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JULY 1994

September 1994

Initial Report by U.S. Concerning its compliance 
with International Covenant on Civil and Political 


I am pleased to introduce the initial report 
prepared by the United States Government concerning 
its compliance with the International Covenant on 
Civil and Political Rights.  The report was 
submitted in July to the U.N. Human Rights Committee 
established by the Covenant.  This is also the first 
report submitted by the United States in accordance 
with its obligations under an international human 
rights treaty.  Written to United Nations 
specifications, and prepared through the 
collaborative efforts of the U.S. Departments of 
State, Justice and other Executive Branch 
departments and agencies, with input from 
nongovernmental organizations and concerned 
individuals, it represents a government-wide 
commitment to creative interaction with the emerging 
global framework of international human rights law.  
It is meant to offer to the international community 
a sweeping picture of human rights observance in the 
United States and the legal and political system 
within which those rights have evolved and are 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political 
Rights was concluded in 1966, entered into force ten 
years later, in 1976, and was ratified by the United 
States in 1992.  Work on this report began shortly 
after ratification.  All told, 127 countries have to 
date become party to the treaty.  Together with the 
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 
International Covenant on Economic, Social and 
Cultural Rights, it represents the most complete and 
authoritative articulation of international human 
rights law that has emerged in the years following 
World War II.

The antecedents of contemporary human rights law 
stretch far back into history--to natural law 
traditions, the ethical teachings of the world's 
great religions--both East and West--Greco-Roman 
law, and the pioneering philosophical work of Hugo 
Grotius and John Locke.  The concept of universal 
rights developed by 18th century political theorists 
nourished international law, as it also set the 
stage for American constitutionalism.  Indeed 
international human rights law and the 
constitutional law of the United States are at 
bottom profoundly related: both seek to limit the 
authority of states to interfere with the 
inalienable rights of all individuals without 

The first major articulations of international human 
rights law took place after World War I around the 
creation of the ill-fated League of Nations, its 
system for the protection of minorities, and the 
more successful International Labor Organization.

It was, however, the horrific experiences of mid-
century totalitarianism and World War II that 
spurred the victorious allied powers to try to 
inscribe into international law the larger goals 
that had emerged during the war, such as President 
Roosevelt's Four Freedoms.  The Nuremberg trials, in 
which the vanquished Nazi leaders were publicly 
tried, convicted and sentenced according to the 
principles of international law, represented an 
attempt to fashion a new international order which 
would work to protect human dignity and, in some 
measure, redeem the terrible sufferings of the 
victims of totalitarianism.

The capstone of these efforts was the creation of 
the United Nations and the adoption of its Charter, 
the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of 
Human Rights and the launching of the efforts that 
resulted in the two major covenants of international 
human rights.

While the League had focused on the rights of 
minority groups to self-determination, the UN 
Charter was all-embracing, making it the legal as 
well as the political responsibility of all Member 
States to protect and promote the human rights and 
fundamental freedoms of their people.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 
unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1948, 
represented an authoritative articulation of the 
rights that Member States are generally obliged to 
protect and promote under the UN Charter.  The 
Declaration synthesized the two categories of human 
rights that have emerged in international legal 
discourse, civil and political rights on the one 
hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the 
other.  It has remained to the international 
community to sift out these distinct, though 
related, elements, in order to create workable 
instruments of international law.

Human rights have come to be recognized as the 
universal birthright of every man, woman and child 
on this planet.  This faith in inalienable human 
dignity rests at the core of the international law 
of human rights; it has many different sources and 
has been articulated over time in different ways.  
Indeed, its commanding power rests in no small 
measure on the varied nature of its sources; nor is 
it anchored in any one philosophical, religious or 
ideological foundation.  The Universal Declaration 
achieved inclusiveness precisely because it did not 
lodge these timeless principles in any specific, and 
thus inevitably debatable and partial, political 

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 
contributes to the promotion of international human 
rights by codifying many of the principles we in the 
United States hold dear--political freedom; self-
determination; freedom of speech, opinion, 
expression, association and religion; and protection 
of the family against governmental intrusion.  The 
unfortunate fact that these principles are 
disregarded in many countries in no way diminishes 
their commanding authority.

The United States as a nation was founded on the 
principle of inalienable individual rights.  The 
history of this country is in many ways the story of 
an ongoing struggle to fulfill the promise of that 
conception of rights, a struggle to overcome old and 
new injustices in our own democracy that continues 
today.  As part of that struggle the United States 
is also firmly committed to promoting respect for 
human rights and fundamental freedoms around the 

As this report shows, United States law provides 
extensive protection against human rights abuses by 
government authorities.  Under the U.S. 
Constitution, government authority is distributed 
and diffused through the separation of powers 
between the three branches of government.  From the 
beginning of this nation's history, the United 
States Supreme Court has exercised the power of 
judicial review to check unconstitutional action by 
the executive and legislative branches.

Freedoms of speech and religion are protected by 
law, police power is subject to significant 
constitutional limitations, and America's political 
leadership at all levels is held accountable to its 

Our Constitution laid out a blueprint for the 
interpretation and realization of the idea of civil 
and political rights and freedoms, but it has taken 
the labors of generations of citizens from all parts 
of our society to build the institutions which carry 
the promise of these rights and freedoms.  This 
process has unfolded over more than two centuries, 
through many chapters of history, some noble and 
others dark, and the task continues to this day.    

Over the course of its history, America has 
experienced egregious human rights violations in 
this ongoing American struggle for justice, such as 
the enslavement and disenfranchisement of African 
Americans and the virtual destruction of many Native 
American civilizations.

The profound injustices visited on African Americans 
were only partially erased after the Civil War 
(1861-1865), and then a century later by the civil 
rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a movement 
that combined heroic leadership with grass-roots 
organizing and dogged legal marches through 
courthouses and legislatures; a movement that helped 
shape the interpretation and implementation of 
constitutional law to ensure that human rights could 
be respected in practice. 

Those efforts to undo the bitter legacy of slavery 
continue today.  The lessons learned from our 
nation's unfinished battle with racial 
discrimination can be shared with other members of 
the internatonal community.  Simply put, our 
national experience demonstrates that legal 
guarantees of human rights are a prerequisite to 
social progress, not the other way around.

Native Americans have suffered a fate similar to 
that of many indigenous civilizations:  destruction 
and displacement of their cultures and societies.  
The lessons of those injustices, and the 
responsibilities the people of the United States are 
charged with as a result, are also central legacies 
of American history.

The members of other minority groups have suffered 
injustices in the United States.  The United States 
is largely a nation of immigrants. We continue to 
draw wave after wave of men and women from around 
the world seeking a better life, with annual 
immigration now surpassing 900,000.  However, 
immigrants to our shores, like immigrants 
everywhere, have often met with discrimination and 
resistance that have deepened the personal 
dislocations of migration.  The openness of our 
society has permitted, with time, mobility and 
release from poverty and marginalization.  In the 
process, immigrant groups themselves have deeply 
enriched our national identity, as the 19th 
century's notion of a "melting pot" of assimilation 
has gradually given way to a broader vision of 

The ongoing struggle for full realization of the 
rights of women is a central feature of the human 
rights process in America.  Women did not have the 
vote in the United States until 1920, a century and 
a half after the founding of the republic.  With 
growing strength, women have moved to claim their 
equal place in the political, economic and social 
life of the country.  Efforts are underway in all 
sectors of American life to broaden women's 
opportunities and end remaining discrimination.

There are many other human rights challenges in our 
nation's historical and contemporary experience.  As 
we have continued to find new challenges, we have 
worked with varying degrees of success to strengthen 
the capacity of our institutions to address them.

As an open democracy, the United States tends to 
address its most difficult and divisive human rights 
issues in public and in the courts.  The result is a 
number of long-standing human rights issues with a 
large body of case law as well as many newer issues 
on which legal ground is being broken.  Among the 
former are such areas as freedom of religion, 
immigrants and refugees, race discrimination, and 
freedom of expression.  More recent areas of concern 
include gender discrimination, the death penalty, 
abortion, police brutality, and language rights.

As a matter of domestic law, treaties as well as 
statutes must conform to the requirements of the 
Constitution.  No treaty provision will be given 
effect as U.S. law if it conflicts with the 
Constitution.  In the case of the Covenant on Civil 
and Political Rights, the U.S. Constitution offers 
greater protection of free speech than does the 
Covenant; on those and some other provisions of the 
Covenant, the United States has recorded its 
understanding of a particular provision or made a 
declaration of how it intends to apply that 
provision or undertaking.

It is of little use to proclaim principles of human 
rights protection at the international level unless 
they can be meaningfully realized and enforced 
domestically.  In the words of the renowned human 
rights and constitutional scholar Louis Henkin: "The 
international law of human rights parallels and 
supplements national law . . . but it does not 
replace, and indeed depends on, national 
institutions."  Thus, it is up to the various organs 
of federal, state and local government here in the 
United States to bring those international 
commitments to fruition.

As observers have noted ever since the great French 
thinker and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville penned 
his classic "Democracy in America" in the 1830s, the 
United States possesses a strikingly robust legal 
and judicial system, and it is in and through that 
system that legal protection for human rights has 
taken shape.  This report of the United States to 
the UN Human Rights Committee thus focuses on the 
law of human rights protection as it has evolved in 
the distinctive mix of statutory and common law that 
exists at the federal level.

The broad conception of rights that has evolved in 
the course of U.S. history has come to serve as the 
basis for much of international human rights law, 
and, ironically but fittingly, to set the standard 
by which the United States is judged by other 
members of the international community.

While the state of human rights protection in the 
United States has advanced significantly over the 
years, many challenges and problems remain.  The 
elaborate structure of human rights law set forth in 
this report emerged in the course of long and 
painful struggle in the United States, in a sweeping 
historical narrative displaying cruelty and 
injustice alongside vision and courage.  It has been 
a distinguishing characteristic of our political and 
legal system to weave the constant possibility of 
change into the fabric of constitutional democracy.

In publishing this report and giving it wide 
domestic distribution we hope to enhance public 
awareness of human rights protection and foster 
human rights education in the United States.  We 
hope it will find a wide readership in schools and 
universities, among civic and political groups and 
with concerned citizens.

We will be issuing subsequent reports under the 
Covenant, and under additional human rights 
agreements to which the United States is a party.

Here as elsewhere the realization of universal human 
rights is a work-in-progress.  While the U.S. system 
has done much over time to advance and champion 
human rights--as this report demonstrates--much 
remains to be done.  The U.S. Government welcomes 
spirited dialogue and debate on the advancement of 
human rights in the United States and throughout the 
global community that is taking shape on the horizon 
of the twenty-first century.

John Shattuck Assistant Secretary of State for 
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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