University of Minnesota

Human Rights Committee, General Comment 29, States of Emergency (article 4),
U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.11 (2001).


1.         Article 4 of the Covenant is of paramount importance for the system of protection for human rights under the Covenant.  On the one hand, it allows for a State party unilaterally to derogate temporarily from a part of its obligations under the Covenant.  On the other hand, article 4 subjects both this very measure of derogation, as well as its material consequences, to a specific regime of safeguards.  The restoration of a state of normalcy where full respect for the Covenant can again be secured must be the predominant objective of a State party derogating from the Covenant.  In this general comment, replacing its General Comment No 5, adopted at the thirteenth session (1981), the Committee seeks to assist States parties to meet the requirements of article 4.


2.         Measures derogating from the provisions of the Covenant must be of an exceptional and temporary nature.  Before a State moves to invoke article 4, two fundamental conditions must be met: the situation must amount to a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation, and the State party must have officially proclaimed a state of emergency.  The latter requirement is essential for the maintenance of the principles of legality and rule of law at times when they are most needed.  When proclaiming a state of emergency with consequences that could entail derogation from any provision of the Covenant, States must act within their constitutional and other provisions of law that govern such proclamation and the exercise of emergency powers; it is the task of the Committee to monitor the laws in question with respect to whether they enable and secure compliance with article 4.  In order that the Committee can perform its task, States parties to the Covenant should include in their reports submitted under article 40 sufficient and precise information about their law and practice in the field of emergency powers.


3.         Not every disturbance or catastrophe qualifies as a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation, as required by article 4, paragraph 1.  During armed conflict, whether international or non-international, rules of international humanitarian law become applicable and help, in addition to the provisions in article 4 and article 5, paragraph 1, of the Covenant, to prevent the abuse of a State’s emergency powers.  The Covenant requires that even during an armed conflict measures derogating from the Covenant are allowed only if and to the extent that the situation constitutes a threat to the life of the nation.  If States parties consider invoking article 4 in other situations than an armed conflict, they should carefully consider the justification and why such a measure is necessary and legitimate in the circumstances.  On a number of occasions the Committee has expressed its concern over States parties that appear to have derogated from rights protected by the Covenant, or whose domestic law appears to allow such derogation in situations not covered by article 4.[1]


4.         A fundamental requirement for any measures derogating from the Covenant, as set forth in article 4, paragraph 1, is that such measures are limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.  This requirement relates to the duration, geographical coverage and material scope of the state of emergency and any measures of derogation resorted to because of the emergency.  Derogation from some Covenant obligations in emergency situations is clearly distinct from restrictions or limitations allowed even in normal times under several provisions of the Covenant.[2]  Nevertheless, the obligation to limit any derogations to those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation reflects the principle of proportionality which is common to derogation and limitation powers.  Moreover, the mere fact that a permissible derogation from a specific provision may, of itself, be justified by the exigencies of the situation does not obviate the requirement that specific measures taken pursuant to the derogation must also be shown to be required by the exigencies of the situation.  In practice, this will ensure that no provision of the Covenant, however validly derogated from will be entirely inapplicable to the behaviour of a State party.  When considering States parties’ reports the Committee has expressed its concern over insufficient attention being paid to the principle of proportionality.[3]


5.         The issues of when rights can be derogated from, and to what extent, cannot be separated from the provision in article 4, paragraph 1, of the Covenant according to which any measures derogating from a State party’s obligations under the Covenant must be limited “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”.  This condition requires that States parties provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation.  If States purport to invoke the right to derogate from the Covenant during, for instance, a natural catastrophe, a mass demonstration including instances of violence, or a major industrial accident, they must be able to justify not only that such a situation constitutes a threat to the life of the nation, but also that all their measures derogating from the Covenant are strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.  In the opinion of the Committee, the possibility of restricting certain Covenant rights under the terms of, for instance, freedom of movement (article 12) or freedom of assembly (article 21) is generally sufficient during such situations and no derogation from the provisions in question would be justified by the exigencies of the situation.


6.         The fact that some of the provisions of the Covenant have been listed in article 4 (paragraph 2), as not being subject to derogation does not mean that other articles in the Covenant may be subjected to derogations at will, even where a threat to the life of the nation exists.  The legal obligation to narrow down all derogations to those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation establishes both for States parties and for the Committee a duty to conduct a careful analysis under each article of the Covenant based on an objective assessment of the actual situation.


7.         Article 4, paragraph 2, of the Covenant explicitly prescribes that no derogation from the following articles may be made:  article 6 (right to life), article 7 (prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, or of medical or scientific experimentation without consent), article 8, paragraphs 1 and 2 (prohibition of slavery, slave-trade and servitude), article 11 (prohibition of imprisonment because of inability to fulfil a contractual obligation), article 15 (the principle of legality in the field of criminal law, i.e. the requirement of both criminal liability and punishment being limited to clear and precise provisions in the law that was in place and applicable at the time the act or omission took place, except in cases where a later law imposes a lighter penalty), article 16 (the recognition of everyone as a person before the law), and article 18 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion).  The rights enshrined in these provisions are non-derogable by the very fact that they are listed in article 4, paragraph 2.  The same applies, in relation to States that are parties to the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, as prescribed in article 6 of that Protocol.  Conceptually, the qualification of a Covenant provision as a non-derogable one does not mean that no limitations or restrictions would ever be justified.  The reference in article 4, paragraph 2, to article 18, a provision that includes a specific clause on restrictions in its paragraph 3, demonstrates that the permissibility of restrictions is independent of the issue of derogability.  Even in times of most serious public emergencies, States that interfere with the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief must justify their actions by referring to the requirements specified in article 18, paragraph 3.  On several occasions the Committee has expressed its concern about rights that are non-derogable according to article 4, paragraph 2, being either derogated from or under a risk of derogation owing to inadequacies in the legal regime of the State party.[4]


8.         According to article 4, paragraph 1, one of the conditions for the justifiability of any derogation from the Covenant is that the measures taken do not involve discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin.  Even though article 26 or the other Covenant provisions related to non-discrimination (articles 2, 3, 14, paragraph 1, 23, paragraph 4, 24, paragraph 1, and 25) have not been listed among the non-derogable provisions in article 4, paragraph 2, there are elements or dimensions of the right to non-discrimination that cannot be derogated from in any circumstances.  In particular, this provision of article 4, paragraph 1, must be complied with if any distinctions between persons are made when resorting to measures that derogate from the Covenant.


9.         Furthermore, article 4, paragraph 1, requires that no measure derogating from the provisions of the Covenant may be inconsistent with the State party’s other obligations under international law, particularly the rules of international humanitarian law.  Article 4 of the Covenant cannot be read as justification for derogation from the Covenant if such derogation would entail a breach of the State’s other international obligations, whether based on treaty or general international law.  This is reflected also in article 5, paragraph 2, of the Covenant according to which there shall be no restriction upon or derogation from any fundamental rights recognized in other instruments on the pretext that the Covenant does not recognize such rights or that it recognizes them to a lesser extent.


10.       Although it is not the function of the Human Rights Committee to review the conduct of a State party under other treaties, in exercising its functions under the Covenant the Committee has the competence to take a State party’s other international obligations into account when it considers whether the Covenant allows the State party to derogate from specific provisions of the Covenant.  Therefore, when invoking article 4, paragraph 1, or when reporting under article 40 on the legal framework related to emergencies, States parties should present information on their other international obligations relevant for the protection of the rights in question, in particular those obligations that are applicable in times of emergency.[5] In this respect, States parties should duly take into account the developments within international law as to human rights standards applicable in emergency situations.[6]


11.       The enumeration of non-derogable provisions in article 4 is related to, but not identical with, the question whether certain human rights obligations bear the nature of peremptory norms of international law.  The proclamation of certain provisions of the Covenant as being of a non‑derogable nature, in article 4, paragraph 2, is to be seen partly as recognition of the peremptory nature of some fundamental rights ensured in treaty form in the Covenant (e.g., articles 6 and 7).  However, it is apparent that some other provisions of the Covenant were included in the list of non-derogable provisions because it can never become necessary to derogate from these rights during a state of emergency (e.g., articles 11 and 18).  Furthermore, the category of peremptory norms extends beyond the list of non-derogable provisions as given in article 4, paragraph 2.  States parties may in no circumstances invoke article 4 of the Covenant as justification for acting in violation of humanitarian law or peremptory norms of international law, for instance by taking hostages, by imposing collective punishments, through arbitrary deprivations of liberty or by deviating from fundamental principles of fair trial, including the presumption of innocence.


12.       In assessing the scope of legitimate derogation from the Covenant, one criterion can be found in the definition of certain human rights violations as crimes against humanity.  If action conducted under the authority of a State constitutes a basis for individual criminal responsibility for a crime against humanity by the persons involved in that action, article 4 of the Covenant cannot be used as justification that a state of emergency exempted the State in question from its responsibility in relation to the same conduct.  Therefore, the recent codification of crimes against humanity, for jurisdictional purposes, in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is of relevance in the interpretation of article 4 of the Covenant.[7]


13.       In those provisions of the Covenant that are not listed in article 4, paragraph 2, there are elements that in the Committee’s opinion cannot be made subject to lawful derogation under article 4.  Some illustrative examples are presented below.


            (a)        All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.  Although this right, prescribed in article 10 of the Covenant, is not separately mentioned in the list of non-derogable rights in article 4, paragraph 2, the Committee believes that here the Covenant expresses a norm of general international law not subject to derogation.  This is supported by the reference to the inherent dignity of the human person in the preamble to the Covenant and by the close connection between articles 7 and 10.


            (b)        The prohibitions against taking of hostages, abductions or unacknowledged detention are not subject to derogation.  The absolute nature of these prohibitions, even in times of emergency, is justified by their status as norms of general international law.


            (c)        The Committee is of the opinion that the international protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities includes elements that must be respected in all circumstances.  This is reflected in the prohibition against genocide in international law, in the inclusion of a non-discrimination clause in article 4 itself (paragraph 1), as well as in the non-derogable nature of article 18.


            (d)        As confirmed by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, deportation or forcible transfer of population without grounds permitted under international law, in the form of forced displacement by expulsion or other coercive means from the area in which the persons concerned are lawfully present, constitutes a crime against humanity.[8] The legitimate right to derogate from article 12 of the Covenant during a state of emergency can never be accepted as justifying such measures.


            (e)        No declaration of a state of emergency made pursuant to article 4, paragraph 1, may be invoked as justification for a State party to engage itself, contrary to article 20, in propaganda for war, or in advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that would constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.


14.       Article 2, paragraph 3, of the Covenant requires a State party to the Covenant to provide remedies for any violation of the provisions of the Covenant.  This clause is not mentioned in the list of non-derogable provisions in article 4, paragraph 2, but it constitutes a treaty obligation inherent in the Covenant as a whole.  Even if a State party, during a state of emergency, and to the extent that such measures are strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, may introduce adjustments to the practical functioning of its procedures governing judicial or other remedies, the State party must comply with the fundamental obligation, under article 2, paragraph 3, of the Covenant to provide a remedy that is effective.


15.       It is inherent in the protection of rights explicitly recognized as non-derogable in article 4, paragraph 2, that they must be secured by procedural guarantees, including, often, judicial guarantees.  The provisions of the Covenant relating to procedural safeguards may never be made subject to measures that would circumvent the protection of non-derogable rights.  Article 4 may not be resorted to in a way that would result in derogation from non-derogable rights.  Thus, for example, as article 6 of the Covenant is non-derogable in its entirety, any trial leading to the imposition of the death penalty during a state of emergency must conform to the provisions of the Covenant, including all the requirements of articles 14 and 15.


16.       Safeguards related to derogation, as embodied in article 4 of the Covenant, are based on the principles of legality and the rule of law inherent in the Covenant as a whole.  As certain elements of the right to a fair trial are explicitly guaranteed under international humanitarian law during armed conflict, the Committee finds no justification for derogation from these guarantees during other emergency situations.  The Committee is of the opinion that the principles of legality and the rule of law require that fundamental requirements of fair trial must be respected during a state of emergency.  Only a court of law may try and convict a person for a criminal offence.  The presumption of innocence must be respected.  In order to protect non-derogable rights, the right to take proceedings before a court to enable the court to decide without delay on the lawfulness of detention, must not be diminished by a State party’s decision to derogate from the Covenant.[9]


17.       In paragraph 3 of article 4, States parties, when they resort to their power of derogation under article 4, commit themselves to a regime of international notification.  A State party availing itself of the right of derogation must immediately inform the other States parties, through the United Nations Secretary‑General, of the provisions it has derogated from and of the reasons for such measures.  Such notification is essential not only for the discharge of the Committee’s functions, in particular in assessing whether the measures taken by the State party were strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, but also to permit other States parties to monitor compliance with the provisions of the Covenant.  In view of the summary character of many of the notifications received in the past, the Committee emphasizes that the notification by States parties should include full information about the measures taken and a clear explanation of the reasons for them, with full documentation attached regarding their law.  Additional notifications are required if the State party subsequently takes further measures under article 4, for instance by extending the duration of a state of emergency.  The requirement of immediate notification applies equally in relation to the termination of derogation.  These obligations have not always been respected:  States parties have failed to notify other States parties, through the Secretary-General, of a proclamation of a state of emergency and of the resulting measures of derogation from one or more provisions of the Covenant, and States parties have sometimes neglected to submit a notification of territorial or other changes in the exercise of their emergency powers.[10]’Sometimes, the existence of a state of emergency and the question of whether a State party has derogated from provisions of the Covenant have come to the attention of the Committee only incidentally, in the course of the consideration of a State party’s report.  The Committee emphasizes the obligation of immediate international notification whenever a State party takes measures derogating from its obligations under the Covenant.  The duty of the Committee to monitor the law and practice of a State party for compliance with article 4 does not depend on whether that State party has submitted a notification.




[1]  See the following comments/concluding observations:  United Republic of Tanzania (1992), CCPR/C/79/Add.12, para. 7; Dominican Republic (1993), CCPR/C/79/Add.18, para. 4; United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (1995), CCPR/C/79/Add.55, para. 23; Peru (1996), CCPR/C/79/Add.67, para. 11; Bolivia (1997), CCPR/C/79/Add.74, para. 14; Colombia (1997), CCPR/C/79/Add.76, para. 25; Lebanon (1997), CCPR/C/79/Add.78, para. 10; Uruguay (1998), CCPR/C/79/Add.90, para. 8; Israel (1998), CCPR/C/79/Add.93, para. 11.


[2]  See, for instance, articles 12 and 19 of the Covenant.


[3]  See, for example, concluding observations on Israel (1998), CCPR/C/79/Add.93, para. 11.


[4]  See the following comments/concluding observations:  Dominican Republic (1993), CCPR/C/79/Add.18, para. 4; Jordan (1994) CCPR/C/79/Add.35, para. 6; Nepal (1994) CCPR/C/79/Add.42, para. 9; Russian Federation (1995), CCPR/C/79/Add.54, para. 27; Zambia (1996), CCPR/C/79/Add.62, para. 11; Gabon (1996), CCPR/C/79/Add.71, para. 10; Colombia (1997) CCPR/C/79/Add.76, para. 25; Israel (1998), CCPR/C/79/Add.93, para. 11; Iraq (1997), CCPR/C/79/Add.84, para. 9; Uruguay (1998) CCPR/C/79/Add.90, para. 8; Armenia (1998), CCPR/C/79/Add.100, para. 7; Mongolia (2000), CCPR/C/79/Add.120, para. 14; Kyrgyzstan (2000), CCPR/CO/69/KGZ, para. 12.


[5]  Reference is made to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which has been ratified by almost all States parties to the Covenant and does not include a derogation clause.  As article 38 of the Convention clearly indicates, the Convention is applicable in emergency situations.


[6]  Reference is made to reports of the Secretary-General to the Commission on Human Rights submitted pursuant to Commission resolutions 1998/29, 1996/65 and 2000/69 on minimum humanitarian standards (later:  fundamental standards of humanity), E/CN.4/1999/92, E/CN.4/2000/94 and E/CN.4/2001/91, and to earlier efforts to identify fundamental rights applicable in all circumstances, for instance the Paris Minimum Standards of Human Rights Norms in a State of Emergency (International Law Association, 1984), the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the final report of Mr. Leandro Despouy, Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission, on human rights and states of emergency (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/19 and Add.1), the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2), the Turku (Ảbo) Declaration of Minimum Humanitarian Standards (1990), (E/CN.4/1995/116).  As a field of ongoing further work reference is made to the decision of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (1995) to assign the International Committee of the Red Cross the task of preparing a report on the customary rules of international humanitarian law applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts.


[7]  See articles 6 (genocide) and 7 (crimes against humanity) of the Statute which by 1 July 2001 had been ratified by 35 States.  While many of the specific forms of conduct listed in article 7 of the Statute are directly linked to violations against those human rights that are listed as non‑derogable provisions in article 4, paragraph 2, of the Covenant, the category of crimes against humanity as defined in that provision covers also violations of some provisions of the Covenant that have not been mentioned in the said provision of the Covenant.  For example, certain grave violations of article 27 may at the same time constitute genocide under article 6 of the Rome Statute, and article 7, in turn, covers practices that are related to, besides articles 6, 7 and 8 of the Covenant, also articles 9, 12, 26 and 27.


[8]  See article 7 (1) (d) and 7 (2) (d) of the Rome Statute.


[9]  See the Committee’s concluding observations on Israel (1998) (CCPR/C/79/Add.93), para. 21:  “… The Committee considers the present application of administrative detention to be incompatible with articles 7 and 16 of the Covenant, neither of which allows for derogation in times of public emergency … .  The Committee stresses, however, that a State party may not depart from the requirement of effective judicial review of detention.”  See also the recommendation by the Committee to the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities concerning a draft third optional protocol to the Covenant:  “The Committee is satisfied that States parties generally understand that the right to habeas corpus and amparo should not be limited in situations of emergency.  Furthermore, the Committee is of the view that the remedies provided in article 9, paragraphs 3 and 4, read in conjunction with article 2 are inherent to the Covenant as a whole.”  Official Records of the General Assembly, Forty-ninth session, Supplement No. 40 (A/49/40), vol. I, annex XI, para. 2.


[10]  See comments/concluding observations on Peru (1992) CCPR/C/79/Add.8, para. 10; Ireland (1993) CCPR/C/79/Add.21, para. 11; Egypt (1993), CCPR/C/79/Add.23, para. 7; Cameroon (1994) CCPR/C/79/Add.33, para. 7; Russian Federation (1995), CCPR/C/79/Add.54, para. 27; Zambia (1996), CCPR/C/79/Add.62, para. 11; Lebanon (1997), CCPR/C/79/Add.78, para. 10; India (1997), CCPR/C/79/Add.81, para. 19; Mexico (1999), CCPR/C/79/Add.109, para. 12.


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