Delayed Devotion: The Rise of Individual Complaint Mechanisms within International Human Rights Treaties

42 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2011

Date Written: July 29, 2011


The lyrics of “Delayed Devotion,” a song by the artist Duffy, speak of a woman’s decision to end a relationship in which, it seems, her partner only began to realize her value as she prepared to leave. There are doubtless many situations in which these lyrics, and the story they tell, are applicable. One such situation is manifested in international human rights law, particularly in regard to the rise in the creation and use of individual complaint mechanisms as a part of international human rights treaties.

As this article explains, these lyrics are applicable in the individual complaint mechanism context because the increase in creating these procedures for specific groups through specific conventions indicates a sense that the devotion of the international community to implementing the rights guaranteed in foundational human rights has been delayed. At the same time, the increase in individual complaint mechanisms indicates that individuals are being provided with a greater ability to penetrate the international human rights law system that has for so long regarded them as only peripheral actors to be given rights rather than as actors having the agency to claim these rights at the international level. In sum, the result is a steady penetration of the international system by individuals, albeit through a system that is designed by international actors and therefore has structural limitations to this interaction.

Although clearly the structure of the international law system mandates that the individual complaint system is itself structured in a way that is essentially state-centric, it is argued that the increasing prominence of the individual in international human rights law is a discernible trend that stands to alter the understanding of the international system. This prominence, however, is based on a greater sense of individual empowerment than the language of individual rights that has been traditionally used in international human rights law. The article argues that the increase in individual prominence is certainly laudable but that, by attaching this increased individual penetration of the international human rights law system to an ever-increasing series of specialized conventions, there is a significant risk of fragmenting the concept of the international human rights law system.

Instead, it is argued that the individual, as the foundation of the human rights and dignities that are the backbone of international human rights law, should not need to seek specialized avenues of redress, but rather should be able to penetrate the international law system based on his basic identity as the holder of human rights and human dignity. This is especially so because these concepts of essential human rights and human dignity are at the core of the entire international human rights law system. This recommendation stresses both the internal status of people as holders of human rights and human dignity while also doing away with the need to create new quasi-judicial structures that are themselves potentially limiting depending on the ways in which they are drafted and function.

Keywords: human rights law, international organizations

Suggested Citation

Harrington, Alexandra R., Delayed Devotion: The Rise of Individual Complaint Mechanisms within International Human Rights Treaties (July 29, 2011). Albany Law School Research Paper No. 17 of 2011-2012, Available at SSRN: or

Alexandra R. Harrington (Contact Author)

Albany Law School ( email )

80 New Scotland Avenue
Albany, NY 12208
United States

CISDL ( email )

Montreal, Quebec

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