19. What are reservations to human rights treaties, and what do they mean?

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What are reservations to human rights treaties, and what do they mean?

Reservations are made by states make upon ratification of international treaties. In them, states declare under which conditions they consider themselves to be bound by a treaty.

For example Germany withdrew her reservation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2011. The reservation excluded children without German citizenship or legal residency status from protection by the CRC. Most reservations have been made to the Convention on the Elimination of all Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and primarily concerned those rights related to equal rights of women in marriage and divorce. A number of Islamic countries require that the respective human rights treaty provisions be interpreted in light of Islamic law.

Article 19-21 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969 allows states to enter reservations unless these are refused by other states or contrary to the objective of the treaty in question. In its General Comment No. 24, the Human Rights Committee argued in 1994 that the provisions of the Vienna Convention cannot be applied to human rights treaties because:

  • Human rights treaties do not regulate the relations between states, but guarantee the rights of individuals vis-a-vis the state. States should therefore not be allowed to rule on the validity of reservations, but the treaty bodies.
  • All human rights are closely interrelated. Reservations to individual rights would impact the structure of the treaty, and unhinge its objectives.

In 2011, the International Law Commission – a panel of experts appointed by the General Assembly of the United Nations tasked with the development of international law - presented criteria for the assessment of reservations to human rights treaties which are based on the reasoning of the Human Rights Committee.

For further reading

Reading Tip

Deutsche Geschellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) (2013): Promising Practices - On a human rights-based approach in German development cooperation. GIZ, 26 p.

Deutsche Geschellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) (2011): National Human Rights Institutions. GIZ, 10 p.