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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: May 2018

5 - The UN human rights treaty system



United Nations (UN) treaty bodies constitute the main institutional vehicle for the application of international human rights law. Bodies such as the UN Human Rights Committee (HRCtee) are by no means the only international mechanisms that address issues of human rights protection. Indeed, bodies as diverse as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Bank employ special procedures dealing with human rights questions. International tribunals and courts, particularly the International Court of Justice (ICJ), are increasingly adjudicating cases that have a bearing on international human rights law. Yet, human rights treaty bodies fulfil a special role in that they are the only entities within the UN system that states have explicitly mandated to monitor compliance with their human rights treaty obligations.

Treaty bodies fulfil a range of functions, from promotional activities to monitoring and adjudicating complaints. These tasks, which are taken for granted today, are the result of states’ willingness to vest treaty bodies with the mandate of monitoring compliance. This constituted a remarkable shift away from earlier notions of sovereignty in a system where states were, essentially, the sole authors, interpreters and enforcers of rights and obligations. What accounts for this change and why do states agree to be part of such regimes? This question, which has attracted considerable attention in recent years, poses a particular challenge because it does not seem to conform to the realist views that used to hold considerable sway in international relations, according to which states use institutions as a means to exercise power. Alternative theories emphasise states’ interests (enhancing reputation and avoiding sanctions) or point to ‘acculturation’. This denotes a process of interaction of various actors which generates a pull to build and join credible human rights mechanisms as part of an international order. Indeed, these mechanisms form part of broader international institution building, particularly at the UN level. The development of UN treaty bodies has witnessed a steady growth after a slow beginning in which it took over twenty years and numerous debates to set up the first two, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the HRCtee.

The proliferation of treaties, treaty bodies and increased ratification does not automatically equate to a coherent and effective international system that is well placed to achieve its objectives, particularly strengthening protection at the international and national level.

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