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The Ramifications of Reservations to Human Rights Treaties


  • Lara Mullins University of Cape Town





This paper discusses the legal ramifications of reservations to multilateral human rights treaties. It examines the approach of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), compared to that of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), in light of the general practice in international law relating to reservations and the International Law Commission’s commentary. The paper then discusses the scope for change and growth, given the nature of the two different approaches. Once it has set out the current law it describes the role of the evolving moral, social and political climate in society and the effect that it has on the conversation around human rights and treaty reservations. It answers three main questions around reservations: first, whether reservations are allowed; second, the conditions under which they are allowed; and third, if reservations are not allowed, whether the invalid reservation cancels a party’s membership of the treaty. Having answered these three questions, the paper draws to the conclusion that, ultimately, for international law to continue to be effective, state sovereignty must be given the utmost respect and importance in relation to reservations. With the current polarisation of the political climate, as is evidenced by the traditionally liberal states’ leaning towards conservative values, as in Britain and the United States, a push by the ECtHR to sever reservations from treaties and still bind the state will only alienate key players from the international stage. At face value, one may be inclined to think that the stringent protection of human rights values and limiting the reservations to such values is beneficial but, in reality, this would make participation in the international framework unappealing to states as their sovereignty would be infringed. Therefore, the ICJ’s approach is advantageous as it understands the role of reservations in achieving participation and it also understands the state practice element. Thus, in line with the ILC commentary and the ICJ’s judgements, the ECtHR’s recent rulings will not become the international law norm and state sovereignty with respect to reservations will continue to prevail.