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The Strong Power of Weak Commitment: Treaty Ratification and Reservation Removal in the Service of Human Rights Open Access

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Since the end of World War II, the number of international human rights instruments has sky-rocketed, with regimes protecting vulnerable populations, from women and children, to migrant workers, enslaved peoples, and those with disabilities. Despite recent scholarship about state commitment to human rights treaties (HRTs), the reasons for ratification are still somewhat unclear, and there is almost no scholarship about why states increase their levels of commitment to these treaties slowly over time. The literature largely considers treaty ratification to be a binary decision that occurs at one moment in time: states ratify a treaty or they do not. However, states vary wildly in the extent of their commitment to HRTs, and sometimes deepen their commitment to these treaties over time. States ratify HRTs in whole or in part—using specific or general reservations—and sometimes agree to oversight mechanisms. Some states then withdraw their reservations to these treaties while others do not, a phenomenon unexplained by the current literature.This dissertation addresses why states deepen their commitments to human rights regimes. I am broadly interested in why states ratify HRTs, particularly with relatively weak commitments at first, and specifically interested in why governments—in certain cases but not others—later strengthen their obligations to treaty regimes. To study this, I examine why and when states withdraw HRT reservations. I find that states withdraw substantive reservations for different reasons than procedural reservations. Based on country case studies and an original database of all reservations deposited to the Women’s Convention and the Race Convention, I argue that the withdrawal of substantive reservations is possible only when domestic policies themselves have been modified. Reservation withdrawal is most likely when there is a change in the balance of forces between reformists and status quo actors. Such a change in the balance of forces either is sufficient on its own to favor reformists or is in the correct direction, but not sufficient to cause reform on its own—in the latter case, this moderate change in balance in forces combined with domestic instability persuades the executive that reform is prudent. Most of the other factors that one would think would contribute to a government’s decision to withdraw or maintain reservations do not have this impact.Governments withdraw procedural reservations, those having to do with the administration of the treaty, on the other hand, not because of a changing balance of power between on-issue reformists and conservatives; rather, transitional regimes are most likely to withdraw these types of reservations as they move toward democracy.External pressures (both material and social) encourage states to promise reservation removal to international audiences, but absent domestic pressures external forces are not sufficient to effect promise-fulfillment. Promises to international audiences to remove reservations and actual removal of reservations are fundamentally different actions. Research on state practices regarding reservations enables better understanding of the meaning of state ratification of HRTs and ultimately the likelihood of state compliance with these commitments.

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