Establishing an on-line database on the impact of the UN human rights treaty system worldwide


Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, in collaboration with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Project outline:

Establishing an on-line database on the impact of the UN human rights treaty system worldwide

Executive summary

A number of researchers, in collaboration with the United Nations, are establishing an on-line database that will track the impact of the Geneva-based UN human rights treaty system on the ground. The database will contain information on the extent to which the main treaties and the decisions of the treaty bodies have made a difference as far as the constitutions, laws, judicial decisions, policies and practices of countries around the world are concerned. The aim is to facilitate an understanding of how the system work, to inform reform on the global and local level, and to enhance the impact of the system.

Concept note

The United Nations human rights treaty system is a critical part of the human rights project. The nine main treaties, as well as the work of the treaty bodies, have played a central role in the development of what is today known as the international human rights system. The system continues to grow in terms of the number of states covered, but also the scope and sophistication of its procedures.

At the same time, there is little evidence available on the basis of which it can be established with certainty what difference it makes, and why. Hard evidence of its impact where it matters most - on the domestic level - is essential to secure its future role, and to ensure that it is as effective and efficient as possible. Yet very little information on this topic is available.

The functioning of the Geneva component of the system – the working of the treaty bodies – has already been the subject of much research, and the system is currently undergoing a comprehensive strengthening process. However, the Geneva part of the system represents only a small part of the larger picture. The system has evolved into a massive organic enterprise, which spans the entire globe and reaches down to the lowest level. Exactly how and why it affects the lives of the more than 7 billion people in the world is largely unknown. What happens in Geneva is merely the tip of the unknown proverbial global iceberg.

As a result of this gap, changes and reforms of the way in which the treaty system functions, have largely been taken in the context of a knowledge vacuum. Some also question to what extent the treaty system, as opposed to other competitors for the same space, can be relied upon to play a central role in the international normative framework. Where should scare resources and time be invested? These questions can be answered in a responsible way only on the basis of reliable evidence about treaty impact.

Professors Christof Heyns and Frans Viljoen from the University of Pretoria, and Rachell Murray from Bristol, in collaboration with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, are currently engaged in a major study aimed a filling this gap.

Heyns and Viljoen have already conducted two ground-breaking studies on this topic in the past, completed respectively in 2000 and in 2020 (joined by Murray), in both cases covering the same 20 countries selected for this purpose. In doing so, the study leaders worked with 20 country rapporteurs - researchers based in each one of the countries studied - who gathered material and conducted interviews with officials and others on aspects such as the extent to which the treaties have had an impact on the constitutions and legislation of the countries concerned, as well as its judicial decisions, policies and practices involved. Based on this information, trends and drivers and inhibitors of impact could be established.

The results of the first study was published as The impact of the United Nations human rights treaty system on the domestic level (Kluwer 2001). They are currently completing the follow-up study, with the earlier study providing a baseline against which the results of the later study could be measured.

While bringing a range of new insights, the limitations of the two studies conducted so far are clear: they cover only 20 countries, and even the most recent results will soon become outdated. As the last most recent study is drawing to a close, its momentum will now be used to launch a new study that will cover more countries and which will be kept up to date.

This will entail that the study leaders will establish an on-line database that will provide information on the impact of the treaty system in potentially all the countries in the world, and will ensure that new information is added on an ongoing basis.

To start this new research project, the information on the 20 countries covered by the earlier studies will be placed on-line, and new countries will be added over time.

An indispensable element of the two earlier studies was the gathering of information from the country rapporteurs in each of the 20 countries, who were knowledgeable volunteers based in the communities concerned, who could speak the local languages and understand the system from the inside. These country rapporteurs used several sources of information, including official and publicly available documentation, on the country level. They have also conducted interviews with officials and members of civil society, to provide the broader – and often unwritten – context.

Such country rapporteurs will also be appointed for the new study. The 20 current country rapporteurs will be asked to continue their work, and new rapporteurs will be appointed as new countries are included in the study. As was done with the earlier studies, the country rapporteurs will gather documents and conduct interviews on the basis of a template setting out the issues to be investigated.

In addition, university clinical and student groups and civil society organisations with a research angle will be asked to help find documentation that traces the impact of the treaty system in the countries covered. There will be a specific focus on masters’ programmes which attract students from around the world, who will gather such documentation under supervision of an instructor. (A student research team is for example currently being established at Harvard, and Oxford, Pretoria and others are expected to follow soon.)

Crowd-sourcing has moreover proven to be a powerful way of gathering this sort of information. An open call will thus be made to anyone with access to the information concerned to submit such documentation, to supplement the work of the country rapporteurs and the clinical groups. The information thus obtained will be made available on an on-line database, and be updated and expanded over time.

Making the information available in this way will enable and indeed invite the world’s academic and human rights community in to engage with the treaty system, and to bring their considerable expertise to bear on it. It will in itself further impact, by allowing follow up on specific cases and recommendations.

Gathering and processing the large quantity of information involved, and making it available in a digestible format, will be of key importance. This process will be supervised by a moderator, working with a web master and student assistants.  Using the right technology will moreover play an important role. An algorithm will be developed to process the information. This will include to information available on treaty body decisions and impact that is in the publicly domain (such as information on the follow up procedures of the treaty bodies, and in parallel processes such as the UPR), as well as the information provided by country rapporteurs, clinical groups, and others on the ground who participate in the crowd-sourcing exercise.

It is believed that making reliable and comprehensive information on the impact of the treaty system publicly available in this way will allow a much higher level of engagement with the treaty system and as such make a significant contribution towards the sustained relevance and impact of the treaty system over many years to come.

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