant duties.

The Committee needs some way of protecting individual rights rather than simply encouraging states to do their duty. There also needs to be some way of putting pressure on states to live up to the Covenant's standard of human rights.

6. No Independent Fact-Finding Capacity

The Human Rights Committee does not have any independent fact-finding capacity. This is a crippling weakness since it prevents the Committee from effectively monitoring state activities.

Even though the Committee has access to the Human Rights Commission's fact-finding reports, these are inadequate. The Committee must have the ability to gain information necessary in order to carry out its mandate effectively.

7. Work Is Unreported

What does the Committee do? What are its findings? The vast majority of human rights victims will never know. Committee proceedings are carried out behind closed doors, and its files are kept confidential. When Committee reports are published, Robertson says that they are rarely worth reading as they lack detailed reasoning.

It is difficult to see how the Committee can be very effective without broader public exposure.

8. No Enforcement Power

The Human Rights Committee cannot enforce its views. Assuming that member states even file reports, they can easily ignore Committee views. In fact, rather than increase a state's support of human rights, an individual's appeal to the Committee may even have a perverse effect. Robertson says that death row inmates are sometimes targeted for execution precisely because they have filed a complaint with the Committee.

Without any mechanism to enforce Committee views, states will have little incentive to take the Committee's views seriously.

The Problem Is Endemic to UN Bodies

Robertson says that it is not fair to single out the Human Rights Committee as unique with respect to the challenges it faces. In fact, the problems are endemic to the UN system. Because the UN is made up of member states, it will often go out of its way to avoid criticizing its members. Though the UN Security Council will occasionally level sanctions against a member state, the balance of history demonstrates that UN organs are more likely to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Information was drawn from the author's experience conducting missions for Amnesty International and analysis of historical and legal research.

Funding Sources:

Not provided.

Full Text Availability:
Available for purchase at

Robertson, Geoffrey. 2006. Crimes Against Humanity. New York: The New Press. Ch. 1, pp. 1-40.

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