This article raises the intriguing claim that international law can be overlegalized. Overlegalization occurs where a treaty's substantive rules or its review procedures are too constraining of sovereignty, causing governments to engage in acts of non-compliance or even to denounce the treaty. The concept of legalization and its potential excesses, although unfamiliar to many legal scholars, has begun to be explored by international relations theorists analyzing the effects of legal rules in changing state behavior. This article bridges the gap between international legal scholarship and international relations theory by exploring a recent case study of overlegalization. It seeks to understand why, in the late 1990s, three Commonwealth Caribbean governments denounced human rights treaties and withdrew from the jurisdiction of international tribunals. I refer to these events as the Caribbean backlash against human rights regimes. My study of this backlash has two objectives. The first is to show how overlegalizing human rights can lead even liberal democracies to reconsider their commitment to international institutions that protect those rights. The second objective is to assess three competing international relations theories that seek to explain the conditions under which states comply with their treaty commitments. To provide a more persuasive analysis of these issues, the article includes empirical data analyzing changes in the filing and review of international human rights petitions against Caribbean governments during the 1990s.
Laurence R. Helfer, Overlegalizing Human Rights: International Relations Theory and the Commonwealth Caribbean Backlash Against Human Rights Regimes, 102 Columbia Law Review 1832-1911 (2002)