Academic journal article Law & Society Review

National Politics and Resort to the European Commission on Human Rights

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

National Politics and Resort to the European Commission on Human Rights

Article excerpt

An interesting irony of human rights is that the nation-states that are most susceptible to claims of human rights abuses may not be the most repressive nation-states. Pursuing this modern paradox, the purpose of this research is to determine the factors affecting the number of human rights claims brought by citizens in the international arena. We base our theory on an extension of theories of state strength and test it using a pooled time-series analysis of petitions filed with the European Commission on Human Rights between 1976 and 1993. We find that polity strength, measured through government openness to political minorities and participation in nongovernmental organizations, is positively linked to claims-making. In contrast, a state's tendency to act internationally, represented through participation in international governmental organizations, had a negative effect on the number of claims to the European Commission on Human Rights. Although levels of human rights abuse were positively associated with claims, other factors relating to political organization were equally or more important.

Concern over human rights has exploded in the post-World War II era. Of all the institutions developed in the international arena since World War II, the European Convention System, established in 1950, was the first (Shelley 1989). This makes it particularly prominent in the international community and a model of human rights law in other international arenas (Robertson 1982; Sohn & Buergenthal 1973). Over 25,000 petitions alleging human rights violations have been filed within the European Convention System since 1950 (Harris et al. 1995; see also Morrison 1979). These claims are not derived evenly from the 30 member-nations; instead, some nations generate many more claims than do others.

What explains the cross-national variation in human rights abuse claims? Although levels of abuse may seem an obvious answer, scholars critique this interpretation because claiming an abuse requires some modicum of political power that cannot be assumed (e.g., Waters 1996). In other words, the same activities that lead to claims in one country may continue uncontested in another. Another possibility is that those states exerting the most powerful domestic controls will experience a "boomerang" effect (Keck & Sikkink 1998). A boomerang effect occurs when individuals who are unable to find relief for their grievances domestically turn to international actors to put pressure on domestic governments. Under either of these perspectives, weak states that promote individual citizen initiative would be the least likely to find themselves on the defense internationally.

However, research at the domestic level suggests that weak states and strong civil societies-positive indicators of human rights-generate more claims-making behavior (Boyle 2000). If this claims-making behavior "overflows" national boundaries and is repeated at the international level, then weak states with empowered polities may in fact be the most vulnerable to international claims. Because we suspect that this is true, we propose that state strength will explain much of the cross-national variation in the number of individuals resorting to the international legal arena.

Recent scholarship has begun to unpack the complex relationship among the international system, nation-states, and individuals (see, e.g., Boyle et al. 2000; Dezalay & Garth 1996; Risse-- Kappen 1995; Sikkink 1993). Our work here extends this line of inquiry by examining how national "political frames" (i.e., political structure and culture) filter citizens' actions at the international level. Although we focus on numbers of claims, this study is more than just an exercise in counting. The relative number of claimants emerging from each nation-state may have important implications for which nation-state's citizens get the most benefits out of the international legal system. Further, since national and international effects are most likely reciprocal, if international claimants consistently emerge from a few key countries, the perspectives of those countries may well be more influential than others in shaping international law relating to human rights. …

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