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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


The Impact of the United Nations Human Rights Treaties on the Domestic Level
Christof Heyns and Frans Viljoen

Kluwer Law International, 2002
viii, 648 pgs

Debates over the importance of international human rights standards to conflict resolution and international law are not infrequent. What is less frequent, however, is an empirical grasp of how the existence of international human rights treaties at the UN level (i.e., CERD, CESCR, CCPR, CEDAW, CAT, and CRC) actually affects the laws and actions of the states that sign them. For anyone who has ever wondered about this impact, this book provides a comprehensive answer.

The book contains the results of a study conducted by the two authors and over 30 country-level correspondents. The research was funded by the Ford Foundation and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Covered by the survey are 20 countries, 4 from each of the 5 UN regions, chosen to be representative of the mix of countries within the UN system in terms of location, wealth, level of development, and level of political stability. India, Australia and Japan make the study, as well as Senegal, Colombia, and Finland. Each of the 20 country-level reports is itself the distillation of much longer reports, and is based upon research as well as interviews with government officials, NGO leaders, human rights consultants, academics, and other knowledgeable parties. The results are current with legal developments up to the beginning of July 1999.

The book is not a light read and may be best seen as a reference work; the only narrative thread that ties the work together is the common framework for the reporting of information from each country. While the individual country studies may be of interest to individual practitioners, the most interesting insights are contained in the 46 page overview written by the authors. Indeed, the overview would be a great introduction for students and activists interested in how international human rights norms translate at the local level. While these human rights treaties have significant impacts on the normative content of debates concerning human rights, the overview usefully details state-level barriers, from constitutional structure to the lack of informed or interested NGOs, to their enactment at the domestic level. After discussing factors limiting or enhancing the impact of the treaties, the overview also highlights proposals made by country-level reporters and their interlocutors for making the UN human rights treaty system more effective. There are hidden gems in this empirical rough, however-e.g., this author likes the potential positive impact of conducting treaty monitoring body meetings outside Geneva and New York on treaty awareness and compliance-but these proposals are only seldom linked to theory concerning the relevance of international human rights law or to debates concerning its implementation. Having said that, some of findings and proposals do speak for themselves. Now all we need is a UN leadership, willing states, and concerned practitioners to listen.

Christopher T. Timura, J.D./Ph.D. Candidate, Law and Anthropology, University of Michigan

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