Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Experimentally Testing the Effectiveness of Human Rights Treaties

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Experimentally Testing the Effectiveness of Human Rights Treaties

Article excerpt


International human rights law is a field concerned with causality. While scholars in other fields argue about how laws can be changed to maximize their effectiveness, scholars of international human rights law still regularly debate whether major international agreements have had any effect on state behavior. Some scholars have examined empirical records and concluded that under the right conditions, the ratification of human rights treaties is associated with improved human rights practices,1 but others have found that the ratification of human rights treaties does not have any influence on the likelihood that states will violate human rights.2

One thing that scholars agree on, however, is that if international human rights treaties were to change state behavior, it would not be because of the usual mechanism that drives compliance with international law: reciprocity.3 This is because one state's failure to respect the rights of its citizens cannot be corrected by another state reciprocally violating the rights of its own citizens. As a result, scholars have examined other mechanisms-including domestic politics, empathetic enforcement by powerful states, pressure from international treaty bodies, and the influence of non-governmental organizations-that may lead ratification of human rights agreements to result in changes to state behavior. After over a decade of empirical research on the effectiveness of human rights treaties, however, there is disagreement on whether each of these alternative mechanisms leads to improved rights practices.

This lack of consensus is in part due to the substantial obstacles that stand in the way of using observational data to study the causal effect of human rights treaties on state practices.4 Perhaps the most difficult of these obstacles to overcome is the fact that states are not randomly assigned commitments to human rights treaties, but instead select agreements based on their expected behavior. There is near universal ratification of the major human rights agreements, and most states have also subjected themselves to a series of overlapping international and domestic legal obligations that all seek to protect human rights. Furthermore, convincing evidence has recently emerged showing that the data used by researchers to measure human rights practices is systematically biased because of changes in standards used for reporting human rights abuses over time.5 It has proven difficult enough to design an observational study that accounts for one of these problems, but designing a study that accounts for all of them simultaneously has so far proven to be close to impossible.

Given these obstacles to using observational data, and the importance of the topic, scholars have begun to use experimental methods to study the effects of commitments to human rights agreements. This is because experimental studies can be designed to test the plausibility of the mechanisms theorized as ways that the ratification of human rights treaties may change state behavior. Although experimental methods are unlikely to definitively establish whether international treaties improve human rights outcomes, the handful of experimental studies conducted to date have found that information on commitments to international agreements does have a modest impact on public opinion.6 By doing so, these studies have provided some qualified support for the theorized mechanisms through which treaties may improve human rights.

There are, however, several reasons why these experiments have extremely limited generalizability. This is not only because of the general problem that subjects often behave differently in experimental settings than they do in the real world, but also because the human rights experiments that have been conducted to date have largely relied on surveys administered to samples of Americans. As a result, although the evidence produced by these studies is informative, it does not offer any conclusive answers on whether human rights treaties change state behavior. …

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