Research project

Hard Refugee Protection through Soft Enforcement (2019-2022)

Non-refoulement, refugee and migrant rights before United Nations (UN) Human Rights Treaty Bodies

The research examined the normative structure and practical consequences of various United Nations human rights treaty bodies focusing on refugee rights, in particular as ‘soft enforcers’ of the norm of non-refoulement. Under international law, non-refoulement requires states to refrain from returning anyone to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other life-threatening and irreparable harm. This principle applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status.

The research blended empirical and doctrinal analysis. It examined complaints brought to UN treaty bodies against states accused of disregarding their duty to prohibit refoulement and analyses the normative structure of the protections developed by UN treaty bodies against refoulement, given that multiple international judicial institutions alongside the treaty bodies shape and enforce the international norms of non-refoulement. The project thus examined the contribution of UN treaty bodies to international law on non-refoulement. In addition, the project aimed to reflect on the role of the international rule of law and ‘soft enforcement’ in refugee protection, on a domestic level.

The project was a research collaboration between the Academic Director of the Centre for Fundamental Rights and Professor of International Law Başak Çalı and Associate Professor of International Human Rights and Refugee Law Cathryn Costello at Oxford University.

Project goals

  • Provide a comparative and comprehensive analysis of the interpretation of the non-refoulement norm by UN treaty bodies.
  • Identify and analyse the dynamics of the fragmentation and consolidation of the norm across UN treaty bodies.
  • Compare the key interpretive characteristics of UN human rights case law on non-refoulement with the existing research on the interpretation of non-refoulement by supranational courts that emit legally binding judgments. 
  • Analyse the dynamics of legal mobilisation before UN treaty bodies and compliance with, and the impacts of, UN case law on the ground.
  • Situate the findings of the study in a broader context in relation to the distinction between hard and soft law and their authority, the effectiveness of UN human rights treaty bodies and the wider processes of contestations of international human rights law. 

Project lead

  • Başak Çalı, Professor of International Law at the Hertie School and Co-Director of the Centre for Fundamental Rights.

  • Cathryn Costello, Professor of Fundamental Rights at the Hertie School and Co-Director of the Centre for Fundamental Rights (2020-2023). 


  • Stewart Cunningham, Research Associate (til 2020).