The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Human Rights Treaties are Like Virginity Pledges, Part Deux

May 6, 2013

A little over a month ago, I wrote about the growing academic literature concerning human rights treaties and their lack of influence on human rights practices.  Based on my own experiences growing up in parts of the U.S. where it’s assumed we can “[Rebuild] Our Culture One Purity Ball at a Time,” I likened human rights treaties to virginity pledges, saying that “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.”  There is a brand-spankin-new forthcoming article at American Journal of Political Science by Yonatan Lupu of George Washington University that may indicate my previous conclusion was overstated: when fully accounting for state preferences in treaty commitments, Lupu does not find any evidence that treaties make things worse.  This is good news for human rights advocates everywhere and very important for human rights/treaty scholarship!  Lupu’s article definitely deserves your attention.

Using a very innovative spatial-model method originally used in analyses of US legislative roll-call voting, Lupu is able to incorporate the “latent preferences for multilateral cooperation generally and latent preferences for certain types of treaties” (4) into a propensity score matching model.  As Lupu argues, adding information as to these preferences into a model on the causal influence of treaty commitment allows us to limit omitted variable bias.  In a nutshell, using his approach, we are better able to see whether “pledges” actually make things worse or whether selecting into the “pledge” simply reflects different underlying preferences.  Lupu  finds that ratification of the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights do NOT cause more abuse.  As Lupu states “of course, this still leaves us with a puzzle as to why abusing states tend to select into the treaty more often, but this is arguably a less problematic puzzle than the question of why such commitments would cause increases in abuses” (10).  Additionally, using his novel approach, Lupu finds that CEDAW improves women’s political, economic, and social rights, something Lupu argues could be linked to the design of this particular treaty or the specific type of rights this treaty entails.

In short, read Lupu’s piece.  If nothing else, it’s a great example of why we need to talk to our non-IR colleagues across the hall!

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Amanda Murdie is Professor & Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations in the Department of International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford, 2014). Her main research interests include non-state actors, and human rights and human security.

When not blogging, Amanda enjoys hanging out with her two pre-teen daughters (as long as she can keep them away from their cell phones) and her fabulous significant other.