The thorny question of implementation of the Views adopted by the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) under the Optional Protocol (OP) to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was again thrust into the limelight by the French government’s comments on a report recently published by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. The comments made clear that France is not about to give effect to three Views issued by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2011 and 2013 finding violations of the Sikh authors’ freedom of religion for being legally obliged to denounce wearing a turban on their identity or residence permit photographs, or in order to attend an upper high school (lycée).
The first major argument put forward by the French government is that these questions were settled in 2006 by the French Supreme Administrative Court (Conseil d’Etat) in Association United Sikhs where this kind of restrictions were found lawful.
The second major argument presented by France is that in 2005 and 2008 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) also considered the above restrictive measures compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In its General Comment No 33 (2008), the HRC noted that even though it is not a judicial body, its Views “exhibit some important characteristics of a judicial decision. They are arrived at in a judicial spirit, including the impartiality and independence of Committee members”. It added that the Views are “an authoritative determination by a quasi-judicial organ established by ICCPR tasked with the interpretation of this treaty”.
As a consequence, every state party to ICCPR and its OP is bound by their provisions and the findings of the HRC, in accordance with the fundamental principle of pacta sunt servanda. Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) exemplifies this principle as follows: “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed in good faith”.
A vital, concomitant rule of customary international law is that no state party to a treaty may invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty (Article 27 VCLT). Under Article 27 VCLT domestic courts are actually bound to give effect to a ratified treaty. This is even more so where the constitution of that state, like France (Article 55), provides that ratified treaties prevail over domestic statutes. In view of the above, France’s first argument is hardly watertight.
As to the second argument based, in effect, on an alleged prevalence of ECHR over ICCPR in cases concerning religious freedom, in principle this could stand if France had made such a declaration upon acceding to ICCPR. Such a declaration was indeed made with regard to Articles 19 (freedom to hold opinions and of expression), 21 (right of peaceful assembly) and 22 (freedom of association) of ICCPR. However, Article 18 ICCPR covering religious freedom has been left out.
The inapplicability of the argument of prevalence of ECHR over ICCPR in this case may also be grounded in Article 53 ECHR. According to this provision nothing in ECHR may be construed as limiting or derogating from human rights that may be ensured under domestic law or another ratified treaty.
A 2014 report by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission echoed the widely accepted view that even though the HRC’s Views are not binding judgments, they still have a legal consequence: the states parties’ obligation to take the HRC’s Views into consideration in good faith.
Arguably good faith means, inter alia, that when a state party feels obliged to contest the HRC’s Views it should provide arguments that are legally sound and coherent. This is not the case in the Sikh cases and France’s arguments disregarding ICCPR and its adjudicating organ’s decisions. Regrettably states often forget that ICCPR is one of the building blocks of the international human rights system, which, unlike other human rights treaties like ECHR, contains no denunciation clause. It is indeed a cornerstone of the modern international law regime that merits much more attention and effective respect by all states parties.