Beyond the courtroom: accountability for grave and systemic human rights abuses

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Achieving accountability for grave and systemic human rights abuses is not simple or straightforward. Questions arise on whether individualised, court-based forums can adequately tackle the norms, institutions and systems that underpin endemic injustices. There are many exciting accountability innovations happening around the world. An overlooked innovation is the inquiry procedure under the UN treaty bodies. This procedure, in theory, holds significant potential, as it is exclusively directed towards investigating and remedying ‘grave and systemic’ human rights issues. Although, several treaty bodies can conduct inquiries, the CEDAW Committee is the only treaty body to have built up a body of jurisprudence. At this early stage in the history of the inquiry procedure, this article asks: what contribution have the inquiries from the OP-CEDAW made to reconceptualising accountability for systemic violations of human rights? To answer this question, the article begins by mapping the prominent blockages to accountability in traditional, individualised court-based accountability forums. It then proceeds to evaluate whether the inquiries under the OP-CEDAW can overcome these blockages. There are multiple strengths to pursuing accountability for grave and systemic abuses through the inquiry procedure. The institutional design, particularly the active role provided for civil society organisations (CSOs) and the CEDAW Committee, means that human rights abuses do not go unchallenged because of costs or technical legal rules. The intense focus on one specific grave and systemic issue sheds light on the embedded and interwoven structures and attitudes that underpin endemic human rights violations. In turn, this gives the CEDAW Committee a strong basis on which to propose targeted recommendations to prevent further violations. The article concludes by identifying areas for reflection and future reform as the UN treaty bodies continue to conduct inquiry procedures.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5
Pages (from-to)55-86
Number of pages32
JournalUniversity of Oxford Human Rights Hub Journal
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2019


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