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Common Law Review
Dom arrow lnky arrow Issue 1 - The British Constitution arrow 02: Harald Christian Scheu - Contribution of Human Rights Bodies to Development of Constitutionalism
02: Harald Christian Scheu - Contribution of Human Rights Bodies to Development of Constitutionalism PDF Tisk E-mail

The Contribution of Regional and International Human Rights Bodies to the Development of Constitutionalism


Harald Christian Scheu



A Concept of Constitutionalism


Before analysing the contribution made by international human rights bodies to the development of constitutionalism it is necessary first to define what is meant by the concept of constitutionalism. Since there is a disagreement among scholars about the meaning of constitutionalism, we have to choose a concept, which will allow us to ascertain international influence on constitutional models in the sense of it being viewed as a vertical structure. Thus we will not follow the horizontal developmental model of constitutionalism which spread after the adoption of the US Constitution, but will turn instead to contributions deriving from international law.


If the term constitution is taken to refer to a legal document which sets out the basic rules for the political system, then it can be seen that many different kinds of documents can be placed within this category. Since there is no substantial limitation to the variety of political systems, constitutions can be democratic and or authoritarian, they may provide for an economic system based on a liberal market or the Marxist concept of a centrally directed economy with elements of collectively-owned property. The term constitutionalism seems to refer to a more restrictive concept comprising only certain types of constitutional systems.


According to the classical understanding constitutionalism means, first of all, that the state power is bound by law. This is an approach which has led to the development of the traditional European Rechtsstaat. Such a concept is based on the notion of constraint since the principle of constitutionalism serves as a means of restricting and limiting state power. The notion of Rechtsstaat excludes constitutional systems which leave too wide a margin for the operation of state organs. It also excludes constitutions lacking an authoritative character which can be easily manipulated by the government.


The richer tradition leads back to the American experience. In the US Constitution, emphasis is placed on the legal position of man, his human rights and freedoms. In this liberal sense constitutionalism does not merely mean the constraining of the state, i.e., imposing the obligation not to interfere in the autonomous area of freedom conceded to the individual, but also the direct empowerment of those subjects who are the holders of rights and freedoms. Seen in the light of liberal constitutionalism authoritarian constitutions which lack human rights elements and which fail to guarantee the legal position of individuals have to be excluded.


The liberal approach to constitutionalism forms the core of the democratic and law-based state and constitutes, without doubt, the underlying idea of contemporary European democracies. Human rights and fundamental freedoms are enshrined in the constitutional order of democratic states. In constitutional practice this means that the principle of human rights protection can be altered only by exceptional procedures, since such rules occupy the highest rank in the hierarchy of norms. The development in the former Socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe has confirmed the relevance of this sort of constitutionalism which combines the principle of human rights protection and rule of law elements.


However, when looking at the constitutions of the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe we can find - as well as liberal traditions - elements too of a welfare state which emphasize not only classical political and civil rights, but also the concept of a welfare state providing for social and economic rights. This fact indicates that regional and cultural differences fundamentally influence the way in which human rights are defined and embodied in particular constitutions. From a universal point of view such differences may sometimes seem irreconcilable .


Control Mechanisms in the Field of Human Rights Protection


At another level it is necessary to concentrate on international human rights bodies which are engaged in setting standards for human rights protection. We will, firstly, analyse the role of human rights institutions working within the framework of the United Nations, i. e., at a universal level, and later we will assess the specific position of regional institutions and consider the question of whether human rights bodies are able to make different contributions to the development of constitutionalism than international (universal) bodies.


Under the UN system human rights protection is the task of various bodies. Applying a vertical model they may contribute to the development of protection at the domestic level. They use general recommendations which are addressed to all states parties of international human rights treaties, as well as reports dealing with the situation of human rights in particular countries. Some human rights bodies may even examine individual complaints through a quasi judicial procedure. Two forms of control mechanism can be distinguished:

- political control, such as general recommendations to all states parties or recommendations to one particular state party;

- judicial or quasi judicial control such as recommendations in a specific case or judgements given by an international court.


According to Article IX of the UN Charter the promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is the responsibility of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The ECOSOC set up the UN Commission for Human Rights which was involved in the drafting of the most important in the field of universal human rights protection. Declarations and conventions drafted by the Commission on Human Rights have become milestones in the development of international law.


In the context of several human rights treaties specialist committees have been set up. Their areas of competence differ according to the particular treaty. Whereas the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)[1] did not provide for the establishment of a specialist committee, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) the Committee on Human Rights was established. Further treaty-monitoring bodies have been set up under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).[2]


The most frequent UN control mechanism used in the field of human rights protection is the examination of states parties reports. According to the treaties the states parties should submit reports on the implementation of international obligations into their respective domestic orders. In the course of examining and amending the reports the treaty-monitoring bodies can make suggestions and recommendations regarding possible means of more effectively implementing that particular international standard (or of what should be considered to be the standard according to the committee concerned).


General recommendations formulated by a treaty-monitoring body are less often made. Such recommendations may serve as a guideline for the interpretation of the treaty, as we can see in the case of the UN Committee on Human Rights. Although the recommendations have no direct legal effect under international law, their authority may be significant, especially in cases in which the committee fulfils, at the same time, the role of a quasi-judicial body. However, from a theoretical point of view, general comments on treaty provisions belong to the realm of political control.


In the UN system of human rights protection quasi judicial control presents rather the exception than the rule. Since there is no UN Court of Human Rights, it is the specific task of committees to deal with individual cases, but their mandate is not automatically established by the treaty itself. Only in the event state party ratifying the First Optional Protocol to the International, Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or of the state submitting an optional declaration under certain human rights treaties[3] can the committee examine complaints filed by individuals.


As far as regional mechanisms of control are concerned, we can observe a similar dichotomy. Whereas political mechanisms are well elaborated within parliamentary organs of political organisations, judicial institutions for the protection of human rights are rare but at the same time more effective than the quasi judicial procedures existing under the UN system. The judgements of the European Court for Human Rights are legally binding and do not possess a moral quality only.


International Contribution to Domestic Constitutional Order


The formulation of a constitution is, above all, the task of the domestic legislative body which in democratic states needs to find a broad political consensus on the fundamental issues in order to reach the requisite majorities necessary for the adoption of constitutional documents. Since the protection of human rights has entered onto the international agenda and the vertical influence exerted upon state actors by international organisations is undeniable, contributions given by international human rights bodies can be made as part of the drafting process at the domestic level. Looking at the constitutional systems which have been developed since the fall of the Iron Curtain we find that the vocabulary of human rights provisions in the constitution is very similar to the texts of international treaties on the protection of human rights. However the enforcement of human rights protection in the specific administrative context may be subject to different regulations. Also the interpretation of human rights will be deeply influenced by the cultural and social characteristics of the particular country. This leads to the conclusion that the contribution of international and regional human rights bodies will have a greater influence not in the process of drafting constitutional documents on human rights, but rather in the frame of their implementation.


Constitutional provisions on human rights are enforced mainly by administrative bodies and by courts. The transparency and effectiveness of the implementation mechanism is a basic criterion for the quality of the constitutional system. Although the development of institutions within the constitutional system at first surely followed a horizontal model, the influence of international human rights bodies has introduced a vertical dimension. One undisputed principle of international human rights protection is the demand for an effective remedy.[4] In fact, the rights of the individual have become a key element of modern legal systems. The enforcement of these rights is the task of institutions set up at a constitutional level.


It is clear that states which do not provide an adequate set of constitutional institutions enforcing human rights and controlling the realisation of international human rights obligations will sooner or later become the target of international criticism. At the level of political control such states will be criticised in the comments and suggestions of international human rights bodies. The impact of judicial or quasi judicial control will be even more substantial, since the state concerned will lose cases raised against it by individuals. Since such defeats very often lead to the obligation to pay compensation and provide just satisfaction, it can become a very costly affair for states parties to international treaties.


The most obvious influence on domestic constitutional order derives from the European system of human rights. The Austrian example shows that it may be necessary to reform public administrative mechanisms and change the character of administrative bodies. The establishment of independent administrative tribunals in 1988 was a reaction to the fact that the former administrative system did not completely fulfil the conditions laid down in Art. 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The same problem will apply for some Central and Eastern European countries whose system of public administration does not reflect the rule that questions concerning civil rights and obligations or criminal charges have to be heard by an independent and impartial tribunal.




The protection of human rights and freedoms is a fundamental element of liberal constitutionalism. Democratic countries which are states parties to international treaties on human rights are obliged to implement the international standard into their domestic order. International and regional human rights bodies may influence the implementation and the enforcement of human rights by means of political and judicial (quasi-judicial) control. The activities of treaty-monitoring bodies may lead to the establishment of constitutional institutions. In this respect judicial mechanisms like the European Court of Human Rights will have a greater impact on the development of constitutionalism than political instruments.            


This article was originally conceived as an oral presentation for the Advanced Course on the Protection of Human Rights which took place at the Abo Akademi in Finland from 21 August to 1 September 2000.


Harald Christian Scheu

Harald Christian Scheu, Mag. phil., Dr. iur., Ph.D. Educated at the University of Salzburg (Dr. iur., 1995, Mag. phil., 1996) and the Law Faculty of Charles University in Prague (Ph.D., 1997). Since 1997 at the Department of International Law at the Law Faculty of Charles University in Prague. Teaches and conducts research in issues concerning International Law and Human Rights Law.


[1] The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was established in 1985 by a resolution of the ECOSOC.

[2] The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrants and Members of Their Families (opened upon its being signed on 18 December 1990) also provides for the establishment of a specialist committee. However, the Convention has not entered into force, yet.

[3] Art. 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Art. 22 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

[4] See e.g. Art. 13 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: "Everyone ... shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity", (See also Art. 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

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