The Duck of Minerva

Human Rights Treaties Are Like Virginity Pledges

18 March 2013

In the category of “pop-culture-not-talked-about-by-normal-Ducks,” People magazine’s cover story last week was on ABC’s The Bachelor, Sean Lowe, and his pledge to remain a virgin re-virgin until his wedding night.  As someone who graduated high school in town of less than 1500 in Kansas, I think this type of pledge is pretty typical: many teens and young adults make a pledge, usually in front of an audience, to avoid sexual conduct until marriage.  And, not surprisingly, most teens do not keep their pledge.[1]  In fact, there are some studies that indicate that these virginity pledges are associated with riskier sexual behavior.

In many regards, the academic literature on UN human rights treaties sees their effectiveness as extremely similar to virginity pledges: in most circumstances, these human rights “pledges” don’t work to improve human rights practices.   In some circumstances, they can actually lead to a worsening of governmental human rights practices.  Why is this? Below, I outline 3 reasons why human rights treaties and virginity pledges don’t work.

1.  Enforcement mechanisms are weak.

Although I could be wrong, I doubt many youth ministers follow virginity pledges around on dates.  And, I would guess most admissions of pledge-breaking is self-reported, often reported to parents or peers in ways to negate the importance of the pledge or the severity of the pledge-breaking.

In these regards, human rights treaties are extremely similar to virginity pledges. In most of the UN treaties, optional protocols have to be ratified for a treaty committee to actually carry out an independent inquiry.  Most states are extremely behind on even the most basic of UN treaty paperwork.  As Natalie Samarsinghe just reported in a piece designed to allay fears about UN treaties in Britain, the system  “monitors states’ human rights records but has no real power of penalty, unless international peace is threatened. Even apartheid South Africa wasn’t expelled from the UN, so why would Britain be?”   Like classic work by Downs, Rocke and Barsoom (1996), why would a state make a treaty that would require it to do something it wouldn’t want to do in the first place? The whole UN human rights system, although perhaps important for long-term norm development or international agenda-setting, is not designed to severely punish behavior that goes against the treaty.

2.  Pledges sign/ratify for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with an actual commitment to change behavior.  Non-pledges can choose not to sign/ratify for a variety of reasons that do not impede the decision to behave in ways consistent with the pledge.

Beth Simmons’ fantastic book (which both my undergrads and grad students are reading this week) has a great discussion on the multitude of reasons why a state would sign a human rights treaty and  have no “normative commitment to the contents of the treaty” (2009: 77).  You ratify because your peers are ratifying and you want to avoid standing out (“social camouflage”). You ratify because it allows you some immediate reward and you know the enforcement system is weak.  The logic applies to virginity pledges, too.  In 1996, I signed a virginity pledge at a youth-group meeting and the pledge helped ensure that I got to go to prom – definite strategic behavior on my part like outlined in Simmons (2009).[2]

Simmons (2009) also lays out a theory for why there are “false negatives” – states that already have practices in line with the human rights treaty but do not ratify the treaty.  These states don’t sign because of domestic conditions – judicial systems, federalism, and veto players.  Similar internal (family?) dynamics could be found, I hypothesize, in “false positives” among the virginity pledge movement.

3.  The pledges can be effective, but only if certain other conditions are met.  

In most of the academic literature, the only positive effects found for human rights treaties are (a) treaty-specific or (b) conditional in nature.  Hill (2010) found only the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – a treaty which doesn’t threaten “state sovereignty”  –  has an independent and positive impact on human rights performance (1172).  Other treaties that more directly threaten state sovereignty – the Convention on Torture (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – actually reduce human rights performance.

Neumayer (2005) outlines how human rights treaties can improve government human rights behavior only if a country is a democracy or the state has a greater number of INGOs in its borders. Conrad and Ritter (2013) show how the CAT is associated with improved human rights performance only for secure leaders.  These results are encouraging but also highlight how difficult it is for treaties to matter in the states and on the core issues where they are perhaps needed the most.

Similar conditional effects have been found by sociologists studying the effects of virginity pledges; other studies have found only short-term effects.  It could be that virginity pledges are such an important (“sovereign”) issue that, when threatening the desires of the pledge-taker, are quickly forgotten.

In short, I’m not arguing against human rights treaties – or virginity pledges, for that matter.  Human rights treaties could have long term impacts not captured in the studies I mention above.  Some of these potential effects are outlined quite nicely in Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink.  In the short term, at least, human rights treaties appear to be no more independently successful than a virginity pledge.  Acknowledging this sad fact and understanding the particulars of the system and the motivations of those pledging is necessary for advancing human rights writ large.

[1] Unless, Mom or ladies of my hometown Baptist church, you’re reading this (<cough>).  I totally kept that pledge (<cough>),

[2] Again, Mom and Ladies Baptist Guild, the pledge totally worked.  (<cough>).