A study of human rights anywhere in the world would be incomplete without understanding the various reservation and declaration to core international human right conventions by the nation. This paper attempts to demystify and simplify concept of reservations and declarations, difference between the two and the test of validity of reservations and declarations. Also it will provide an overview of India’s engagement with international human rights treaties and reservations and declaration made. This paper will concluding by showing that how the reservations and declaration to core human rights treaties on basis of “Culture” are the treat to the concept of “Universality” of human rights.


International human rights treaties and conventions are the legal instrument concluded between states, those provide standards of conduct for governments to fulfill, and also spells out the state’s mandate for protecting human rights. Majority of international human right convention are drafted by the UN and its specialized agencies emerged through negotiations, Consultations with governments and Consultations with the public and all is done under the observation of the United Nations. Once the contents of a treaty are agreed upon by the states, it is then presented to all members of the UN for a formal adoption of the treaty.

A treaty is binding in nature among those states that consent to being bound by the treaty. The process of committing to international human rights treaties involves, Signing international human rights treaties, Ratifying/accessing international human rights treaties, Reservations and understandings and Making international human rights treaties part of domestic law. [1]

Ratification or accession is a voluntary undertaking by the State to be bound by the terms of the treaty under international law. Though accession has the same effect as ratification, but the process differs. In the case of ratification, the State first signs and then ratifies the treaty. The process for accession has only one step, it is not preceded by an act of signature. If a State chooses to ratify and ‘become party’ to a human rights treaty, that country is obliged to ensure that its domestic legislation complies with the treaty’s provisions and the treaties should be implementing and legislated . Article 253 of the Indian Constitution empowers the union government to legislate with respect to India’s treaty obligations. Reservations and Understandings made by State Parties upon ratification limits states obligations under the terms of the Convention.

The law on reservations and declarations


In order to encourage countries to become parties of the treaty, a ‘reservation’ may be made, by which, the state modifies its obligations under the treaty. Reservations can only be made at the time when a country becomes a party to / ratifies the treaty.

Article 2.1(d) of Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties defines “reservation” in following words:

“A unilateral statement, however phrased or named, made by a State, when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving or acceding to a treaty, whereby it purports to exclude or to modify the legal effect of certain provisions of a treaty in their application to that State”.

The definition has two key elements, first is “Unilateral statement, however phrased or named” and second is “Exclude or to modify the legal effect of certain provisions of a treaty”. [2] The first phrase indicates that the substance of the statement matters and determines its nature as a reservation, whereas the second phase states that the reservation is said to be made if the legal effect of the provision is modified. But unilateral statements made by states of primarily political significance or for domestic purpose rather than international significance, do not modify a state’s legal obligation under a treaty. [3]

Reservations are intended to modify the legal effect of a treaty or convention. But a reservation that contradicts with the object and purpose of the treaty will not be permitted. This has been clarified by the Human Rights Committee [4] and also in the provisions of some international treaties on human rights. [5]


Declaration is the meaning or interpretation given to a particular provision by the state. [6] It outlines what and how the country understands its legal responsibility under the treaty. [7] A declaration does not modify the country’s legal obligations under the treaty, but merely clarifies the sense a state gives to certain provisions of a treaty. [8]

Sometimes statement though termed as a declaration, might have the result of modifying the legal effect of a treaty. In such cases, it can be said that such declarations have the effect of a reservation, and therefore they are governed by the law on reservations contained in the Vienna Convention and in the general principles of international law. [9] When a country makes both reservations and declarations. In such cases, it is to be presumed that a declaration was meant to be an interpretative tool and not a reservation. [10]

The Human Rights Committee has indicated the difficulty in distinguishing between reservations and declarations and laid down the following test:

“It is not always easy to distinguish a reservation from a declaration as to a State’s understanding of the interpretation of a provision, or from a statement of policy. Regard will be had to the intention of the State, rather than the form of the instrument. If a statement, irrespective of its name or title, purports to exclude or modify the legal effect of a treaty in its application to a State, it constitutes a reservation. Conversely, if a so-called reservation merely offers a State’s understanding of a provision but does not exclude or modify that provision in its application to that State, it is, in reality, not a reservation”.