Compliance and Human Rights Tribunals

Book Project


Why do states comply with international human rights tribunals (HRTs)?  My book, Domestic Politics and International Human Rights Tribunals: The Problem of Compliance, which I published with Cambridge University Press in 2014 as part of the Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law series, seeks to answer this question.  This book examines the variety of ways in which states respond to the rulings of human rights tribunals in Europe and the Americas.  This research suggests that domestic actors–executives, judges and the political opposition–use international human rights tribunals’ rulings to advance their domestic policy agendas and signal a commitment to human rights.  The perceived legitimacy of the tribunals and the precision of their rulings makes compliance with the tribunals’ mandates a powerful domestic policy tool.  The book tests this argument through a combination of statistical analyses of a new, hand-coded dataset on compliance with the tribunals’ rulings; case studies from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom; interviews with lawyers and activists at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights; and archival research.

Research Articles

The Domestic Mechanisms of Compliance with International Law:  Case Studies from the Inter-American Human Rights System

Abstract: In their rulings, international human rights tribunals frequently ask states to engage in costly compliance measures ranging from paying reparations to victims to changing domestic human rights laws and practices. The tribunals, however, have little enforcement or oversight capacity. The responsibility for compliance falls to domestic actors: executives, legislators, and judiciaries. Through nuanced case studies of the compliance process in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, this article suggests that compliance with the Inter-American human rights tribunals’ rulings depends on executives’ political will for compliance and their ability to build pro-compliance coalitions with judges and legislators.

Suggested Citation: Hillebrecht, Courtney. 2012. “The Domestic Mechanisms of Compliance with International Law:  Case Studies from the Inter-American Human Rights System.” Human Rights Quarterly 34(4): 959–85.

Implementing International Human Rights Law at Home: Domestic Politics and the European Court of Human Rights

Abstract: The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) boasts one of the strongest oversight systems in international human rights law, but implementing the ECtHR’s rulings is an inherently domestic and political process. This article begins to bridge the gap between the Court in Strasbourg and the domestic process of implementing the Court’s rulings by looking at the domestic institutions and politics that surround the execution of the ECtHR’s judgments. Using case studies from the UK and Russia, this article identifies two factors that are critical for the domestic implementation of the Court’s rulings: strong domestic, democratic institutions dedicated to implementing the ECtHR’s judgments and an overarching sense of responsibility to set a good example at home and abroad for respecting human rights and the rule of law. This article concludes with a discussion of the steps necessary to facilitate better implementation of the ECtHR’s rulings.

Suggested Citation: Hillebrecht, Courtney. 2012a. “‘Implementing International Human Rights Law at Home: Domestic Politics and the European Court of Human Rights.’” Human Rights Review 13(3): 279–301.

The Power of Human Rights Tribunals:  Compliance with the European Court of Human Rights and Domestic Policy Change

Abstract: When international human rights tribunals like the European Court of Human Rights find states responsible for human rights abuses, they ask governments to pay reparation to the victims, engage in symbolic measures, and enact the policy changes necessary to ensure that the violations do not recur. This article considers the conditions under which states comply with these rulings, especially when the tribunals are unable and often unwilling to provide strict enforcement. This article extends current theories about the domestic politics of compliance with international human rights law to the case of the European Court of Human Rights. This article analyzes a new, hand-coded data set on states’ compliance with over 1000 discrete obligations handed down by the European Court of Human Rights that ask states to change their human rights policies. The results of these analyses suggest that robust domestic institutions, particularly executive constraints, are the key to compliance with the European Court of Human Rights. When domestic institutions enforce the Court’s rulings, the results can be significant changes in states’ human rights policies and practices.

An earlier version of this piece won the International Studies Association’s Stephen C. Poe Graduate Student Paper Award in Human Rights.

Invited Chapters

Courtney Hillebrecht, “Compliance with Judicial Decisions.” Chapter slated for The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Judicial Behavior, eds. Lee Epstein, Gunnar Grendstad, Urška Šadl and Keren Weinshall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2023).

Jillienne Haglund and Courtney Hillebrecht, “Domestic Compliance and Implementation Processes.” Chapter slated for The Research Handbook on Implementation of Human Rights in Practice, eds. Rachel Murray and Debra Long (Cheltenham, UK: Edgar Elgar Publishing, forthcoming 2022).

Courtney Hillebrecht, “Compliance:  Actors, Context and Causal Processes” in The Handbook on the Politics of International Law, Wayne Sandholtz and Chrisopher A. Whytock, eds. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2017.

Additional Reading

In addition to these articles, my research on measuring compliance with human rights tribunals has been published in the Journal of Human Rights Practice (“Rethinking Compliance: The Challenges and Prospects of Measuring Compliance with Human Rights Tribunals”) and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy’s Measurement and Human Rights. You can also find related policy memos on The Monkey Cage and e-IR, among other outlets.

My research on compliance with human rights tribunals contributes to broader debates about the role of international law in domestic politics and the politics of human rights.  It also provides policy-relevant research on measuring human rights outcomes and the relationship between international human rights institutions and the domestic protection of human rights.  My research on compliance with HRTs has been supported by Harvard University, the National Science Foundation, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Utrecht University.