The impact of the United Nations human rights treaties at the domestic level

treaty system

The Centre for Human Rights and the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa, University of Pretoria, have launched an independent academic study to be undertaken in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) over the next two years (2018 and 2019), on the impact of the United Nations human rights treaty system in 20 selected states worldwide. An earlier study conducted on the same basis described the situation in these 20 states as it was on 1 July 1999 ( The new study will cover the same states, 20 years later (as at 1 July 2019).

The 20 researchers who are conducting the study are all based in the countries concerned, each focussing  on the same questions posed by the study leaders: What has been to influence of the UN treaties and the work of the treaty bodies on the constitution of the country in question; on its legislation; on its policies; has it been cited in the courts; is it taught in the universities; is it covered in the newspapers? Also, what is the evidence that the views and the concluding observations of the treaty bodies has been implemented?

The 1999 study provides the most comprehensive and detailed overview of the impact of the treaty system on the domestic level that has been done to date. In terms of its geographical scope, 20 states are covered. It is furthermore unique in that it serves as a baseline from which new developments over time can be investigated. The situation 20 years ago in al those countries can be compared with the situation today. Perhaps the main distinguishing factor is that the research 20 years ago and again now is conducted by researchers on the ground, in the countries in question, based on primary research (they go through the records of the legislation, inteview government officials as well as NGO’s, etc).

During the intervening two decades much has happened. A relatively young system at the end of the last century has come of age, and expanded in many directions. There are now nine major human rights treaties and ten treaty bodies. Many states that had only recently joined the treaty system when the study was done, with little exposure to reporting or complaints, have in the meantime become seasoned participants. Hundreds of State reports have been considered since the first study was done, and have resulted in concluding observations. Likewise, large numbers of individual communications were concluded. New General comments have been drafted. States have joined the system. Treaty bodies have developed new working methods.

There has been a burgeoning literature focusing on the impact of the human rights system during the last couple of years (with a limited number of empirical studies having been conducted). Moreover, the treaty system as a whole is currently the subject of a major process of reform that may result in an overhaul of the way in which it functions. Questions are continuously being asked about the effectiveness of the human rights system as a whole, and whether it or any of its components need to be adjusted. In order to establish whether different parts of the broader system need to be changed, it is important to understand the impact of the treaty system.

This gives renewed relevance to the question as to what we really know about the actual impact of the UN treaties in the very communities they are aimed to affect, on the basis of evidence gathered ‘on the ground’, by people who speak the language and know the system from within.

The 1999 study presents a time capsule of the impact of the treaty system on the domestic level at the turn of the century. The passage of two decades provides a natural opportunity to revisit the impact of the treaty system in the 20 States studied previously, and to use the earlier study as a point of reference from which trends could be identified and recommendations for change could be made. This offers the prospect of a richer understanding of the current state of affairs, but also a foundation from which to anticipate the future of the system.

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