Shaming without naming: Why is the international community not calling out human rights violators?

9 October 2019, 1003 EDT

This is a guest post by Theresa Squatrito, Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics, Magnus Lundgren, Postdoctoral Researcher at Stockholm University, and Thomas Sommerer, Associate Professor at Stockholm University.

On May 6, 2019, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, accused world leaders for failing in their defense of human rights.  World leaders, he claimed, are “weak, short-sighted and mediocre” and remain silent in response to some of today’s worst human rights violators. Given the prominence of human rights in contemporary multilateralism, Zeid’s remarks – if they are correct – would suggest a glaring mismatch between the ambitions and performance of multilateral organizations.

But is he right—do leaders fail to condemn actors for their wrongdoings? Our research which records every instance of public condemnation by 27 international organizations (IOs) between 1980 and 2015, sheds light on this important and pressing question.

To measure shaming, we identified all instances where an IO’s policy output publicly reproached an actor for some undesired action. We selected these instances based on condemnatory phrases conventionally used to signal reproach in diplomacy, such as “condemns” and “deplores”. We focused on public decisions – resolutions, decisions, and the like – adopted by each IO’s principal interstate decision-making body. In total, we identified 3,066 instances of IO shaming.

Our data suggest that Zeid’s accusation is both right and wrong. He is wrong that leaders are silent about human rights violations. The international community has not fallen silent. Condemnation of human rights violations is the most common form of shaming, representing about a third of all shaming by IOs. And condemnation of human rights violators has, if anything, increased since the 1980s.   

But two intriguing trends corroborate Zeid’s claims. First, leaders increasingly resort to “shaming without naming”: they condemn human rights violations but avoid identifying the responsible party. They call out violations but not the violators. This pattern is observable among most IOs, but is particularly striking in the case of UN General Assembly. “Shaming without naming” by the UN General Assembly grew from 12 percent in the 1980s to 62 percent of all condemnations in recent years.

Recent examples include condemnations of “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” (Resolution 68/127 from 2013) or of “all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers” (Resolution 68/127 from 2014). In previous times, condemnation of these activities were more likely to call out the responsible party, such when the General Assembly in 1981 condemned “the policy of apartheid in South Africa and Namibia as the most abhorrent form of racial discrimination” (Resolution 36/12).

A second trend is increasing shaming of non-state actors, such as rebel or terror groups, rather than the states that support them. In the 1980s, less than 3 percent of IO shaming targeted non-state actors. By the 2010s, non-state actors was on the receiving end of nearly a third of all IO shaming.

These trends indicate that the world leaders are perhaps not silent. Rather, for strategic or other reasons, they express condemnation without actually calling out those responsible. Shaming without naming may be the result of compromise or conflict avoidance among states, but it may also represent a strategy of articulating support for general normative principles when political realities – such as increasing discord about the direction of global governance – prohibit more narrowly targeted shaming. Likewise, condemnation of non-state actors may simply reflect the increasing diversity of actors on the world stage, but it could also be driven by the fact that shaming of such actors is less likely to invite rebuke or costly repercussions.

The consequences of these trends for human rights promotion remain to be identified. Can an increase in human rights shaming, even if it fails to assign explicit culpability, generate broader pressure in support of human rights? Or does naming without shaming make it easier for human rights violators to avoid responsibility? These are some of the questions that future research into shaming without naming will want to address.

The full text of our research article can be downloaded here.