What has been the influence to date of the main United Nations human rights treaties, and the work of the committees that monitor compliance by States with these treaties, on the lives of people worldwide? A group of human rights researchers are currently engaged in a comprehensive ‘domestic impact study’ that will address this question in 20 countries. Researchers in other parts of the world are now also encouraged to undertake research on the same issue in their home countries.
The ‘domestic impact study’
A team of 20 researchers in as many countries worldwide is currently conducting the most comprehensive study yet undertaken on this question. A study on the ‘Domestic impact of the UN human rights treaty system’ is conducted in collaboration with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The principal investigators are Prof. Christof Heyns (member of the UN Human Committee) and Prof. Frans Viljoen, both from the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria. They led a similar study covering the same 20 countries two decades ago, also in collaboration with OHCHR.
The 20 researchers who are participating in this ‘domestic impact study’ are all based in the countries that they study, each working from the same template of questions provided by the study leaders. They study the relevant primary sources in those countries (such as white papers and policy documents) and conduct interviews with government officials and NGOs, and look for answers to questions such as the following: What evidence is available about the influence of the UN treaties on the constitution of the country in question; on its legislation; on its policies? Have the treaties been cited in the courts; are they taught in the universities; are they covered in the newspapers? To what extent have the specific views and the concluding observations adopted by the treaty bodies concerning these countries been implemented? The older study provides an ideal baseline against which subsequent trends can be measured.
The study is meant among other things to inform future reforms of the treaty system. It supplements studies such as the Optimizing the UN treaty body system report recently published by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
The countries that will be covered by the domestic impact study are Australia; Brazil; Canada; Colombia; Czech Republic; Egypt; Estonia; Finland; India; Iran; Jamaica; Japan; Mexico; Philippines; Romania; Russia; Senegal; South Africa; Spain; and Zambia. Full information is available http://www.icla.up.ac.za/research/impact-of-the-un-human-rights-treaties-on-domestic-level
A call for further independent research
Despite the wide range of countries covered by the domestic impact study, the details of the situation in a many other parts of the world remain largely unknown. Yet for any study to cover all the countries in the world is an impossible task. Instead the study leaders wish to encourage researchers based in any country not among the 20 listed above and hence not covered by the domestic impact study, to conduct their own, independent scholarly research into the impact of the treaty system in their home counties and to submit their findings for publication to academic journals of their choice.
Together the domestic impact study and the additional research proposed here to be conducted by independent researchers into other countries in the world have the potential of providing an unprecedented view of the current impact of the treaty system – and the areas for possible reform.
The template used for the domestic impact study is available on the above-mentioned website. Researchers who wish to conduct their own independent research on countries not covered by the study are welcome to use this template or to adapt it for their own purposes.
Researchers who are interested in contributing to further research on this topic are welcome to contact those who are co-ordinating the domestic impact study. We will be happy to provide assistance where possible, including references to background material that may be of assistance or examples of the studies that were conducted 20 years ago. We also hope to explore the possibility of bringing some of the independent researchers together with our own research team, later in the project, in order to compare notes and to publish some of the outstanding contributions in a book.
Individual researchers are invited to participate on their own, to join forces with other researchers, or to convene a group of young researchers, such as student assistants, to work with them.
The idea of this call – akin to a crowdsourcing project – is to serve as a catalyst for global academic engagement with the treaty system by researchers at national level, in order to afford the international community a better understanding of the impact that this core element of the UN human rights machinery is having around the world where it matters – on the local level.