The Legalization and Bureaucratization of the UN Human Rights System: Progress or Peril?

34 Pages Posted: 14 Aug 2011 Last revised: 26 Aug 2011

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Date Written: 2011


In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council created a new, peer-based mechanism for evaluating states’ human rights practices: the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR was designed to complement the existing UN human rights instruments - the treaty bodies, the special rapporteurs and the Human Rights Council - and provide an open environment in which all states’ human rights practices are evaluated fairly and equitably. The UPR will complete its first round of evaluations of 192 states in 2011, making this year an important time to examine the UPR’s work. While much has been written on the UPR itself, scholars and practitioners of international relations and human rights know very little about how the UPR works in concert with the other UN human rights mechanisms. This is particularly important as a closer examination of the existing UN human rights infrastructure suggests that the UPR, might in fact, add very little to the UN human rights system. The UPR replicates the scope of rights, member states and the implementation mechanisms available in the existing instruments. Thus, this paper asks: first, why have member states facilitated and encouraged the development of yet another UN human rights instrument when they - and the UN administrators that oversee member states’ human rights records - are at their breaking point? And second, what are the practical and theoretical implications of another layer of human rights bureaucracy on the reform of other UN human rights institutions and the protection of human rights? This paper employs two methods to answer these questions: 1) interviews with stakeholders (UN officials, states’ diplomatic representatives in Geneva, and non-governmental organizations) and 2) process-tracing. Using principal-agent and bureaucratic politics theories, this paper argues that the additional layer of human rights infrastructure was driven by three main factors: 1) regional blocks and competing human rights agendas among the main principals; 2) a shared incentive among states, civil servants and civil society to reform the UN Human Rights system; and 3) a culture of reform at the UN more broadly. Once the UN and its member states reformed the Human Rights Commission, however, the motivation for reform faded and the consensus among stakeholders that more reform was needed broke down. By analyzing these changes in the UN human rights infrastructure, this paper aims to contribute not only to our understanding of the UN human rights system but also to the causes and consequences of the bureaucratization and legalization of human rights.

Suggested Citation

Hillebrecht, Courtney, The Legalization and Bureaucratization of the UN Human Rights System: Progress or Peril? (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Courtney Hillebrecht (Contact Author)

University of Nebraska at Lincoln ( email )

Lincoln, NE 68588
United States

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