The domestic application of the Covenant [1]

A. The duty to give effect to the Covenant in the domestic legal order

1.   In its General Comment No. 3 (1990) the Committee addressed issues relating to the nature and scope of States parties’ obliga­tions. The present general comment seeks to elaborate further certain elements of the earlier statement. The central obligation in relation to the Covenant is for States parties to give effect to the rights recognized therein. By requiring Governments to do so "by all appropriate means", the Covenant adopts a broad and flexible approach which enables the particularities of the legal and administrative systems of each State, as well as other relevant considerations, to be taken into account.

2.   But this flexibility coexists with the obliga­tion upon each State party to use all the means at its disposal to give effect to the rights recognized in the Covenant. In this respect, the fundamental requirements of international human rights law must be borne in mind. Thus the Covenant norms must be recognized in appropriate ways within the domestic legal order, appropriate means of redress, or remedies, must be available to any aggrieved individual or group, and appropriate means of ensuring governmental accountability must be put in place.

3.       Questions relating to the domestic applica­tion of the Covenant must be considered in the light of two principles of international law. The first, as reflected in article 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Trea­ties of 1969, is that "[A] party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty". In other words, States should mod­ify the domestic legal order as necessary in order to give effect to their treaty obliga­tions. [1]   The second principle is reflected in article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which "Every­one has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law." The Covenant contains no direct counterpart to article 2.3 (b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which obli­gates States parties to, inter alia, "develop the possibilities of judicial remedy". Nevertheless, a State party seeking to justify its failure to provide any domestic legal remedies for violations of economic, social and cultural rights would need to show either that such remedies are not "appropri­ate means" within the terms of article 2.1 of the Covenant or that, in view of the other means used, they are unnecessary. It will be difficult to show this and the Committee considers that, in many cases, the other "means" used could be rendered ineffective if they are not reinforced or complemented by judicial remedies. 

B. The status of the Covenant in the domestic legal order

4.   In general, legally binding international human rights standards should operate directly and immediately within the domes­tic legal system of each State party, thereby enabling individuals to seek enforcement of their rights before national courts and tribu­nals. The rule requiring the exhaustion of domestic remedies reinforces the primacy of national remedies in this respect. The exis­tence and further development of interna­tional procedures for the pursuit of individ­ual claims is important, but such procedures are ultimately only supplementary to effec­tive national remedies.

5.   The Covenant does not stipulate the specific means by which it is to be implemented in the national legal order. And there is no provision obligating its comprehensive incorporation or requiring it to be accorded any specific type of status in national law. Although the precise method by which Covenant rights are given effect in national law is a matter for each State party to decide, the means used should be appropri­ate in the sense of producing results which are consistent with the full discharge of its obligations by the State party. The means chosen are also subject to review as part of the Committee’s examination of the State party’s compliance with its obligations under the Covenant.

6.   An analysis of State practice with respect to the Covenant shows that States have used a variety of approaches. Some States have failed to do anything specific at all. Of those that have taken measures, some States have transformed the Covenant into domestic law by supplementing or amending existing legislation, without invoking the specific terms of the Covenant. Others have adopted or incorporated it into domestic law, so that its terms are retained intact and given formal validity in the national legal order. This has often been done by means of con­stitutional provisions according priority to the provisions of international human rights treaties over any inconsistent domestic laws. The approach of States to the Covenant depends significantly upon the approach adopted to treaties in general in the domes­tic legal order.

7.   But whatever the preferred methodology, several principles follow from the duty to give effect to the Covenant and must there­fore be respected. First, the means of implementation chosen must be adequate to ensure fulfilment of the obligations under the Covenant. The need to ensure justi­ciability (see para. 10 below) is relevant when determining the best way to give domestic legal effect to the Covenant rights. Second, account should be taken of the means which have proved to be most effec­tive in the country concerned in ensuring the protection of other human rights. Where the means used to give effect to the Cove­nant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights differ significantly from those used in relation to other human rights treaties, there should be a compelling justification for this, taking account of the fact that the formulations used in the Covenant are, to a considerable extent, comparable to those used in treaties dealing with civil and politi­cal rights.

8.   Third, while the Covenant does not formally oblige States to incorporate its provisions in domestic law, such an approach is desirable. Direct incorporation avoids problems that might arise in the translation of treaty obli­gations into national law, and provides a basis for the direct invocation of the Cove­nant rights by individuals in national courts. For these reasons, the Committee strongly encourages formal adoption or incorpora­tion of the Covenant in national law. 

C. The role of legal remedies

Legal or judicial remedies?

9.   The right to an effective remedy need not be interpreted as always requiring a judicial remedy. Administrative remedies will, in many cases, be adequate and those living within the jurisdiction of a State party have a legitimate expectation, based on the prin­ciple of good faith, that all administrative authorities will take account of the require­ments of the Covenant in their decision-making. Any such administrative remedies should be accessible, affordable, timely and effective. An ultimate right of judicial appeal from administrative procedures of this type would also often be appropriate. By the same token, there are some obliga­tions, such as (but by no means limited to) those concerning non-discrimination, [2] in relation to which the provision of some form of judicial remedy would seem indis­pensable in order to satisfy the requirements of the Covenant. In other words, whenever a Covenant right cannot be made fully effec­tive without some role for the judiciary, judicial remedies are necessary.


10. In relation to civil and political rights, it is generally taken for granted that judicial remedies for violations are essential. Regrettably, the contrary assumption is too often made in relation to economic, social and cultural rights. This discrepancy is not warranted either by the nature of the rights or by the relevant Covenant provisions. The Committee has already made clear that it considers many of the provisions in the Covenant to be capable of immediate implementation. Thus, in General Comment No. 3 it cited, by way of example, articles 3, 7 (a) (i), 8, 10.3, 13.2 (a), 13.3, 13.4 and 15.3. It is important in this regard to distin­guish between justiciability (which refers to those matters which are appropriately resolved by the courts) and norms which are self-executing (capable of being applied by courts without further elaboration). While the general approach of each legal system needs to be taken into account, there is no Covenant right which could not, in the great majority of systems, be considered to possess at least some significant justiciable dimensions. It is sometimes suggested that matters involving the allocation of resources should be left to the political authorities rather than the courts. While the respective competences of the various branches of government must be respected, it is appro­priate to acknowledge that courts are gener­ally already involved in a considerable range of matters which have important resource implications. The adoption of a rigid classification of economic, social and cultural rights which puts them, by defini­tion, beyond the reach of the courts would thus be arbitrary and incompatible with the principle that the two sets of human rights are indivisible and interdependent. It would also drastically curtail the capacity of the courts to protect the rights of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society.


11. The Covenant does not negate the possibil­ity that the rights it contains may be consid­ered self-executing in systems where that option is provided for. Indeed, when it was being drafted, attempts to include a specific provision in the Covenant to the effect that it be considered "non-self-executing" were strongly rejected. In most States, the deter­mination of whether or not a treaty provi­sion is self-executing will be a matter for the courts, not the executive or the legisla­ture. In order to perform that function effectively, the relevant courts and tribunals must be made aware of the nature and implications of the Covenant and of the important role of judicial remedies in its implementation. Thus, for example, when Governments are involved in court proceedings, they should promote interpre­tations of domestic laws which give effect to their Covenant obligations. Similarly, judicial training should take full account of the justiciability of the Covenant. It is espe­cially important to avoid any a priori assumption that the norms should be con­sidered to be non-self-executing. In fact, many of them are stated in terms which are at least as clear and specific as those in other human rights treaties, the provisions of which are regularly deemed by courts to be self-executing. 

D. The treatment of the Covenant in domestic courts

12. In the Committee’s guidelines for States’ reports, States are requested to provide information as to whether the provisions of the Covenant "can be invoked before, and directly enforced by, the Courts, other tri­bunals or administrative authorities". [3]   Some States have provided such informa­tion, but greater importance should be attached to this element in future reports. In particular, the Committee requests that States parties provide details of any signifi­cant jurisprudence from their domestic courts that makes use of the provisions of the Covenant.

13. On the basis of available information, it is clear that State practice is mixed. The Committee notes that some courts have applied the provisions of the Covenant either directly or as interpretive standards. Other courts are willing to acknowledge, in principle, the relevance of the Covenant for interpreting domestic law, but in practice, the impact of the Covenant on the reasoning or outcome of cases is very limited. Still other courts have refused to give any degree of legal effect to the Covenant in cases in which individuals have sought to rely on it. There remains extensive scope for the courts in most countries to place greater reliance upon the Covenant.

14. Within the limits of the appropriate exercise of their functions of judicial review, courts should take account of Covenant rights where this is necessary to ensure that the State’s conduct is consistent with its obliga­tions under the Covenant. Neglect by the courts of this responsibility is incompatible with the principle of the rule of law, which must always be taken to include respect for international human rights obligations.

15. It is generally accepted that domestic law should be interpreted as far as possible in a way which conforms to a State’s interna­tional legal obligations. Thus, when a domestic decision maker is faced with a choice between an interpretation of domestic law that would place the state in breach of the Covenant and one that would enable the State to comply with the Cove­nant, international law requires the choice of the latter. Guarantees of equality and non-discrimination should be interpreted, to the greatest extent possible, in ways which facilitate the full protection of economic, social and cultural rights.


[1]    A/CONF.39/27.

[2]    Pursuant to article 2.2 States "undertake to guarantee" that the rights in the Covenant are exercised "without discrimination of any kind".

[3]    Reporting guidelines, E/C.12/1990/8, Annex IV.

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