This paper is part of a research project, ‘Strengthening the International Human Rights System: Rights, Regulation and Ritualism’, funded by the Australian Research Council’s Laureate Fellowship scheme. The project focuses on a problem endemic to the international human rights system: why are international human rights standards widely accepted in theory but so hard to implement in practice?
Although the international community has created a complex and sophisticated system of human rights standards, these principles are regularly sidelined or ignored by countries that have accepted them. The project draws on regulatory scholarship to analyse how states respond to human rights principles, focusing particularly on the notion of ritualism. In a classic sociological text, Robert Merton identified five modes of individual adaptation to a normative order: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion. These modes appear equally at the level of organisations and among collectivities. All five modes are evident in responses to international human rights regulation, but ritualism is particularly pervasive. It has been pithily defined as ‘acceptance of institutionalised means for securing regulatory goals while losing all focus on achieving the goals or outcomes themselves’. The concept of regulatory ritualism, then, can be understood as formal participation in a system of regulation while overlooking its substantive goals.
One aspect of the research project is to identify and analyse the ways that regulatory ritualism operates in the international human rights system through a series of case studies, of which this paper is one. The case studies document techniques of ritualism employed by countries participating in the international human rights system, with particular reference to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The papers also look at the extent to which human rights treaties are implemented within a country’s legal framework, and the efficacy of independent oversight mechanisms such as judiciaries and National Human Rights Institutions. Collectively, they identify instances and document techniques of ritualism, as well as considering how rights are realised and ritualism avoided in particular contexts.
Jacinta Mulders, Rights, Regulation and Ritualism Country Studies: South Africa, Centre for International Governance & Justice, ANU, August 2015.