An estimated 5 million children in India work. Would that number be any lower if India ratified a child labor treaty? In this 2012 photo, Sagira Ansari, 11, holds up bundles of bidi tobacco cigarettes she rolled in Dhulian, in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. Sagira and her family earn 75 rupees ($1.50) for every 1,000 bidis rolled, bringing in about 7,500 rupees ($150) a month. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

Every country in the world has ratified at least one of the major U.N. human rights agreements (HRAs). There’s a treaty for practically any human right you can think of, and if not, it’s probably under discussion.

In June, for instance, Canada ratified the Minimum Age Convention, a core global children’s rights treaty that prohibits child labor. Unions, NGOs and international organizations applauded the Canadian government for “taking a stand” against child exploitation. At the same time, the labor minister reassured observers there would be no impact on business because, well, there’s virtually no child labor in Canada.

Meanwhile, India — a country known for its persistent child labor problem — refuses to ratify the treaty, despite pressure from the NGO community. More broadly, although the majority of countries have ratified this treaty to date, child labor practices diverge wildly throughout the world.

Given the time and resources spent crafting HRAs and pressuring countries to ratify them, it’s important to know whether the Minimum Age Convention and other HRAs really matter. I tackle this question in a recent study published in the British Journal of Political Science. Looking at 139 countries over 30 years, I analyze why countries ratify, and whether ratification has any impact on child labor.

U.N. treaties cover a wide range of basic human rights.

The Minimum Age Convention is part of a massive body of international human rights law the United Nations has assembled over the past 70 years. Through these treaties, governments pledge — on paper, anyhow — to allow public protests, give all children a primary school education, install wheelchair ramps in public places and make it illegal to torture detainees, among other goals.

Many in the policy and NGO communities believe that more HRAs, and more ratifications, help make the world safer for human rights. A key U.N. human rights body, for example, is now drafting an HRA to regulate transnational corporations’ activities. The same people who criticize governments’ failure to implement even basic existing regulations (including some already-ratified HRAs) applaud the move, arguing that a new treaty might mark an “end to corporate abuses” of human rights in the workplace.

But others see treaty proliferation as a waste of time or even worse. Even if HRAs sometimes matter, governments commonly violate them. These agreements are notoriously difficult to enforce. Countries that breach World Trade Organization rules, for instance, ultimately may face retaliatory tariffs that will hurt their exports. Governments that fail to keep their promises to military allies might find their reputations sullied next time they look for friends.

But neither of these scenarios typically applies in the HRA context. So how, if at all, do these agreements get enforced?

HRAs don’t always improve human rights.

Researchers have been conducting statistical analyses to explore the HRA puzzle for over a decade. The record is mixed, but there’s general agreement on two things. First, HRAs don’t uniformly improve human rights. Second, domestic politics and institutions matter.

Democracy is by far the most commonly cited of these domestic institutions. In fact, the link between democracy and human rights is as old as the human rights regime itself. The U.N. Web page on democracy and human rights declares “The values of freedom [and] respect for human rights … are essential elements of democracy. In turn, democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights.”

There’s a difference between compliance and enforcement. Compliance is about adherence to rules — whether you broke the speed limit. Enforcement is about punishment or some cost for not following rules — the traffic fine or the time with a suspended license.

Because respect for human rights is part and parcel of democratic governance, and because HRAs enshrine rights that democracies hold dear, it’s easy for democratic nations to comply. When HRAs are used to enforce, democracy can be a tool for holding leaders to account. This lever can make HRAs matter under certain conditions.

For a number of HRAs, the conditions needed for compliance and enforcement are very similar. Consider the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires respect for bodily integrity, due process, free expression and assembly, and the right to vote in genuine periodic elections. With the possible exception of bodily integrity, these entitlements essentially define what it is to be a democracy. And, as argued here in the Monkey Cage, these are precisely the tools that can give HRAs bite.

This makes it hard to gauge the impact of HRAs. Are democracies complying with the ICCPR because it’s easy, or because their leaders fear that citizens might use the judiciary or the court of public opinion to punish them if they don’t keep their pledge to follow that agreement?

We need to look beyond the human rights that democracies hold dear.

To address this quandary, we need to look at HRAs that enshrine rights that aren’t definitional to democracy. Although researchers haven’t explored these areas much, there are many agreements on offer. When human rights practices diverge from treaty requirements, but the domestic institutions that can give these agreements bite are robust, how do governments behave?


Most human rights agreements cover entitlements that aren’t definitional to democracy. (Jana von Stein)

Why do some countries ratify the Minimum Age Convention, and does ratification improve child labor? I explore these questions, using statistical techniques to control for the fact that countries do not enter randomly into treaties. I also use measures that parse out the different mechanisms behind the “democracy matters” argument. I find two main things happening:

1) As countries become more democratic, those with high levels of child labor become less and less likely to ratify. But those democracies that do ratify experience significant reductions in child labor.

2) Non-democracies are perfectly willing to join this agreement, regardless of their child labor situation. And ratification does not meaningfully lessen child labor in these countries.

My findings demonstrate that if you can get democracies to join this agreement, child labor in those countries does go down. This is important. It shows that HRAs can matter under the right domestic circumstances. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that it’s hard — though not impossible — to get countries where this HRA could have its most meaningful impacts to join. Here’s how this conundrum plays out in India: Because domestic institutions can be used to “activate” treaty commitments, governments are fearful of potential enforcement and often stay outside the regime altogether.

The news about non-democracies is also bad, though consistent with what many others have found. Absent a transition to democracy, HRA ratification is an empty promise in these countries.

This approach can yield insight in many other human rights arenas: women’s rights (particularly those not about political representation), rights of persons with disabilities and so on. In fact, the bulk of HRAs cover entitlements that don’t define democracy.

The most obvious upshot of this study is that HRAs aren’t, in isolation, the ticket to widespread human rights protection around the globe. Many people already know this, but the myth endures in places.

My research shows that efforts to harness HRAs are most likely to succeed in the democratic world — for rights not definitional to democracy in any case. (This contrasts with one prominent study, which argues that HRAs matter most in countries whose political institutions have been unstable.)

Efforts to get democracies to ratify would, if successful, yield better human rights outcomes. But that has to be weighed up against the reality that the Indias of the world are unlikely to succumb to ratification pressures.

There’s no particular harm in pushing non-democracies to ratify HRAs. But once that has happened, the best path to compliance involves helping these countries to grow domestic democratic institutions. That can be a long and bumpy road.

Jana von Stein is a senior lecturer of political science and international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.