Over the last half-century, the number of treaties that address issues of human rights has grown from a handful to hundreds. The majority of nations now belongs to a panoply of international agreements - some regional, some universal - that address human rights issues ranging from labor standards to the treatment of prisoners to gender equality. The last decade in particular has witnessed a concerted push from the United Nations to bring nations into the human rights fold through ratification of the six core United Nations human rights treaties. Yet despite the proliferation of treaties and the growing attention to countries' decisions to join them, little attention has been paid to what influences countries' decisions to join these treaties.
In this Article, I focus on only a small part of the broader puzzle of human rights treaty membership. Putting to one side, for the moment, the ways in which countries benefit from joining human rights treaties, I seek insight into how the cost of committing to human rights treaties influences countries' decisions to join. I begin by proposing a new way of conceiving of the cost of consenting to be bound by a treaty. I argue that for treaties with minimal enforcement provisions - which includes most human rights treaties - understanding the cost of commitment requires taking into account not only the cost that would be entailed in bringing the country's practices into compliance with the treaty but also the likelihood that those costs will be realized. I then investigate whether countries appear to be influenced by this cost of membership when they decide whether or not to join particular treaties.
The Article uses empirical evidence drawn from a database that covers 166 nations over a time span of forty years to shed some light on the decisions of nations to join human rights treaties. Do countries with better human rights practices ratify more readily than those with worse human rights practices; Is the propensity of nations to ratify treaties affected by the enforcement mechanisms used in the treaties; Do democratic nations ratify more readily than nondemocratic nations; Is there a difference in the willingness of democratic and nondemocratic nations to commit to a treaty when their practices are out of step with the treaty's requirements; These are a few of the questions that I ask in this Article. The empirical evidence, while far from conclusive, provides some preliminary answers that I hope will serve as a roadmap to future, more detailed investigation.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Hathaway, Oona A., "The Cost of Commitment" (2003). John M. Olin Center for Studies in Law, Economics, and Public Policy Working Papers. Paper 273.