Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 483-535
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The Impact of the United Nations Human Rights Treaties on the
The success or failure of any international human rights system should be evaluated in accordance with its impact on human rights practices on the domestic (country) level. At the beginning of the new millennium, it is clear that the concept of human rights is widely accepted as the "idea of our time." The conceptual battle is over, and the focus has shifted to the implementation of human rights. Universal ratification of the main United Nations (UN) human rights treaties might be appearing on the horizon, but ratification in itself is largely a formal, and in some cases an empty, gesture. 1 The challenge now is to ensure that the promises contained in the treaties [End Page 483] and affirmed through ratification are realized in the lives of ordinary people around the world. A paradigm shift to the true "customers" of the system is necessary.
In this context, the following six UN human rights treaties have a central role to play: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) (CERD); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (CESCR); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) (CCPR), together with the First Optional Protocol (OPI) to this Covenant; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) (CEDAW); the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984) (CAT); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) (CRC).
In 1999, a study was initiated in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate the impact of the UN human rights treaty system (the six treaties and their supervisory bodies) 2 worldwide and to make recommendations for their reform. The impact of the treaties on human rights practices in twenty different countries was studied by the present authors. 3 This article contains the main findings and recommendations of this study. 4
In this study, the "impact" of the treaties is understood to be any [End Page 484] influence that these treaties may have had in ensuring the realization of the norms they espouse in the individual countries. This influence may have occurred as a result of the work of international mechanisms for norm enforcement, such as reporting, individual complaints, or inquiries, or because treaty norms have been internalized in domestic legal systems or cultures. The study assesses the impact that these norms have had on each one of the countries, for example through adoption, incorporation, or transformation of the constitution or other legislation, or through judicial decisions, policy changes, or implementation of concluding observations. The study also endeavors to determine the extent to which treaty norms have been made part of the general culture of individual countries, for example through coverage in the media or educational programs.
Twenty countries were selected in consultation with the OHCHR, with the aim of identifying a fairly representative group of states in which the treaty system has had an opportunity to effect a change. For example, countries engaged in a protracted, all-out civil war were excluded, because the potential impact of the treaties under discussion in such a situation was severely limited.
Four countries from each of the five UN regions were selected. The aim was to arrive at a relatively representative mix of countries in terms of wealth, level of development, and political stability. Countries that are either diverse or homogeneous with respect to language, race, culture, and religion were selected. An attempt also was made to include countries in which the treaties had been ratified for some time, as well as others where they had been ratified more recently. A further practical consideration was the availability of suitable correspondents for each country to do the research within the time constraints imposed.
The following countries were investigated:
-- African region: Egypt, Senegal, South Africa...