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The ILC’s Clever Compromise on the Validity of Reservations to Treaties

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This post, adapted from our introduction to the symposium on the International Law Commission’s Guide to Practice on Reservations to Treaties in the current issue of the EJIL, looks at one specific topic addressed by the ILC – the rules governing the validity of reservations and the consequences of invalidity. This is not only the most controversial and vexing of all of the issues addressed in the Guide, but also the one where the Guide makes it perhaps most important contribution. Here we not only have a meticulous analysis of a technical topic, but nothing short of an existential story of international law as a unified system as opposed to a set of fragmented sub-regimes. How so? When one reads Articles 19-22 VCLT, particularly in light of the ICJ’s Reservations to the Genocide Convention opinion, one cannot avoid the impression that the process of determining whether a reservation was invalid as being contrary to the object and purpose of a treaty was meant to be more or less inter-subjective: each state should determine for itself whether a given reservation was compatible with the treaty’s object and purpose, and if it was not it should make an objection to that effect.

But such an inter-subjective approach looks remarkably unappealing from the perspective of major multilateral normative treaties, particularly in the human rights context. The rights of individuals, so the reasoning among many human rights lawyers went (as exemplified most notably in Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 24), should not depend on the existence of objections, vel non, by third states, especially when reciprocity of state obligations has little place in the human rights context and when for a variety of reasons states routinely fail to object to reservations even when there manifestly are perfectly good reasons to do so. While objections to reservations would be probative, they could not be dispositive. It would indeed primarily be upon courts or treaty bodies to determine whether a reservation is compatible with the object and purpose of the human rights treaty, while the consequence of invalidity would normally not only be the nullity of the reservation, but also its severability, so that the reserving state would remain bound by the human rights treaty without the benefit of its reservation. Human rights protection would thus always be maximized.

Many governments were less than pleased with what they saw as a power-grab by human rights bodies and a usurpation of their sovereign prerogatives. The ILC, being the bastion of international law orthodoxy, was no more pleased, nor was Alain Pellet as its Special Rapporteur. How could international law survive as a coherent, unified system if more of its branches followed the human rights example and asserted that because they were special they needed special rules, rather than the outdated Vienna framework. If that was true for human rights, why would it not be true for trade, the environment, or whatever other topic people became strongly devoted to. Fragmentation beckoned, and it needed to be resisted.

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