Vol. 33 No. 05 (June 2023) pp. 73-76

COMMITTED TO RIGHTS: UN HUMAN RIGHTS TREATIES AND LEGAL PATHS FOR COMMITMENT AND COMPLIANCE by Audrey L. Comstock. Cambridge University Press, 2021. 200 pp. Hardcover: $110. ISB: 9781108908979.

Reviewed by Rachel J. Schoner. Department of Political Science, Tulane University. Email:

In COMMITTED TO RIGHTS: UN HUMAN RIGHTS TREATIES AND LEGAL PATHS FOR COMMITMENT AND COMPLIANCE, Audrey Comstock expands the traditional scholarly view of commitment to international agreements and finds that the pathway to participation and commitment matters for state practices. With a clear motivation and compelling takeaway, this book shows that a broader understanding of commitment helps us better understand compliance.

Comstock challenges the dominant ratification-centered approach of international human rights scholars. The expansive work on the international human rights regime has primarily focused on binding treaty commitments, lumping some types of commitment—ratification, accession, and succession—together and ignoring others—signature. Comstock argues that disaggregating commitment into these four types has important implications for compliance with human rights treaties. The different forms of commitment involve varying levels of support from domestic actors for the norms and standards in the treaty, which affects human rights practices. This is an important contribution to the international relations literature and is sure to influence studies of international law broadly.

Comstock structures the book in an intuitive manner. First, she presents the book’s argument before detailing ratification, the most studied form of commitment. The book focuses on the nine core United Nations human rights treaties that are discussed throughout the chapters. Comstock then provides an overview of the three additional types of commitment—signature, accession, and succession—which lays the foundation for the remainder of the analysis. One chapter is devoted to each commitment type, unpacking the process and its effect on compliance with human rights treaties. The author concludes with a positive takeaway: human rights treaties do matter and, more specifically, “creating and participating in treaty drafting was a pathway towards compliance” (p. 193).

Despite this clear and compelling takeaway, the ambitious endeavor leaves the reader with several questions throughout the chapters, ripe for future research. Overall, an all-too-common critique for scholars of compliance, there are concerns about selection and the work warrants more descriptive discussion. In this new exploration of commitment type and its effect on compliance, more emphasis on why states decide on the different types of commitment would be helpful. Comstock describes the commitment types, overall patterns, anecdotal evidence, and case studies. However, some gaps are left to be filled, including: the timing of signature and ratification, decisions to participate in treaty negotiations, and why do some but not all states accede?

The large literature on why states participate in the international human rights regime and what effect multilateral treaties may have on respect for human rights centers on ratification. Why do states ratify these treaties, agreeing to respect a host of rights many of them routinely violate? What effect does this ratification have on human rights practices? Comstock pushes back against this nucleus by stating, “I do not treat ratification as the pinnacle of commitment and compliance” (p. 42). States can commit in a variety of ways, and she argues that this commitment pathway matters for long-term compliance.

The first departure from the ratification-centered approach is treaty signature. This is an interesting form of commitment because it is the only non-binding action and is often an initial commitment. Despite many scholars’ dismissal of non-binding commitment as unimportant, the United Nations celebrates this action. First, domestic mobilization isn’t limited to ratification, and legal mobilization can also occur around signing. Secondly, an executive leader can sign international treaties as a sign of support serving as an “advocate executive.” In some states, the executive can unilaterally ratify treaties. Others, however, including the United States, have domestic legal barriers to ratification, which Comstock labels as “legislative approval states.” It is in these legislative approval states, where ratification is more difficult, in which the executive can signal support of a treaty, regardless of other domestic political actors. Here, with buy-in from the executive leader, Comstock expects to see an improvement in human rights after signature, not ratification.

Comstock does convince the audience of the overlooked importance of signature, but leaves questions in the reader’s mind. More analysis, theoretically and empirically, of the choice between and timing of signature and ratification is warranted. Why do some states sign and ratify close together, and why do others wait longer? Moreover, the case studies of Nigeria and the U.S. prompt more questions.

The U.S., a legislative approval state, signed the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, improved rights, and ratified the treaty much later. This case study highlights the intuitive theory: the executive, signing the treaty, is invested in its norms and ideas, and it need not wait for the legislature to act to make improvements. Why does the executive wait to sign the treaty to act on these norms and improve human rights? If these are norm entrepreneurs, these leaders, who are largely in control of government repression, could act and change behavior earlier.

The Nigeria case study also raises questions about the theoretical mechanisms. President Olusegun Obasanjo signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in March 2007 but refused to sign a bill that would implement the terms of the treaty into law. While this case study is presented as exploring the legal mobilization mechanism, it seems to discredit the notion of the advocate executive. Why did Obasanjo sign the treaty anyway, unwilling to enact any meaningful reform? This case necessitates further theoretical discussion of the two mechanisms and when and where they could be operating, together or independently.

Next, Comstock discusses accession: “the binding form of treaty commitment available to states that did not negotiate the treaty and/or missed the original window of opportunity to sign the treaty” (p. 55). She finds that participation in negotiations has lasting effects. States that participate in treaty negotiations and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have improved human rights practices after commitment. On the other hand, states that opted out of negotiations and accede rather than ratify had worse practices after commitment. Importantly, Comstock excludes newly independent states that were unable to participate in negotiations.

Comstock finds benefits of participating in treaty negotiations, which is a main policy prescription at the end of the book. The selection into negotiations, however, isn’t sufficiently addressed: why do some states decide to participate in negotiations while others opt out? The lasting divide between participants and non-participants is not fully convincing. The author points out that the U.S. was a participant in the International Criminal Court negotiations and states that the U.S. is still supportive of the ICC because of this participation despite withdrawing its signature. The United States, however, has been outspoken against the Court’s activities, stating long-standing objections against the Court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction against American servicemembers, pressuring countries to sign bilateral immunity agreements, and sanctioning two head officials of the ICC. This leads to a larger question: What about states that negotiate but do not commit? Do all states that negotiate human rights treaties commit in some way?

The final form of commitment is succession: “the binding form of legal commitment to treaty law by new states that are replacing prior states’ ratification” (p. 55). This is the most unique form of commitment where newly independent states take on the obligations of the predecessor state. There are two periods where this was relatively common: (1) decolonization and (2) the end of the Cold War/ dissolution of the Soviet Union. Comstock makes a convincing point about bringing succession into the discussion: “The succession of human rights treaties is of particular interest and importance due to the circumstances through which many cases of state succession occur: political instability, violence, and often, widespread violation of human rights” (p. 157). Treating succession as a signal for respecting established human rights norms, she expects succession to lead to improved human rights practices.

The circumstances around succession warrant further discussion. Why do some but not all states accede? The Soviet Union case is interesting, with variation among successor states. Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia did not want succession to distinguish them from their predecessor state. When states accede, do they typically do so for all prior commitments, or selectively among treaties?

Due to the rarity of succession—54 times across the nine core human rights treaties— more descriptive analysis is merited. As Comstock acknowledges, the small number of cases drives the statistical model in ways we cannot be fully confident in. For succession, the relevant comparison, or counterfactual, is important to consider. Because it’s a new country, we cannot fully compare it to the prior period, but this is an important consideration. Graphing the human rights values for the predecessor state and the newly formed states over time would be a helpful exercise. This “within-case” comparison would complement the current focus on comparing succession to ratification. Additionally, the two waves of succession prompt the question of whether these waves are unique? Theorizing more about these two waves and their applications to current territories and independence movements today would be a fruitful exercise.

Comstock’s COMMITTED TO RIGHTS provides the international relations and international law literatures with a clear and important takeaway: the different legal pathways states take to commit to human rights treaties mattr. The questions raised about the selection into commitment types are fruitful topics for future research to complement this book’s bold emphasis on expanding scholarship’s view of treaty commitment and its impact on compliance. This work will have a broad impact on the scholarship of international law, human rights, and compliance.

© Copyright 2023 by author, Rachel J. Schoner.