A project of:

Centre for Human Rights and the Geneva Academy in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
CHR logo Geneva academy UN human rights  


Overview of the Pretoria United Nations human rights treaty system impact study 

This is a large-scale, long term project aimed at facilitating a better understanding of the dynamics involved in the processes through which the UN human rights treaty system (the treaties themselves and the treaty monitoring bodies based in Geneva) makes a difference on the domestic level, or fails to do so. Without understanding to what extent what happens in Geneva actually helps to bring about change where it matters - to the people on the ground, worldwide - it is impossible to learn the lessons needed to ensure that the system will meet the challenges of the 21st century and thrives, or even merely survives. 

‘Impact’, of course, has many dimensions, and can be approached from a variety of angles. The goal here is not to cover this massive area, and to provide final answers on where these was impact and where not, but rather to make it possible for researchers who look at impact from any angle to have easy access to some of the core sources they should take into consideration: The documents available in the UN system, or on the domestic level, demonstrating pathways of material impact of the system in the countries in question.

'Impact database 2020 +' will be an open-access, online database that allows interested parties worldwide to have access to those documents – available on the UN as well as the country level – that provide concrete evidence of the direct, material impact of each one of the ten main treaties and their treaty bodies in the 193 UN member states. ‘Impact database 2020 +’ will thus serve an indispensable role as a ‘first-stop shop’ for those who wish to obtain the full picture of impact globally, or in any particular subject or geographical area. The availability of the evidence on the best documented cases showing the impact of the treaty system can then be used as one tool in the broader quest to better understand the broader impact in the system better - the myriad of indirect and sometimed simbolic ways in which it makes a difference.

Before starting to develop the database, researchers based at the Centre for Human Rights worked with the OHCHR, over a period of 20 years, to conduct comprehensive studies into the impact of the treaty system in 20 countries. The outcomes of the first study was published in 2002. The outcomes of the second study will be published in 2021.

The field work done for these two books was conducted by researchers based in each of the countries concerned, who studied the relevant UN and country based documentation, and did their own on-the ground research, for example by interviewing the different domestic role-players. The evidence thus obtained concerning the different countries was analysed by the study leaders, who identified the salient ways in which impact occurs or does not occur, based on a longitudinal assessment over the two decades covered by the study.

Drawing on this experience, ‘Impact database 2020 +’ will now expand the scope of the study, to cover all 193 UN member states. The relevant documentation, available on the UN level as well as on the domestic level, showing evidence of direct material impact by each treaty in each country, will be made available in a series of easy-to-use tables.

At the same time, it should be emphasised that the new database project in itself does not entail an analysis of these documents. The aim is rather to make the primary documentation readily available to the global research community, to facilitate a broad engagement by researchers and stakeholders from all parts of the world and from all disciplines and interest groups with one of the most crucial questions facing the future of the human rights project:  How to ensure the optimal functioning of the normative backbone of human rights, the treaty system. How can the successes in the system be identified and replicated, and how can the failures and dead-end streets be avoided and new links for impact be established?

More information on ‘Impact database 2020 +’ is available here.

More information on the preceding books is available here: 2002 book and 2021 book.

The profiles of the study leaders are available here.