Real Impact or False Commitment: Promoting Gender Rights through Human Rights Treaties (HRTs)

HRTs are important tools for promoting human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. Yet, their efficacy has been subject to various obstacles, most notably non-compliance by states. Furthermore, some HRTs have been criticized for their approaches. Given the increasing number of states ratifying HRTs and the significance of human rights promotion, it is important to identify the gaps in HRTs and address them.

Ratifying and complying with international Human Rights Treaties (HRTs) is one path to securing governments’ respect of the equal rights of their nationals, and women’s rights have not been an exception. Most notably, in 1979 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW has achieved almost universal ratification ever since with only six countries as non-parties to it.  Gender issues have also been addressed through other treaties, such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which codifies the most comprehensive list of sexual and gender-based crimes in international law to date.

The existence of HRTs, however, does not in itself guarantee improved quality of human rights. HRTs typically lack strong enforcement mechanisms. This, in many cases, results in ratification without compliance. States with poor human rights records have incentives to join HRTs for the purposes of improving their domestic and international standing. The fact that there are often no implications for subsequent non-compliance makes HRTs attractive to such governments without providing the latter with incentives to alter their practices (Hafner-Burton et al., 2008).

Research has shown mixed results with regard to the impact of CEDAW on women’s rights. Unlike previous studies on the issue, by controlling for a wider range of factors influencing treaty accession Yonatan Lupu found that CEDAW in fact had a positive impact on women’s political, social and economic rights (Lupu, 2013).

The varied performance of HRTs has led to debates on which is the best mechanism to ensure both ratification and compliance. Rationalist approaches rely on coercion, which does not require addressing the beliefs of the target in order to change its behavior (Hurd, 1999). Coercive measures could include sanctions and/or tying human rights to material benefits, such as preferential trade agreements (PTAs) for example. The international community also employs non-material sanctions, such as ‘shaming’ human rights abusing states. Conversely, well-performing actors are ‘awarded’ international approval.  Yet, coercion – material and social – could in some cases result in resistance by the target. This is why some academics and practitioners have proposed ‘socialization’ as a mechanism of securing HRTs compliance. Unlike coercion, socialization addresses the core beliefs of the target and gradually transforms them. The main issue with socialization is that it takes significantly longer and the final result is not guaranteed.

All of the aforementioned mechanisms focus on the enforcement capabilities of HRTs. However, the content of the latter itself has also been subject to debates. Zwingel points out that focusing on the international level leaves out local dynamics. Women’s rights are not defined in the same manner everywhere. Another problematic assumption is to think of international actors as norm-abiding and of states as self-interested. In reality, norms emerge and are interpreted at every level, not just the international. Most actors deviate to a certain degree from them or address only a limited set of issues. For example, the World Bank, while addressing gender inequality, does that from a pragmatic perspective – it has a positive impact on the global economy. Yet, this approach does little to tackle the root causes of structural inequalities and women’s rights abuses.

Overall, HRTs are subject to numerous issues. Yet, they remain an important way of promoting respect for human rights. Consequently, it is important that the international community in the future recognizes that HRTs ratification is not enough to ensure compliance and, more importantly, that the top down approach is not the only way to develop human rights norms.


Hafner-Burton, E. M., Tsutsui, K. and J. W. Meyer (2008) ‘International human rights law and the politics of legitimation repressive states and human rights treaties,’ International Sociology 23:1, pp. 115-141

Hurd, I. (1999) ‘Legitimacy and Authority in International Politics,’ International Organization, 53:2, pp. 379-408

Hathaway, O. A. (2002) ‘Do Human Rights Treaties Make a Difference?’,

The Yale Law Journal, 111:8, pp. 1935-2042

Lupu, Y. (2013) ‘The Informative Power of Treaty Commitment: Using the Spatial Model to Address Selection Effects,’ American Journal of Political Science, 57:4, pp. 912-925

Vreeland, J. (2008) ‘Political Institutions and Human Rights: Why Dictatorships Enter the United Nations Convention Against Torture,’ International Organization 62:1, pp. 65-101

Liana Minkova is a Special Advisor on gender in conflict and peacemaking at the Centre for Gender Rights at LCILP Global. She has an MPhil in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include gender-based violence as a tool of war, human rights, international regimes and gender-based crimes in international criminal law.

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