Disaggregating the Human Rights Treaty Regime

by Kevin L. Cope & Cosette D. Creamer ~ Mar 02, 2017

In their essay, The Influence of History on States’ Compliance with Human Rights Obligations, Adam Chilton and Eric Posner draw on development economics to note that modern human rights practices are partially a function of phenomena from distant history: colonization patterns, geography, and old institutions. They contrast the predictive power of these factors with that of participation in the modern international human rights legal regime. They conclude that ratified human rights instruments in the aggregate have had little effect on governments’ rights practices and that researchers should therefore turn to factors other than treaties for robust explanations (if not solutions) for the wide variation in human rights practices across states. In this response essay, we disaggregate several aspects of the human rights regime that much of the existing scholarshipincluding The Influence of Historyhas largely aggregated. In doing so, we show that Chilton and Posner’s aggregation obscures nuances of treaty engagement and effects that might meaningfully implicate the normative role ofthe human rights regime. We argue that the “treatment” of a human rights institution is not synonymous with the point of ratification. As others have noted, ratification commonly works through international and domestic processes and institutions and operates over a long time-horizon, extending well before and after the moment of legal obligation. We conclude that, to understand the process by which treaty engagement might influence rights conditions, scholars should build on those studies that recognize and take advantage of this insight.

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