International Human Rights Tribunals: The Problem of Compliance

As a supranational body, the Inter-American Court has less developed mechanisms for enforcing compliance with its decisions than do most state-level judicial systems. While this body may monitor and oversee compliance, it cannot force states to abide by its rulings. The extent to which countries do adhere to unfavourable decisions of the Court is a key determinant (or inhibitor) of the impact that the institution may have on human rights outcomes in the Americas.

Earlier this year, Courtney Hillebrecht, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and member of IAHRN’s executive committee, published an important new book which analyses domestic compliance with international human rights tribunal rulings. In particular, the book seeks to answer three questions. Why do states comply with adverse judgements? How does the compliance process develop in-country? And what effect does compliance have on the protection of human rights in the region?

Research into both the Inter-American and European human rights systems leads Prof. Hillebrecht to conclude that compliance is an inherently domestic affair, which is as dependent on domestic political incentives as on the existence of robust institutions.

On the incentives side, there are, the author argues, broadly three motives driving compliance with unfavourable judgments. Governments may adhere to Court decisions out of a desire to signal their commitment to human rights (as in the case of Colombia); out of a desire to bolster domestic policy reform efforts and rally support for a particular cause (as in the case of Argentina); or they may ‘begrudgingly comply’ out of a long held commitment to human rights, and a desire to encourage other states to do likewise.

Robust institutions are also important, as the executive cannot unilaterally implement all remedies for human rights abuses ordered by international tribunals, even when it has the desire to do so. Indeed, Prof. Hillebrecht argues that “[t]he most successful cases of compliance require compliance coalitions comprised of executives, legislators and judiciaries. Legislators are instrumental in formulating new policies and practices, while judiciaries can strike down old laws and hold perpetrators accountable.  Civil society organizations and media outlets can further pressure governments to comply with the tribunals’ rulings and to make states’ compliance obligations public information”.

The implications of all this are that, despite the purportedly binding nature of international human rights law, the processes driving and shaping state-level compliance with tribunal rulings are, in reality, fundamentally and inherently political. The research suggests that compliance could be improved by creating new political incentives for states to adhere to tribunal judgements, for example by tying donor aid to compliance with Court decisions.

Difficulties in achieving full implementation of remedial measures ordered by the Court mean international efforts to facilitate citizens’ access to the petition filing process, while important, will not necessarily serve to improve the impact of the system. That said, any moves to ensure that domestic stakeholders are closely involved in IAHRS processes are likely to assist the development of the sort of compliance coalitions necessary to ensure adherence to Inter-American Court rulings.

‘Domestic Politics and International Human Rights Tribunals – The Problem of Compliance’ was published by Cambridge University Press, and is available for purchase here.

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