“A Social Science of Human Rights” – Some New Social Science

7 March 2014, 1600 EST

 This morning, I woke up with a very nice notice about the 50th Anniversary Issue of Journal of Peace Research  in my inbox.  The issue is worth checking out – there’s some good stuff in there.

As a human rights scholar, I was really interested in the “A Social Science of Human Rights” piece by Emilie Hafner-Burton.  While I’m happy to see human rights get a mention in this important issue, I think there is some significant literature that has been missed by Hafner-Burton’s review.  I want to bring attention to this not as a “wait, why wasn’t I cited?” but because the piece raises a few questions and makes some claims to which we already have some increasingly solid answers.  Let me bring attention to a few of the statements from the review piece:

  1.  “Ratification of treaties such as the ICCPR has no clearly discernible effect (at least generally) on protections for physical integrity rights (Keith, 1999; Hathaway, 2002), though scholars are still debating this finding, largely on methodological grounds, and there are several explanations for these divergent findings, including the use of different data samples, research methodologies, and scope conditions” (280). – There are many “scholars” that are debating these findings – Conrad and RitterHillLupu, and Vreeland, for example – in top journals.  It’s worth citing the debate because it’s more than just some esoteric methodological discussion – it really gets at the heart of the theoretical issues about selection into treaties and unintended consequences of treaties.
  2. “Public opinion can motivate advocacy for the promotion of human rights – if citizens are rallied around an issue, they can inspire state representatives and other actors to participate in political action to improve human rights. Human rights conditions do shape how people perceive the general human rights situation in a country. The more that watchdogs, such as Amnesty International, report problems related to the use of political terror in a country, the more people in that country tend to perceive that human rights abuses are a problem – that is apparently true for European and Latin American countries though not for Asia” (281). – No citations are given here but my JOP and RIO work with Peksen gets at this issue of how NGO shaming influences foreign policy.  Work by Barry, Clay, and Flynn in ISQ looks at how NGO shaming influences FDI.   My work at HRQ with David Davis and Coty Steinmetz directly addresses how shaming by NGOs influences public opinion. It doesn’t test or find the regional differences, though (I’d be interested in knowing which piece Hafner-Burton is referring to here – her piece on Latin America with Ron in ISQ is not about public opinion outcomes).  JPR itself also has a very new and interesting piece by Ausderan on the topic.
  3. “Of course, there is no such thing as objective information about human rights abuse, and scholars have only recently begun to learn about the ways people and organizations produce and convey information about repression” (281). – There is a great piece by Hill, Moore, and Mukherjee in ISQ on this exact topic that contradicts exactly what is claimed by Hafner-Burton here.  As Hill, Moore, and Mukherjee’s abstract states:  “Results … suggest that Amnesty International adheres to its credibility criterion, rarely succumbing to incentives to exaggerate abuse.”  Wong also has a wonderful book on Amnesty International that gets at these dynamics (also with Hendrix).  HRQ had an article by Clark and Sikkink on this topic last year.  Of course, the Duck’s own Charli Carpenter has a lot of work on issue-adoption by NGOs. Also, there is a massive body of research that is showing that human rights NGOs are actually improving human rights – none of this work (by DeMeritt, Hendix and Wong,  Krain, Murdie and Davis, Bell, Clay, and Murdie, Bell et al, etc) is mentioned.  If the goal of the essay is to get at what “strategies actually prevent and reverse political terror” (274), not focusing on any of the recent literature about how NGOs are connected to improvements in human rights is an odd omission.

I’m really not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. Maybe this is just an issue with word counts and page restrictions. However, this area of research is evolving so rapidly and the findings are so interesting that it behooves all of us to pay attention.