Júlia Oliveira Souza, Jeehae G. Park, & Carlos L. Yordán
Driven by a desire to prevent the atrocities of the Second World War, the authors of The Charter of the United Nations (1945) required the UN and its member states to establish the pillars of the current global human rights regime. A close reading of the Charter’s Articles 55 and 56 indicates that the regime’s emergence, evolution, and long-term survival depends on states’ willingness to carry out three interrelated activities.
First, states must define these rights. This was the goal of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its provisions established that human rights are universal, inalienable, and indivisible as well as interdependent. The UDHR also stressed the equality of all human beings and freedom of discrimination. All of the UN’s human rights instruments have been built on these premises and expanded on them to protect new areas of human rights.
Second, states must negotiate and write legal instruments that turn, for example, the UDHR’s values and principles into international law. Once states ratify these international agreements, they have “obligations and duties under international law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.”
Third, states must ratify these instruments. Only then will they be compelled “to put in place domestic measures and legislation” to promote, protect and fulfill their citizens’ human rights.
The global human rights regime includes more than 80 international and regional legal instruments. The UN General Assembly has adopted nine treaties and another nine protocols, connected to one of these treaties. These “core” instruments have established 10 treaty bodies, each made up of an elected committee of independent experts. The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture is the only protocol to have its own treaty body: the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT). With the exception of the SPT, these bodies execute two main functions. First, they monitor and review state parties’ compliance efforts. Second, they produce a set of “concluding observations” or recommendations to help these states further strengthen their human rights commitments.
How effective is this global human rights regime? While there is little agreement among scholars, experts, and policy-makers on how to best answer this question, there is widespread agreement that to evaluate the regime’s effectiveness we need to first focus on states’ willingness to ratify and translate these instruments’ provisions into domestic law. Although ratification does not itself guarantee that states will fulfill their commitments, it is one of the main indicators of states’ acceptance of these rules.
Mapping the Ratification Status of Each Instrument:
In this post, we extrapolate data from the UN Treaty Collection’s webpage to measure UN member states’ adherence to the UN’s core human rights instruments. We classified states into three distinct categories. First, states that have not ratified or signed one of the instruments are cataloged as having taken “no action”. Second, “signatory state” applies to states which have not ratified the instrument but have only signed it. Third, a “state party” is classified as a state that has ratified the treaty or acceded to its rules.
To better understand which states have ratified these instruments, we created 18 choropleth maps, using the ggplot2 package for R, “a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics.” We first present the core human rights treaties in the order they were adopted. Then we display the optional protocols.
With the exception of the ICMW and CPED, these choropleth maps demonstrate that a majority of UN member states have either signed or ratified most of the core human rights treaties. The CRC is the instrument that has received the strongest support. The only UN member which has signed but not ratified the treaty is the United States. In terms of the ICMW, it seems that most states that have failed to take action are the ones that receive a high number of migrant workers. As for the CPED, it is interesting how many countries, including some which are considered the pillars of democracy and freedom, have decided not to take measures to ratify this treaty. An exception to this reality is a majority of the Latin American states, where policies of enforced disappearance were widely practiced by military dictatorships from the late 1960s through the end of the 1980s.
The ratification status of the Optional Protocols is weaker than the core conventions. While these agreements were created to address matters not included in the parent treaty, one of the reasons why they enjoy lower levels of support is because in many cases these protocols give the treaty bodies new powers or they ban certain controversial practices (i.e. the death penalty). Some of these protocols even give state parties’ citizens the right to bring cases to the attention of the treaty bodies.
After mapping the ratification of the core UN human rights instruments, it is clear that the UN has been able to translate the UDHR’s values and principles into a global legal regime that works to protect and promote human rights. Over time a majority of states have ratified many of these instruments. But the fact that human rights abuses still continue in many of these countries raises important questions about state parties’ willingness to translate their commitments into practice.
Want to learn more about these issues?
Data on the status of ratification of each of the core UN human rights instruments are available on the World Politics Data Lab’s GitHub page. The R code used to generate the maps is also available in this repository.
For a summary of the UN’s core human rights instruments and how the UN human rights institutions are trying to measure the effectiveness of the global human rights regime, see the following documents.
- UNCHR (2012). The United Nations Human Rights Treaty System, Fact Sheet 30/Rev 1 (New York and Geneva: UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner).
- UNCHR (2012). Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation, HR/PUB/12/5(New York and Geneva: UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner).
- UNHCR (2018). A Human Rights Based Approach to Data – Leaving No One Behind in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (New York and Geneva: UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner).
Here is a list of academic works that analyze some of the issues we addressed in the post:
- Carraro, Valentina (2019). “Promoting Compliance with Human Rights: The Performance of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review and Treaty Bodies”, International Studies Quarterly, 63(4): 1079–1093.
- Fariss, Christopher & Geoff, Dancy (2017). “Measuring the Impact of Human Rights: Conceptual and Methodological Debates”, Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 13: 273-294.
- Krommendjik, Jasper (2015). “The domestic effectiveness of international human rights monitoring in established democracies. The case of the UN human rights treaty bodies”, The Review of International Organizations, 10 (Feb.): 489-512.
About the authors:
Júlia Oliveira Souza is an International Relations & Spanish double major, and Data Science minor at Drew University.
Jeehae G. Park is a Political Science major, Law, Justice, and Society minor, and Baldwin Honors scholar at Drew University.
Carlos L. Yordán is an Associate Professor of Political and International Relations at Drew University.