Do Human Rights Treaties Make a Difference?

108 Pages Posted: 18 May 2002 Last revised: 20 Feb 2015


Do countries comply with the requirements of human rights treaties that they join? Are these treaties effective in changing states' behavior for the better? This Article addresses these questions through a large-scale quantitative analysis of the relationship between human rights treaties and countries' human rights practices. The analysis relies on a database encompassing 166 nations over a nearly forty-year period in five areas of human rights law. The analysis finds that although the practices of countries that have ratified human rights treaties are generally better than those of countries that have not, noncompliance with treaty obligations appears common. More paradoxically, controlling for other factors that affect practices, it appears that treaty ratification is not infrequently associated with worse practices than otherwise expected. These findings can be explained in part, the Article contends, by the dual nature of treaties as both instrumental and expressive instruments. Treaties not only create binding law, but also declare or express the position of countries that ratify them. Because human rights treaties tend to be weakly monitored and enforced, countries that ratify may enjoy the benefits of this expression-including, perhaps, reduced pressure for improvements in practices-without bearing significant costs. This does not mean that human rights treaties do not have any positive influence, but simply that these positive effects may sometimes be offset or even outweighed by treaties' less beneficial effects. The Article concludes by considering better ways to help ensure that human rights treaties improve the lives of those they are meant to help.

Keywords: International law, treaties, human rights, compliance, regional treaties, human rights treaties, international legal compliance, torture, women's political equality, genocide, civil liberty, free trials, cross national panel data, expressive theory, signaling theory

JEL Classification: K0, K33, C23

Suggested Citation

Hathaway, Oona A., Do Human Rights Treaties Make a Difference?. Yale Law Journal, Vol. 111, 2002, Boston Univ. School of Law Working Paper No. 02-03, Available at SSRN:

Oona A. Hathaway (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
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203-432-1107 (Fax)

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