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JULY 1994


The following part addresses the implementation of 
the specific provisions of the International 
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in U.S. law.

The U. S. Constitution is the central instrument of 
American government and the supreme law of the land.  
For over 200 years, it has guided the evolution of 
governmental institutions and has provided the basis 
for political stability, individual freedom, 
economic growth and social progress.  It contains 
specific guarantees of the most important rights and 
freedoms necessary to a democratic society.  These 
rights are principally found in the Bill of Rights, 
which consists of the first ten amendments to the 
Constitution, adopted in 1791, only two years after 
the Constitution itself was approved.  They include, 
among others, freedom of religion, speech, press, 
and assembly, the right to trial by jury, and a 
prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.  
Other significant protections have been added by 
subsequent amendments.  Many of these rights 
parallel those addressed in the Covenant on Civil 
and Political Rights.  While originally formulated 
as limitations on the authority of the federal 
government, these protections have to a great extent 
been interpreted over time to apply against all 
forms of government action, including the 
governments and officials of the 50 constituent 
states and subordinate governmental entities.  The 
Constitution thus provides binding and effective 
standards of human rights protection against actions 
of all levels of government throughout the nation.

The Constitution was designed to protect the people 
against the abuse of authority by distributing the 
power of the federal government among three separate 
but co-equal branches (the executive, the 
legislative and the judicial).  Each branch was 
given specific responsibilities and prerogatives as 
well as a certain ability to limit or counter the 
authority of the other two branches.  This system of 
"checks and balances" serves as a guarantee against 
potential excesses by any one branch.

Moreover, the federal government established by the 
Constitution is a government of limited authority 
and responsibility.  Those powers not delegated to 
the federal government were specifically reserved to 
the states and the people.  The resulting division 
of authority, which characterizes the federal system 
in the United States, means that state and local 
governments exercise significant responsibilities in 
many areas, including matters such as education, 
public health, business organization, work 
conditions, marriage and divorce, the care of 
children and exercise of the ordinary police power.  
The prerogatives of the states in this regard are so 
well established that even two neighboring states 
frequently have widely varying laws and practices on 
the same subjects.  Some areas covered by the 
Covenant fall into this category.

For this reason, and because Article 50 expressly 
extends the provisions of the Covenant to all parts 
of federal states, the United States included in its 
instrument of ratification an understanding to the 
effect that the United States will carry out its 
obligations thereunder in a manner consistent with 
the federal nature of its form of government.  More 
precisely, the understanding states:

     That the United States understands that this 
Covenant shall be implemented by the Federal 
Government to the extent that it exercises 
legislative and judicial jurisdiction over the 
matters covered therein and otherwise by the state 
and local governments; to the extent that state and 
local governments exercise jurisdiction      over 
such matters, the Federal Government shall take 
measures appropriate to the Federal system to the 
end that the competent authorities of the state or 
local governments may take appropriate measures for 
the fulfillment of the Covenant.

This provision is not a reservation and does not 
modify or limit the international obligations of the 
United States under the Covenant.  Rather, it 
addresses the essentially domestic issue of how the 
Covenant will be implemented within the U.S. federal 
system.  It serves to emphasize domestically that 
there was no intent to alter the constitutional 
balance of authority between the federal government 
on the one hand and the state and local governments 
on the other, or to use the provisions of the 
Covenant to federalize matters now within the 
competence of the states.  It also serves to notify 
other States Party that the United States will 
implement its obligations under the Covenant by 
appropriate legislative, executive and judicial 
means, federal or state, and that the federal 
government will remove any federal inhibition to the 
abilities of the constituent states to meet their 
obligations in this regard.

Although there is a growing body of federal criminal 
law and procedure, criminal law is still largely a 
matter of state competence, and the precise rules, 
procedures and punishments vary from state to state.  
In all states, however, as well as at the federal 
level, criminal law and procedure must meet the 
minimum standards provided by the U.S. Constitution, 
and those standards apply to all individuals 
regardless of nationality or citizenship.  

State constitutions and laws also limit the actions 
of state and local governmental units and officials 
in order to secure individual rights.  State and 
local officials must always meet the basic federal 
constitutional standards.  In addition, they must 
comply with the applicable state and local law, 
which in many instances provides even greater 
protection to the individual.  Because of the large 
number of such provisions, this report emphasizes 
the common federal standards with occasional 
reference to some state and local provisions.

The rights protected by the Covenant are, for the 
most part, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and 
federal statutes.  The U.S. Constitution applies to 
the actions of officials at all levels of 
government.  Some federal laws control only the 
actions of federal officials and agencies; others 
apply generally to federal, state and local 
officials.  The differences will be noted where 
relevant to the discussion of specific articles.

In ratifying the Covenant, the United States 
declared that:

[T]he provisions of Articles 1 through 27 are not 

This declaration did not limit the international 
obligations of the United States under the Covenant.  
Rather, it means that, as a matter of domestic law, 
the Covenant does not, by itself, create private 
rights directly enforceable in U.S. courts.  As 
indicated throughout this report, however, the 
fundamental rights and freedoms protected by the 
Covenant are already guaranteed as a matter of U.S. 
law, either by virtue of constitutional protections 
or enacted statutes, and can be effectively asserted 
and enforced by individuals in the judicial system 
on those bases.  For this reason it was not 
considered necessary to adopt special implementing 
legislation to give effect to the Covenant's 
provisions in domestic law.  In some cases, it was 
considered necessary to take a substantive 
reservation to specific provisions of the Covenant, 
or to clarify the interpretation given to a 
provision through adoption of an understanding.  
These reservations and understandings are discussed 
in the following text under the articles to which 
they refer.
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