The Influence of International Human Rights Agreements on Public Opinion: An Experimental Study

By Chilton, Adam S. | Chicago Journal of International Law, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Influence of International Human Rights Agreements on Public Opinion: An Experimental Study


Chilton, Adam S., Chicago Journal of International Law


Table of Contents

I. Introduction .................... 112

II. Theories of Compliance with Human Rights Agreements .................... 114

A. Domestic Theories of Compliance .................... 115

B. Shortcomings of Existing Evidence .................... 117

C. Designing an Experimental Test .................... 119

III. Experimental Design .................... 120

A. Motivations .................... 121

B. Subject Recruitment .................... 121

C. The Experiment .................... 123

D. Survey Balance and Receipt of Treatment .................... 125

IV. Experimental Results .................... 126

A. Primary Results .................... 126

B. Results by Partisan Identification .................... 128

C. Mediation Analysis .................... 129

V. Discussion and Conclusion .................... 132

Appendix A: Summary of Subjects' Demographic Characteristics .................... 134

Appendix B: Wording of the Experiment .................... 135

Appendix C: Logit Regressions Estimating Treatment Probability .................... 136

Appendix D: Ordered Logit Regressions Results .................... 137

I. Introduction

Over the last decade, one of the most hotly debated questions in the study of international law has been whether states change their policies as a consequence of the international human rights agreements that they ratify.1 Skeptics have long been critical of the idea that international agreements actually result in changes to state behavior,2 and they especially question whether international treaty commitments could change human rights practices.3 After all, the most straightforward explanation for why states comply with international agreements is that other states and international institutions are able to use a variety of mechanisms to help enforce compliance,4 but human rights treaties do not contain strong external enforcement mechanisms and states have not taken steps to .hold countries accountable for failing to live up to prior commitments.5

In response to that powerful argument, a number of scholars have begun to propose theories of why, even in the absence of any external enforcement, states might still change their behavior after ratifying human rights treaties. Although a number of theories have been put forward,6 the theory that has gained the most traction is that the presence of an international obligation changes public support for domestic efforts to bring a country's practices into compliance with its international commitments.7 Although this "domestic politics" theory of compliance does not predict that ratifying human rights agreements would change the human rights practices of autocracies, it does hypothesize that it would for states that are at least partially democratic.8 In other words, the theory is that in democracies, domestic actors are able to use the state's prior ratification of international treaties to bring about changes in human rights practices that would have otherwise not occurred because the presence of an international legal obligation changes political support for reform.

Two lines of empirical scholarship have emerged that support this theory. The first line of scholarship has used observational data to show that partially democratic states that ratify international human rights agreements may have corresponding changes in public policy.9 Using a variety of sophisticated statistical techniques-such as instrumental variable regressions10 and matching* 11-these studies have even suggested that changes in policy can be caused by the treaty ratification.12 The second line of scholarship has suggested that information on international obligations changes public opinion.13 The logical implication of this line of research is that, since democratic governments are constrained by the views of citizens, changes in "public opinion [create] some pressure towards compliance with international law. …

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