Can the European Court of Human Rights affect policy change? In my new article, “The Power of Human Rights Tribunals: Compliance with the European Court of Human Rights and Domestic Policy Change,” now available for advanced viewing on the European Journal of International Relations’ website, I suggest that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) can be a powerful tool for improving human rights, particularly when the issue of compliance is taken up by domestic actors, like executives, judges, legislators and activists. That is, the ECtHR, like many—indeed most—international tribunals has very little enforcement capacity. The more able and willing domestic actors are to enforce the Court’s rulings domestically, the greater the impact the ECtHR will have on states’ human rights policies. Further, the more constraints executives face at home, the more likely states are to comply with the European Court’s rulings. Why? Compliance with the European Court of Human Rights is never a routine process, even for states with the strongest human rights practices. Instead, compliance is a politically contested process, and the more institutionalized the process, the more likely states are to comply. When executives have a great deal of control over the compliance process they are able to stall, manipulate, or even avoid compliance altogether.
To test these assumptions, I examine over 1100 discrete recommendations given to states by the European Court of Human Rights and/or the Committee of Ministers, with a particular focus on those recommendations that require states to change their human rights policies and practices. My findings suggest that the key to improving the effectiveness of the ECtHR is through compliance at home. More robust domestic institutions lead to higher rates of compliance, which, in turn, leads to more policy change.