International Human Rights

Hans Schmitz & Kathryn Sikkink. Handbook of International Relations. Editor: Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse, Beth A Simmons. Sage Publication. 2002.

What are Human Rights?

Human rights are a set of principled ideas about the treatment to which all individuals are entitled by virtue of being human. Over time, these ideas have gained widespread acceptance as international norms defining what was necessary for humans to thrive, both in terms of being protected from abuses and provided with the elements necessary for a life in dignity. Human rights norms create a relationship between individual (and very occasionally collective) right holders and other entities (usually states) that have obligations. The human rights discourse is universal in character and includes claims of equality and non-discrimination. Belief systems in which rights are granted only in exchange for the performance of duties, or where different categories of people have different categories of rights, contradict the basic idea that all people are entitled to equal rights. Human rights are clear examples of what constructivists call ‘social constructions’–invented social categories that exist only because people believe and act as if they exist, that nevertheless come to have the capacity to shape the social and political world. The idea of rights has developed a grip on human imaginations that has exerted an increasingly powerful impact on world politics. Brzezinski called human rights ‘the single most magnetic political idea of the contemporary time’ (cited in Forsythe, 1998: 511).

The idea that the state should respect the human rights of its citizens is an old one, dating back to the struggles for religious freedom and the secular writings of Kant, Locke and Rousseau. The US Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were the most significant early translations of efforts to give the individual special and inalienable protections (Jellinek, [1901] 1979; Weissbrodt and O’Toole, 1988). What has emerged more recently is the idea that not only states, but individuals can be subjects in international law and that human rights should be an integral part of foreign policy and international relations. As recently as 1970, most policy-makers still thought that the promotion of human rights was a moral concern that was not an appropriate part of international politics. But only a brief perusal of any recent daily newspaper shows the extent to which human rights issues are today part of a global discourse. This growing salience of the human rights language in international politics has been accompanied by significant improvements in human rights conditions around the world, but also by a growing awareness of major episodes of gross human rights violations. Indeed, the growing influence of human rights norms in international politics makes us more aware of their violations and the often inadequate responses by governments and international organizations. The success has also led to numerous challenges of the universal and secular character of the rights language and opened important debates about potential conflicts among rights.

Initial work by Donnelly (1989) and Forsythe (1983, 1991) highlighted the increasing relevance of international human rights to political scientists and international relations theorists. Donnelly argued that the concept of a right arose in the West, primarily in response to the rise of the modern state and industrialization, as a social construction that provided the conceptual tools to help protect individuals from the increasingly invasive powers of the state and the market. While the intellectual groundwork of the international human rights discourse was mainly developed in Europe and the United States, their establishment on the international level as well as their justification reflects more culturally diverse sources. Lauren (1998) and Morsink (1999) give extensive evidence on global sources of human rights thinking and activism as well as the crucial role of non-Western participants in the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The values enshrined in the Universal Declaration reflect a secularized ‘agreement across cultures’ (Glendon, 1998: 1156), which intentionally left questions of deeper justification and priorities among rights open (Ignatieff, 1999). Whatever the disagreements about the definitions and origins of human rights ideas, the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the subsequent widespread ratification of the two general human rights treaties, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provide international standard definitions and benchmarks for what constitutes international human rights (Newman and Weissbrodt, 1996).

This chapter reviews the progress in establishing international human rights norms and institutions as well as the ability of various international relations theories to account for this development. In the next section we discuss the literature on the causes of human rights violations. We argue that any theory of norm promotion and compliance cannot be complete without an understanding of the potential causes for non-compliance and violation. Then we turn to theories of international relations as potential explanations for change in the international human rights field. We present the basic assumptions of realist, liberal and constructivist theories regarding the role of human rights norms in international relations. In the final section we confront those theories with the existing evidence on the origins, evolution and enforcement of human rights norms.

Why do Human Rights Violations Occur?

Political science did not develop a substantive literature on ‘causes of repression’ to parallel the ‘causes of war’ literature until well into the 1980s, although far more people in the world were killed or tortured by their own governments than during international wars and violent conflicts. The emerging literature on the causes of repression is an important line of research, both for its theoretical insights and its potential policy implications, because any effort to limit human rights violations could gain from a credible theory identifying the main causes of repression. Much like human rights research and promotion in general, this is a project with an intrinsically interdisciplinary perspective. While we cannot expect to arrive at a single, unified theory explaining repression around the globe, research has identified some of the more important factors associated with systematic human rights abuses. The causes of human rights violations identified in the literature can be divided into three broad categories:

  • Political explanations: Political explanations focus attention on regime type and real or perceived threats to regimes such as civil and international war, separatist movements and terrorism.
  • Economic explanations: Economic explanations highlight such broad factors as levels of economic development, material inequality, or globalization in the areas of trade and finance.
  • Cultural, ideological and psychological explanations: Cultural, ideological and psychological explanations focus on deeply ingrained patterns of inter-communal hatred or ‘revenge’ for past abuses, predispositions to obey orders to commit human rights violations, and particular ideologies associated with human rights violations.

The quantitative research on the causes of repression is still a relatively new field, but it has already produced important empirical findings (Poe, 1997). This literature defines the dependent variable–violations of human rights–quite narrowly, as violations of personal integrity, including extra-judicial killings, torture, disappearances and political imprisonment. To distinguish this narrower variable from the wider range of human rights, we will refer to it as repression. Although a variety of methods have been used to measure repression, the most common and accepted measure has been developed by coding Amnesty International and State Department annual human rights country reports to create a five-point ‘Political Terror Scale’ (Poe and Tate, 1994; Stohl et al., 1984).

Political Explanations

The quantitative literature draws hypotheses about the causes of human rights violations from a wide range of theories. This literature initially used simple bivariate correlations of data from multiple countries at a single moment in time (Mitchell and McCormick, 1988), but the more recent research is testing theories using multivariate regression models over extended periods of time. Based on this work, the emerging consensus holds that real or imagined threats to a regime are almost always the source of violations. The bulk of the studies indicate that regime type, economic development and the presence of armed conflicts correlate with levels of human rights violations (Henderson, 1991; Poe and Tate, 1994; Poe et al., 1999).

One of the most robust political explanations is that democratic regimes are less likely to engage in repression than non-democratic regimes (Poe and Tate, 1994; Poe et al., 1999). Not only are democracies less likely to carry out repression, they also do a better job in promoting economic and social rights (Heinisch, n.d.). These findings may seem tautological, but they put to rest a lingering debate about the superiority of authoritarian regimes in delivering economic goods. Some qualitative researchers also stress how particular state forms are associated with repression. Stanley (1996), for example, argues that repression in El Salvador was the result of a particular authoritarian state form–a ‘protection-racket state’ in which the military gained a concession to govern the country in exchange for ‘its willingness to use violence against class enemies of the country’s relatively small but powerful economic élite.’

Countries engaged in international wars are also more likely to engage in repression than countries not at war (Poe and Tate, 1994; Poe et al., 1999). Leaders that confront other threats to the stability and/or continued existence of their rule by civil war, separatist movements, or insurgent or terrorist groups are also more likely to engage in repression than governments that do not face such a threat (Davenport, 2000; Poe and Tate, 1994; Poe et al., 1999). Further evidence for these findings is contained in recent studies of transitions to democracy. There is ‘more murder in the middle’ (Fein, 1995) as non-democratic states make the transition to democracy. Ethnic conflict and resulting human rights violations are most likely to occur during the early stages of such a process (Snyder, 2000). Cases of repression within formal democracies can also be explained by threats to their leadership and population. In Israel, the country’s supreme court only recently declared the mistreatment of many Palestinian prisoners (Ron, 1997) unconstitutional. In Turkey, the Kurdish minority continues to be a victim of repression because of its desire to gain greater autonomy and possibly political independence. The stronger the real or perceived threats are, the more likely it is that they offset the civilizing impact of democratic rule.

Economic Explanations

There are two distinct debates relating economic conditions and related activities to human rights violations. The first asserts that poor countries are more likely to be repressive than richer countries (Mitchell and McCormick, 1988; Poe and Tate, 1994; Poe et al., 1999). With fewer resources to distribute, domestic conflicts are more likely to lead to real or perceived threats that cause repression. Research further suggests that both absolute poverty and high levels of inequality are positively associated with repression (Heinisch, n.d.; Henderson, 1991). It is not surprising that human rights are associated with both economic development and democracy, since development and democracy are themselves highly correlated. Recent work has reconfirmed the strong correlation of democracy and wealth, but rejected the causal and normative argument that economic growth always precedes the introduction of political and civil freedoms (Przeworski and Limongi, 1997). A growing number of studies have argued that basic freedoms are a condition for the generation of wealth3 or that ‘basic human rights’ should be a concern independent of wealth and democracy (Shue, 1980).

The second debate assumes a diminishing role of the state in affecting domestic human rights conditions. Here, two opposing arguments about free trade and foreign direct investment establish direct links between economic globalization and domestic human rights. Defenders of economic globalization claim that expanding free trade and capitalist investment will lead to improvements in human rights conditions (Meyer, 1996, 1999). An opposite argument holds that involvement with the ‘capitalist center,’ and high levels of direct foreign investment, are positively correlated with human rights violations (Chomsky and Herman, 1979). Smith et al. (1999) find no positive correlation between high levels of direct foreign investment and political and civil rights, although they do report a small negative impact on social and economic rights. Free trade alone is unlikely to improve civil and political rights and its short-term effects on working conditions of the poor around the world are certainly ambiguous. Researchers are only beginning to systematically explore the current era of growing interactions between the globalization of markets and their effects on local (human rights) conditions.

Cultural Ideological and Psychological Explanations

The more qualitative literature on the ideological and psychological explanations for human rights violations points in particular to the role of dehumanizing ideologies (Kuper, 1981) or beliefs that have the effect of ‘excluding individuals from the realm of obligation’ (Fein, 1993). Kuper argues that ideologies that depict other groups as animals or diseases have the effect of dehumanizing victims and making human rights abuses such as genocide possible. Likewise, ideologies in which the ‘ends justify the means’ so that some desired endpoint–a pure Aryan race, communist society, or ‘Western and Christian civilization’–is seen as so compelling, that repressive means are justified, or seen as necessary for achieving those ends. Studies of ideologies as diverse as Nazism in Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (Quinn, 1989); or the National Security Doctrine in many repressive authoritarian regimes in Latin America, have identified this common ideological element of exclusively focusing on ends (Heinz and Frühling, 1999; Perelli, 1990; Pion-Berlin and Lopez, 1991).

Ideological explanations for human rights violations can either supplement political explanations or offer competing hypotheses. As competing accounts for gross human rights violations they point to deeper layers of group consciousness that might be important to understand decisions for human rights abuses by political leaders. A recent prominent example for this debate is Daniel Goldhagen’s argument that the Holocaust was enabled by a particular culture of anti-semitism in the larger German-speaking population, rather than being a ‘functionalist’ outcome of political or economic choices of the Nazi leadership (Goldhagen, 1996). Lauren (1996) offers an account where an ideological explanation supplements an explanation based on power. He argues that ideologies and power structures interacted to sustain slavery, the slave trade, racial discrimination and apartheid, but changes in power structures later opened space for ideas against racism to bring about change.

There has also been important psychological research on repression which looks at a predisposition to obey authority, even if this involved administering pain to another individual (Millgram, 1965), the societal and psychological origins of genocide and other atrocities, including tendencies towards scapegoating (Gourevitch, 1998; Staub, 1989), and types of training used for soldiers and law-enforcement personnel who engage in human rights violations (Conroy, 2000; Gibson and Haritos-Fatouros, 1986). Psychological explanations of human rights violations often complement rather than compete with political factors of repression. These accounts give an individual level account of why authoritarian leaders can actually use the population to carry out human rights abuses. Such mechanisms can also account for different forms of denial affecting bystanders and even the victims themselves. Furthermore, the mass media has recently come under scrutiny for its responsibility for ‘compassion fatigue’ (Moeller, 1999) and the growing difficulties of activists to enlist the global public against gross human rights violations (Cohen, 2001).

Linking Domestic and International Factors of Repression

The literature on causes of repression is still far from developing an integrated theory. The quantitative literature on causes of repression suffers from some of the same problems as the quantitative literature on the causes of war and democratic peace. It has discovered strong empirical regularities, but does not yet have a compelling theory to explain these findings. Efforts at such theory-building are under way; one such proposed theory, by Steven Poe, starts with the assumption of a rational decision-maker engaged in choices of how much repression to use. He argues that the decision-maker is influenced by both his or her perceptions of threat to the regime, and his or her perception of the regime strength, which may be diminished or heightened by the other factors considered here, such as economic development (Poe, 1997). Because policy-makers are seen as choosing repression from a ‘menu’ of possible policy alternatives, decision-making is thus also influenced both by variables that affect the alternatives that appear on the menu, as well as variables that affect the choice among alternatives.

This explanation is consistent with the conclusions of an exhaustive study on the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The author concludes that the genocide was the result of a deliberate choice of a modern élite when faced with threats to their power by the success of their opponents on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. The study concludes that the failure of international actors to raise the perceived costs of genocide permitted domestic actors to carry out their program of mass murder (Des Forges, 1999).

The international relations theorist will note that these theories almost uniformly stress the domestic sources of repression. With the exception of international war and levels of international trade and investment, all the hypothesized causes of repression are domestic factors: democracy, economic development, civil war, state type and perceptions of domestic threat. However, Poe’s rational actor theory of repression opens space to consider international elements, and provides one point of possible intersection between the quantitative literature and the more constructivist accounts of ending human rights violations in repressive countries, discussed below. Risse et al. (1999) have argued, for example, that transnational advocacy networks have contributed to decreasing repression in a series of countries through providing information, socialization, and economic and political pressures. Rephrased in the language of the more rationalist and quantitative studies, they argue that international human rights activism has both succeeded in removing certain alternatives from the decision-makers’ menu, or increasing the cost of repression on that menu so that it is a less attractive alternative to choose. For example, international and regional norms in favor of democracy have played an important role in virtually removing certain options–like military coups–from the policy menu in certain regions, such as Europe, and increasingly, the Americas. Policy-makers may have chosen repression in the past because it was an effective and relatively cheap policy alternative. However, as a result of increasing international publicity and possible economic and political sanctions the perceived costs of repression have increased. The description and explanation of this process is at the center of the following sections.

Human Rights Change and Theories of International Relations (IR)

Most international human rights treaties agreed upon after 1945 regulate the domestic behavior of governments towards their own citizens. Before the second half of the twentieth century human rights had not been a significant issue in international politics. With the expansion of such regimes within the past fifty years, state actors face growing formal and informal limits to the policy choices they have. Human rights have become part of a norms cascade in the past two decades and have contributed to a significant transformation of the international system. In 1975, only 33 countries had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, equaling 23 per cent of the UN membership at that time (144). By July 2001, 147 states had ratified the treaty (equaling 76 per cent of the total UN membership of 189) and 97 the Optional Protocol accepting supervisory powers of the Human Rights Committee. In addition, 157 states have ratified the Convention against Racial Discrimination, 145 the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 168 the Women’s Rights convention, 125 the Convention against Torture, and 191 the Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2001).

Assuming that human rights norms challenge state sovereignty expressed in the norm of nonintervention (Krasner, 1999), this widespread acceptance of international human rights norms is puzzling to the traditional IR scholar. If international human rights rhetoric actually affects domestic practices, then we need to better understand under what conditions international norms matter. In the following sections, we will present the main differences between realist, liberal and constructivist accounts of change in the field of international human rights policy. They give different answers to the following questions:

  • Which are the most significant actors in the issue area?
  • How and why do human rights norms emerge and become institutionalized?
  • Do internationally codified human rights norms make a difference?
  • What actions or processes are most likely to lead to norm compliance?

Power Politics, Liberalism, and Constructivism

(Neo)Realist thought assumes that international policy outcomes are determined by the distribution of material power capabilities among states. neorealists do not recognize norms such as human rights or non-governmental actors as significant and independent forces in international relations. Realists regard principles such as human rights as a potential threat to the overall stability of the international system and advocate state sovereignty as a central organizing principle of international relations. If states make the domestic conduct of other states a regular concern of their actions, this might increase the likelihood of international conflict. More subtly, Krasner showed that state sovereignty consists of a conflicting set of norms where the right to self-help and the norm of non-interference are in a potential conflict (Krasner, 1993). Realists argue that such a conflict is resolved in favor of the materially stronger party involved.

Liberal international relations theory places emphasis on the domestic sources of state preferences as the determinant of outcomes in international politics (Moravcsik, 1997). In this, it differs from neoliberal institutionalism, which shares with neorealism a more state-centric view of the international system. Neoliberal institutionalists emphasize that states have interests in entering international institutional arrangements to prevent sub-optimal outcomes of uncoordinated action. Human rights violations rarely represent a classical dilemma of interdependence, and thus cooperation in the area of human rights is difficult to explain from a neoliberal institutionalist perspective. Hence, a liberal theory with a focus on domestic preferences or an assumption about a community of ‘liberal states’ seen as a sphere of peace and democracy has been more useful in studying human rights (Slaughter, 1995). Liberal theory argues that behavior within this community is distinctly different from behavior towards non-liberal outsiders.

Constructivist theories5 highlight the independent role of norms and ideas in affecting international and domestic policy outcomes. Constructivists shift attention from how states pursue their interests to how they define those interests in the first place (Finnemore, 1996a). Norms and principled ideas are assumed to have constitutive effects on the identity formation of actors, rather than simply intervening between interests and behavior. Reflecting a shift towards a sociological perspective, constructivists see agents embedded in a set of norms and rules often described as ‘world culture’ (Meyer et al., 1997). Constructivists also suggest that long-term systemic change cannot be understood with causal models exclusively focused on immediate consequences of action. Constructivists often take a longer perspective in linking norm-induced change in identities and institutions to changes in behavioral patterns (Iriye, 1997; Mueller, 1995). Wendt’s ‘Kantian culture’ is such an interpretation of the norms cascade, where a ‘critical mass of states’ (Wendt, 2000) joins other, often nongovernmental actors in the process of a profound transformation of the international system.

There are two emerging strands within this constructivist effort for a more sociological understanding of the international system. One set of arguments claims that rules become a part of the identity of actors through an active process of socialization and internalization (Risse et al., 1999). A second version argues that individuals and groups rhetorically adopt such rules not because they inherently believe in them, but because they conform or emulate scripts of legitimate statehood (Meyer et al., 1997). The difference between the two strands has less significance with regard to questions of norm origins and evolution, but leads to fundamentally diverging expectations about the behavioral consequences of rules and norms. The second, weaker constructivist account puts less emphasis on fundamendal identity transformation and traces behavioral changes to more traditional consequentialist calculations.

In the following section, we discuss more explicitly how each type of IR theory explains (1) norm emergence and evolution, as well as (2) norm diffusion and effectiveness/compliance in the area of human rights.

Norm Origins and Evolution

For realists, international norms such as human rights emerge and gain acceptance when they are embraced and promoted by a hegemon or a dominant group of states (Ikenberry and Kupchan, 1990). ‘The content of human rights issues that were at the forefront in various historical periods reflected the concerns of those states which possessed a preponderance of economic and military power’ (Krasner, 1993: 166). Realists assume that norms are epiphenomenal to the distribution of material and military capabilities in the international system. Prevalent norms change with the rise and fall of powerful states.

Moravcsik’s liberal interpretation argues that states accept binding human rights treaties mainly as a means of political survival–that is, newly democratizing states are most likely to ratify legal human rights instruments to protect the still unstable democratic regime against non-democratic opponents (Moravcsik, 2000). The establishment of international human rights institutions is a rational and self-interested move to selectively delegate sovereignty to a supranational body in order to secure the desired domestic outcome of strengthened democratic governance. Hence, the emergence and evolution of human rights institutions is mainly a function of domestic threat perceptions of newly democratic governments, rather than the result of outward-projected activities by the established and most powerful democracies in the international system. When realists emphasize coercion, liberals claim voluntary, self-interested and rational behavior of state actors in accepting long-term limits to state sovereignty.

Constructivism questions a narrow interest-based explanation referring either to a state’s position in the international system or domestic preferences. Ruggie argued that knowing the international power structure helps us understand the form of order, but not the content (Ruggie, 1983). We need additional information about prevalent norms and ideas, or what Ruggie calls the structure of social purpose, to know the content and consequences of particular regimes (Schmitz, 1995). For constructivists, norms such as human rights gain strength because of their intrinsic universalistic qualities. These norms give guidance with regard to the fundamental purpose of statehood (Finnemore, 1996b). First, constructivists argue that the normative strength is either directly linked to their Western origins or derives from their potential to resonate with basic ideas of human dignity shared in many cultures around the world (Boli and Thomas, 1999; Keck and Sikkink, 1998; Thomas et al., 1987). Second, certain windows of opportunities such as wars, revolutions and upheavals can lead to shifts of power that accelerate the acceptance and evolution of new ideas and norms (Lauren, 1996). In times of national or global crisis old power structures are cracked open and fundamental questions about the identity and purpose of social systems are more likely to be contested. Morsink (1999) and others have argued that common revulsion toward the Holocaust provided the consensus needed to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the initial step in the global recognition of human rights. The paradoxical strength of the UDHR emanates from its writers’ audacity to ‘reestablish the idea of human rights at the precise historical moment in which they had been shown to have no moral purchase whatsoever’ (Ignatieff, 1999: 4). Third, a number of non-state organizations such as Amnesty International have emerged during the past forty years as principled actors in human rights matters on a global scale (Clark, 2001). Their participation in the evolution of the international human rights regime is still formally limited. However, they have offset these formal limits by acquiring independent authority based on their reliable work and virtual information monopoly.

Norm Diffusion and Effectiveness

For realists the recent spread of human rights norms throughout the international system is caused by a dominance of powerful democracies that force weaker countries to adopt their own domestic standards. In the absence of overriding security or economic motives, realists conclude that any change within the issue area of human rights ‘is a function of the extent to which more powerful states in the system are willing to enforce the principles and norms of the regime’ (Krasner, 1993: 141). The stronger and the more assertive the democratic camp of states within the international system, the more likely it is that international human rights norms become established. ‘Only when powerful states enforce principles and norms were international human rights regimes consequential’ (Krasner, 1993: 141). Coercive practices such as sanctions are the preferred means of enforcement.

Liberal theory accepts a limited independent role for international institutions in promoting common norms and cooperation. However, such claims are mainly articulated within the context of a liberal community of states. For outsider states, liberal theory takes a more traditional view of sovereign states negotiating to maximize their self-interests. Liberal theory arrives at this distinction between democratic and non-democratic states based on the emphasis given to the domestic political structure. Domestic structures filter and mediate outside interventions in a two-step process. First, they determine what kinds of access points are available to actors seeking to initiate domestic change (issue resonance). Second, these structures consist of potential domestic allies and enemies for outside actors. Domestic structures determine the size and requirements for winning coalitions (Risse-Kappen, 1995: 25). A liberal perspective assumes that the success of norms diffusion is mainly determined by the compatibility with preexisting domestic structures.

For constructivists, the global acceptance of human rights norms since 1948 originates in a two-stage process of a ‘norm cascade’ (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998; Sunstein, 1997). Support for a particular norm gathers slowly until it reaches a ‘tipping point.’ Afterwards, the adoption by other members in the community occurs more rapidly and leads to a cascading effect. This opens questions about the individual state’s motivation to rhetorically accept a specific set of norms. Is the norm cascade an inconsequential commitment on the part of state actors to weakly institutionalized human rights norms, or does it actually signal a profound transformation of international and domestic politics? Constructivist scholarship has developed distinct state-centric (Wendt, 1999) and non-statist answers (Keck and Sikkink, 1998; Risse et al., 1999) to this question. Some state-centrists have adopted the language of sociological institutionalism (Thomas et al., 1987) in order to account for the growing international salience of human rights norms, while at the same time denying the transformative effects of this process. Krasner recently argued that state actors engage in ‘mimetic imitation’ in a superficial way because ‘they are unsure about what to do’ (Krasner, 1999: 64).

In contrast, non-statist perspectives have adopted a language of a more fundamental normative ‘socialization’ (Risse et al., 1999) and highlight non-state actors as distinct agents of change. Socialization theorists will accept the possibility of an initial superficial rhetoric of norm adoption, but their ultimate goal is to show that such norms have a profound long-term impact on the identity of state and non-state actors. For sociological institutionalists, sustained ‘decoupling’ (Boli and Thomas, 1999: 18; Meyer et al., 1997) between norm rhetoric and behavior is the rule, while for socialization theorists the work of non-state human rights actors begins right there. In order to decide which claim is correct, we need to empirically show either an ultimately ‘civilizing force of hypocrisy’ (Elster, 1998: 12) induced by non-governmental activism or a ubiquitous and sustained hypocrisy with regard to international human rights norms.

In conceptualizing possible agents for change, non-statists have taken two distinct approaches. The first works ‘bottom-up’ and extends the social movement literature to the transnational realm (Smith et al., 1997). The second, more IR-oriented approach takes internationally codified norms as a starting point and develops a concept of ‘transnational advocacy networks’ to highlight the emergence of a new category of norm-promoting actors (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). This network concept captures cooperation among NGOs, but also connections to potentially like-minded actors in church or union organizations, foundations, the media, international governmental organizations, or government bureaucracies. These transnational advocacy networks circumvent repressive state authorities and build direct connections between the international and domestic realm. The subsequent support can range from the basic protection of the right to life to the sustainable creation and expansion of domestic space for civil society activism. The emergence of a transnational advocacy network is seen as a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for sustainable domestic norm compliance. While principled pressure ‘from above’ has often a positive effect on the initial norm adoption and cascade pattern, sustained rule-consistent behavior shifts attention to domestic-level processes of norm education, monitoring and socialization. Human rights norms are only sustainable and of independent value to researchers, if the gap between rhetoric and actual behavior narrows over time. The following table summarizes the realist, liberal and constructivist perspectives on the emergence, evolution, and consequences of international human rights norms.

International Human Rights Institutions after 1945

In this section of the chapter we will evaluate international relations (IR) theories with regard to their ability to account for the origins and evolution of international human rights institutions as well as the variation in observable compliance around the world. We investigate existing regional and global human rights institutions as well as evidence from foreign policy studies and work on the role of transnational advocacy networks.

Our investigation of the international human rights regime as a regulating set of norms begins in the 1940s when these norms became progressively institutionalized on a global and regional level. This applies to human rights concerns in peacetime as well as to situations of armed conflict and war. The international precursors to the human rights issue included the movement for the respect for human rights during armed conflict, the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, the work within the League of Nations for the protection of minority rights, the early work on the rights of workers in the International Labor Organization, and the campaign for women’s suffrage. But each of these efforts fell short of a full-fledged demand for attention to human rights as a legitimate topic of international action. During the past half century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights served as a basis for an expanding international human rights agenda. Moreover, the repeated occurrence of mass atrocities as part of armed conflicts has spurred a growing convergence of international human rights law, humanitarian concerns, and laws of war creating the distinct concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ (Robertson, 1999).

Although in principle human rights norms are indivisible, in practice the norms included in the Universal Declaration have subsequently enjoyed different levels of attention by the international public and policy-makers. Significant differences also mark the development of regional systems of human rights protection. Europe and the Americas feature today the most advanced human rights institutions, while the African regional human rights body has only weakly developed promotional and monitoring capabilities. Asia and the Arab world are still without significant regional human rights systems.

The Origins of International Human Rights Institutions

The origins of human rights norms and their rhetorical acceptance by state actors have drawn little attention from traditional IR scholarship, because they were either seen as inconsequential or epiphenomenal to the distribution of material power capabilities in the international system. The origins of such norms became only more recently an acceptable research topic, following constructivists’ claims that international human rights norms have tangible effects on the interest formation and behavior of state actors. The evidence we can present here is mainly based on case studies and a few more systematic, comparative efforts. These initial results confirm the dominant role of state actors in formally controlling the process of norm creation on an international level, but give also ample evidence for the relevance of non-governmental actors in setting the agenda for such processes. Government representatives have drafted human rights treaties, but advocacy networks have often played a pivotal behind-the-scene role in putting human rights norms on the international agenda in the first place and in influencing the result of the subsequent codification efforts (Clark, 2001). Formal exclusion from decision-making organs remains the rule, but nongovernmental actors have gained informal influence based on their principled positions and expertise (Korey, 1998).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide convention were a result of extensive agenda-setting and lobbying efforts by non-governmental groups and activists proposing human rights issues be included in the new United Nations Charter (Burgers, 1992; Glendon, 2001; Ignatieff, 2001; Korey, 1998). From the early 1940s on, the Catholic Church, the American Institute of Law, the American Jewish Committee, but also the International Labor Organization drew up blueprints of such a Bill of Rights (Morsink, 1999: 1–3). Although most governments remained skeptical, the non-governmental mobilization achieved the adoption of a non-binding human rights declaration, a binding convention against genocide as well as a brief reference to the promotion of human rights in Articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter. Cold War rivalry delayed subsequent efforts to translate the Universal Declaration into binding conventions. These conventions, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, entered into force in 1976. As part of the norm cascade, a growing number of human rights instruments followed, with significant roles played by non-governmental actors (Clark, 2001; van Boven, 1989; Weissbrodt, 1984), including the agreements against racial discrimination (1969), for the protection of women (1981), against torture (1987; Burgers and Danelius, 1988), for the protection of the child (1990; Price Cohen, 1990), and a declaration for the protection of human rights defenders (1999).

On the regional level, Moravcsik’s comparative research on the establishment of the strong European human rights system in the early 1950s confirms a liberal explanation that newly democratizing states were most active in building a binding human rights regime. Evidence from the Inter-American case, however, does not clearly confirm this result since established democracies in the Americas have (except for the United States) supported a regional and global human rights system from the start. After the wave of redemocratization in the Americas between 1978 and 1991, the newly democratizing countries also rapidly ratified international and regional human rights treaties. Along the lines of liberal theory suggested by Moravcsik, it is likely that part of the motivation to ratify these treaties was the self-interested desire to lock in their democracies against the danger of being overthrown by their opponents.

There are still questions about the ability of liberal theory to explain the emergence of regional human rights norms. If European leaders were profoundly concerned about the survival of their new regime, why would they expect much help from still to be established international institutions, in particular after the experience with Nazi Germany? Why should a system built on liberal domestic legitimacy and self-determination accept a supranational oversight that in itself lacks the democratic legitimacy of many domestic political institutions? European leaders at that time saw the establishment of regional human rights mechanisms as a parallel process to the (stalled) process of promoting such norms within the United Nations and as a signal for the creation of a liberal community of states right next to the emerging Soviet Bloc. Hence, they were as much intrinsically motivated by the norms themselves as they were convinced that these norms were in their self-interest.

More research is needed to better understand the emergence and establishment of human rights norms on global and regional levels. States still formally control this process, but non-governmental actors have always played a pivotal role in setting the agenda and pushing for the acceptance of specific standards. Further, with the more systematic recognition of social, economic and cultural rights within the global human rights discourse, norm-setting efforts will increasingly target other actors than states. Additional knowledge about the role and motivations of state actors in the process of establishing international human rights norms is necessary. Such knowledge will be part of a larger effort to better understand differences in norm evolution and salience.

The Evolution of International Human Rights Institutions

The evolution of international institutions is treated separately, because it can indicate the extent of autonomy, robustness and authority these entities develop over time. In the area of human rights, evolution is particularly important because the initial recognition of a norm or even binding conventions have often highlighted, rather than immediately narrowed, the gap between rhetoric and practice. Focusing solely on this gap may be misleading because the long-term evolution of human rights norms and institutions has the potential of fundamentally transforming the international system. The idea of human rights puts individuals rather than states and their interests at the center of organizing global cooperation. If the human rights logic becomes more salient, this transformative force deserves heightened attention within international relations theory, no matter how slow this process might be. The question during the past fifty years has not been if human rights institutions evolve at all, but which human rights norms were strengthened, how such a process was set and kept in motion, and what kind of regional differences developed or persisted.

Jack Donnelly concluded in a 1986 article that growth in the international human rights regime was ‘easy’ in the past, but will be difficult in the future because state actors are unwilling to agree to ‘major qualitative increase in the commitment’ (Donnelly, 1986: 633). He predicted that human rights institutions would remain declaratory and promotional, rather than move on to develop implementation and enforcement mechanisms. At that time, this position sought to account for the growing international recognition of human rights without challenging the basic premises of the still dominant state-centric realist and (emerging) liberal-institutionalist discourse. Realists do not expect international institutions to develop some form of independent status. If they have influence, it is part of a geopolitical strategy of a hegemon. For liberal theory, international institutionalization is more likely, but will be limited to the self-interest of and voluntary agreement among state leaders and their domestic audience. Constructivist theory highlights the power of human rights norms, institutions and/or nongovernmental actors. International human rights institutions are expected to secure increasing autonomy from state actors and develop along their human rights mandate rather than state preferences.

The United Nations human rights system 

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, human rights institutions in the United Nations system have both increased in numbers and often evolved beyond a declaratory and promotional status. Using Ernst Haas’s complex model of change within international organizations (Haas, 1990), the dominant logic for most United Nations human rights instruments has shifted from a logic of ‘incremental growth’ (adaptation) to a more proactive model of ‘managed interdependence’ (learning). UN human rights institutions are often mere ‘arenas’ or ‘instruments’ (Archer, 1992) of state competition, but states have increasingly changed their own roles from ‘shapers’ to either ‘breakers’ or ‘takers’ (Kent, 1999) of the norms promoted by those mechanisms. The more consistent and robust UN human rights mechanisms became, the greater were the costs of non-compliance. The increasing visibility of the UN in human rights matters is expressed in a consistent expansion of the treaty-based system as well as an increasing activism of charter-based organs led by the Commission on Human Rights (Alston, 1992a: 1–21). The Universal Declaration has evolved from a non-binding declaration to a generally accepted standard of state behavior (Buergenthal, 1995: 37). In 1966, the two International Covenants turned human rights into binding international law. Additionally, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provided for the creation of the Human Rights Committee as a monitoring body of the covenant. In its main function of evaluating state reports, the Committee has slowly increased its independence by drawing systematically on NGO evidence and by issuing ‘General Comments’ to interpret the meaning of particular articles of the Covenant (Buergenthal, 1995: 45). The Committee has also taken a more proactive role in its investigation of individual complaints brought under the First Optional Protocol. Since 1990, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also received and reviewed state reports, but no mechanism yet exists for receiving individual complaints under that Covenant. In one of its first decisions, the Committee for the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights decided in 1990 that the obligations in the convention are not only long-term goals, but also directly enforceable rights.

In 1984, after a successful mobilization effort by non-governmental actors (Baehr, 1989; Burgers and Danelius, 1988), the UN General Assembly accepted the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Non-governmental groups were able to translate some of their demands into convention articles, including an absolute non-derogation clause (Art. 2), universal jurisdiction, the right to initiate an investigation for the monitoring committee (Art. 20), and an individual complaint procedure (Art. 21). Other UN human rights treaties, often with much weaker monitoring mechanisms, have targeted genocide (1948), racial discrimination (1965), apartheid (1973), the discrimination of women (1979) and the situation of children (1989). The number of state parties for each of these treaties has consistently increased, albeit the period of the respective norm cascades varied significantly. The 1998 Rome compromise on the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court indicates continued innovation and strengthening within the UN treaty-based system, but also the growing focus on crimes against humanity. The establishment of individual responsibility for such crimes represents a major step towards the direct enforcement of a specific set of international human rights norms. A similar trend prevails within the parallel UN Charter-based system.

Charter-based human rights institutions at the UN have been much more politicized than the treaty-based institutions. States become subject to treaty-based institutions by explicit signature and ratification of human rights treaties. In contrast, simple membership in the UN makes states subject to the charter-based institutions charged with human rights, the ‘nerve center’ of which is the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The continuous and often successful efforts of governments to manipulate these institutions for their narrow self-interests has led to unintended consequences whereby those institutions acquired strengthened monitoring capabilities and autonomy. The politicization of many human rights debates at the Commission exemplifies how the use of universal human rights language can strengthen the underlying norms overtime. In the most recent and prominent case, the People’s Republic of China avoids condemnation by the CHR for its human rights record year after year, while the political resources it is forced to spend on this effort reflect the growing salience of the issue (Donnelly, 1998: 128). Human rights promotion through the Charter system has evolved considerably, moving from the 1947 assertion that the CHR had ‘no power to take any action in regard to any complaints concerning human rights’ (ECOSOC Resolution 75, V, 1947) to the current system of working groups and rapporteurs with specific country and thematic mandates (Rodley, 1997; Weissbrodt, 1986) as well as the Security Council’s decisions declaring gross human rights violations as threats to international security and peace.

This process of strengthening Charter-based human rights institutions began during the 1960s as a result of the influx of newly independent states from the Southern hemisphere into the United Nations. Their representatives saw the Charter-based system as a potential instrument in their fight against Portugal’s colonial policies in Angola and Mozambique, South Africa’s apartheid regime as well as (since 1968) Israel’s occupational policies in the Middle East. In 1967, ECOSOC resolution 1235 effectively ended the ‘no power to act’ doctrine of the CHR and called for the public investigation of human rights violations. While the new majority of states pushed for an explicit focus on racism and colonialism, the compromise formula kept the mandate open to investigate other situations as well. In 1970, resolution 1503 added a confidential ‘petition-information’ system to investigate cases ‘which appear to reveal a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms’ (Buergenthal, 1995: 87–95). As a consequence of these political victories, the universal claim of human rights was reaffirmed and began slowly to emancipate itself from narrow state interests. Two years after the 1973 coup of General Pinochet, Chile became the precedent for extending the agenda beyond issues of colonialism and racism (Kamminga, 1992). At the same time, the United Nations still failed to investigate other ongoing human rights crises such as in Argentina, the Central African Republic, Uganda, or Uruguay.

By the late 1970s, the growing success of the non-governmental human rights movement created enough pressure for more innovations, including the 1978 decision of the CHR to publish an annual list of states under the 1503 procedure. One year later, the CHR began to create extra-conventional mechanisms to investigate human rights issues either on a country-specific or a thematic basis. The first such mechanism, investigating the practice of ‘disappearances,’ emerged out of the many NGO–state confrontations at the annual meetings of the CHR (Rodley, 1987: 195). Since then, the CHR has established working groups and named rapporteurs for a total of fifteen country situations–as well as twenty-one thematic human rights mandates. Many of the rapporteurs and working groups have begun to adopt NGO-like strategies in their work, inaugurating a year-round effort of human rights promotion by the United Nations system. They have ‘proven to be far more flexible, innovative, and persistent than either their original detractors or proponents would have dared to think’ (Alston, 1992b: 175). Moreover, these mechanisms give non-governmental actors additional platforms of mobilization, where they can use their wealth of information to effectively counter the decision-making monopoly of state actors. In 1994, the Charter-based human rights system was further strengthened when the United Nations established the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. The High Commissioner has established on-site presences in twenty-seven countries, sometimes with the agreement of the governments (Newman and Weissbrodt, 1996). The Security Council’s decisions to create the ad hoc International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (1993) and Rwanda (1995) were certainly inadequate and could not detract from the failure of the international community to intervene in time to prevent mass atrocities. However, they also became an important precedent for the pursuit of criminal justice on the international level, later translated into the intergovernmental human rights treaty for the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court (1998).

The UN human rights system is a reflection of the contested status of human rights around the world. Substantial innovations and strengthening in some areas such as the fight against torture and gross human rights violations have not been the rule for all human rights issues. Some mechanisms such as the women’s convention have become strongly contested once the UN put them into place. The clearest consensus of action within the widening human rights catalogue has emerged with regard to crimes against humanity. However, no matter whether states are more likely to follow conventions or whether they contest them, both reactions indicate an evolutionary process whereby the issues gain growing recognition on the international level. The variation in the salience of human rights issues is increasingly a result of an interaction between NGO activism and United Nations human rights mechanisms. A coalition of ‘like-minded’ states has often led human rights initiatives in the United Nations. However, the United States as a self-professed international leader has not been at the forefront of such activities, as most recently expressed by its stance against the ICC and the landmines convention.

Regional human rights mechanisms 

Innovation and evolution during the past fifty years have also taken place within regional human rights mechanisms. However, stark differences remain between the more advanced and dynamic systems in Europe and the Americas, and the weakly developed or non-existent mechanisms in Africa, Asia and for the Arab nations. The intergovernmental Council of Europe, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1953) as well as the European Commission and Court of Human Rights have played the leading role in the promotion of human rights within Europe (Harris et al., 1999). A major innovation occurred in 1998 when a new, now fulltime Court began to operate. Between 1983 and 1999, the number of new cases before the Court increased from about 500 to over 8,000. In addition to the West European mechanism, the 1975 Helsinki Accord of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) put human rights on the agenda of East–West cooperation. Although this agreement was non-binding and initially frowned upon by many observers, it turned out to play ‘an important role in legitimating human rights discourse within Eastern Europe, providing a focus for nongovernmental activities at both the domestic and international levels’ (Steiner and Alston, 1996: 578; also: Thomas, 2001). After the end of the Cold War, the norms established by the Council of Europe apply to all aspiring new member states of the Council and the European Union (Schimmelfennig, 2000).

While authoritarian rule alongside a regional human rights mechanism was the exception in Europe (Greece, 1967–1974), it was the rule for an extended period of time in the system established by the Organization of American States (OAS). The 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man was followed in 1959 by the establishment of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and in 1969 by the OAS’s own treaty-based system built around the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (including an individual complaint procedure). The 1970 Protocol of Buenos Aires revised the Charter and strengthened the Commission. Dozens of protocols and conventions followed, indicating another regional norms cascade, which either addressed the initial weaknesses of the OAS system or expanded the mandate and strength of the Court and Commission (Lutz and Sikkink, 2000). In addition to its work on individual cases, the Commission has produced dozens of country reports, some of which have had an important impact on the human rights situation in member countries. After a slow start, the Inter-American Court is increasing its caseload, and its decisions on cases of disappearances in Honduras, and most recently, on torture and execution in Guatemala have established important precedents. Evolution has also taken place in the much weaker mechanisms under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. In 1998, the Head of States of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) decided to establish an African Human Rights Court to supplement the work of the existing Commission (Mutua, 1999). There are also advanced efforts within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish a regional human rights mechanism.

The evolution of international human rights institutions has not (yet) featured as a major research question for international relations theorists. Liberal theory tends exclusively to focus on those human rights institutions capable of imposing real sovereignty costs on states. This limits the research to a small handful of human rights treaties that carry real teeth and leaves uninvestigated the great bulk of human rights norm activity that does not involve binding treaties or strong enforcement mechanisms. At the other extreme are constructivists who treat the world polity and its norms as a constant force pulling states towards rhetorical compliance. Both perspectives neglect the political battles around the creation of a global norm catalogue. While realists often dismiss such institutions as inconsequential, they also suggest that hegemonic leaders determine the content and evolution of the dominant norms in international society.

Constructivists hold that non-governmental actors and their principled mobilization play an increasingly important role in determining the social environment of state actors. The evolution of international human rights norms since the late 1940s at the UN and regional levels contains evidence for liberal and constructivist perspectives. States remain formally in control of decision-making procedures, while non-governmental actors acquire increasing authority in shaping the direction of those decisions. All human rights norms originally codified in the Universal Declaration have been subject to some form of progressive ‘international legalization’ (Abbott et al., 2000) either with regard to the extent of obligation, their precision, or the use of delegation as a means of increasing compliance. At the same time, human rights norms have traveled with different speed from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ along these three dimensions. Future research should move confidently beyond the question of relevance and trace not only the origins, but also the evolution of international human rights institutions within the framework of international relations theories. In the face of serious political challenges, the international human rights regime has passed the test of robustness and successfully defended its basic standards and values as well as authority.

Compliance with International Human Rights Norms

The significance of the origins, acceptance and evolution of norms for international relations scholars hinges on their ability to influence actual behavior beyond mere rhetorical commitment. We can think of compliance with human rights norms as a continuum including (1) the ratification of a human rights treaty, (2) the fulfillment of reporting and other requests by supervisory bodies, (3) the implementation of norms in domestic law, (4) and rule-consistent behavior on the domestic level (Kent, 1999: 236; Risse et al., 1999). Since some of the compliance issues have been discussed above, we will concentrate here on the final stages of the continuum. While compliance understood as rhetorical commitment to international human rights norms has consistently increased since 1948, advancements in more substantive compliance understood as rule-consistent behavior are much less consistent. Camp Keith (1999) recently argued that there is no significant statistical correlation between the increase in ratifications for the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and actual human rights behavior measured with the Political Terror Scale (see p. 518). This result supports the claim that international human rights norms are not self-enforcing, but require some form of agency to bring them to the domestic level. Formal acceptance by a state party is often not the end, but the beginning of a prolonged struggle about the implementation of the norms.

Rather than resulting in consistently decreasing human rights violations around the world, the growing rhetorical commitment to human rights often intensifies the frustration among activists about a widening gap between rhetoric and (non-)action. Some of this is a result of vastly increased non-governmental monitoring practices. However, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia and Kosovo in 1994/95 and 1999 are only the most recent instances of continued gross human rights violations committed around the world. Almost thirty years after starting its first global campaign against torture, Amnesty International declared in 2000 that the organization had received credible reports of torture from more than 150 countries since 1997, in about half of these nations torture was widespread. The proliferation of ‘truth commissions’ around the world (Hayner, 2000) is not only a sign of strengthened human rights norms, but also a reminder of the recurrence of human rights abuses. What are the conditions for successfully enforcing human rights norms? Are the most successful strategies based on sanctions, material incentives, civil society support, transnational mobilization, or combinations of those tactics?

The answers to these questions vary with the particular human rights issue, ranging from the shaming strategies of non-governmental actors to humanitarian interventions by a group or the whole community of states. With a focus on human rights treaties ‘with real teeth,’ liberal theory conceives of compliance mainly as an issue of institutional design and judicial process. For realists, compliance is mainly a question of choosing the appropriate material means of enforcement in a world of state actors. Constructivists fall into two distinct camps with regard to the question of compliance. One side argues that non-compliance and ‘decoupling’ between norms and behavior is the rule (Krasner, 1999). Other norm-driven arguments maintain that transnational advocacy networks can socialize and ‘entrap’ (Risse, 2000: 32) state actors using the latter’s rhetorical commitment to the norms. In the following sections, we will begin with a discussion of traditional foreign policy instruments and move then to the role of non-governmental actors and transnational advocacy networks.

Human rights in foreign policy

Thirty years ago, human rights were considered a peripheral and even inappropriate topic for foreign policy. Today, many countries have incorporated human rights concerns into their foreign policy agendas. Many questions still remain about to what degree human rights concerns actually influence foreign policy decisions, and whether such human rights policies actually improve domestic conditions in the target country. We will address both questions in turn.

Do human rights considerations affect foreign policy decisions?

A growing number of quantitative and qualitative studies explore how consistently donor nations take human rights into account when allocating military and economic aid. Such studies indicate that human rights have gained increasing salience in foreign policy and aid bureaucracies in many countries of the Northern Hemisphere. In the United States the activism of non-governmental organizations in the early 1970s created a climate of public opinion which encouraged Members of Congress to use the human rights agenda in their challenge of a presidency weakened by Watergate and Vietnam (Forsythe, 2000a: 175; Livezey, 1988; Sikkink, 1993). The creation of a lasting human rights bureaucracy was the result of non-governmental pressure on Congress and began long before the Carter administration took office (Weissbrodt, 1981). The Carter administration policy gave a higher profile and additional rhetorical commitment to the human rights cause.

A series of quantitative studies have focused on the impact of US human rights legislation on changing patterns of military and economic aid (Mitchell and McCormick, 1988; Poe, 1997; Stohl et al., 1984). By comparing levels of aid with human rights practices in a large number of aid recipients, this research explores to what degree US human rights legislation has actually led to a changing pattern of military and economic aid. Although there was very substantial disagreement in the early studies, the most recent work has found that human rights is taken into account in making military and economic aid decisions, but they compete with a range of other policy goals, including the economic need of the target country and strategic and ideological concerns (Apodaca and Stohl, 1999).

Research on foreign policies of the Netherlands, Canada and Norway suggests that states with a reputation for ‘human internationalism’ often also subordinated human rights concerns to economic and security interests (Matthews and Pratt, 1988). While human rights considerations are neither the only nor the primary factor in determining foreign aid, the literature indicates how human rights as part of ‘good governance’ have increased in prominence. The application of such standards is very uneven, in particular for the United States as one of the most outspoken and self-professed defenders of democracy. Geostrategic considerations have consistently overridden such concerns in much of the Arab world and for many Asian countries. A recent quantitative study argues that both the European Union and the United States have an increasingly consistent record of punishing human rights violators, albeit with different sanctioning instruments (Hazelzet, 2001).

Apart from the aid decisions of bi- and multilateral donors, the growing salience of human rights norms has led to a ‘humanization of humanitarian law’ (Meron, 2000) as reflected in the daily decisions of the Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals on issues such as command responsibility and the prosecution of sexual crimes. Under the leadership of the US government, the UN Security Council has gradually expanded the scope of Chapter VII of the UN Charter to link the security of peoples within a country to international peace and security. Under this provision domestic human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia, Northern Iraq, or Somalia have become a concern for the world community and makers of foreign policy. Transnational advocacy networks and international media attention to human rights crises around the world have pressured state actors and international organizations to take human rights considerations more seriously. Forsythe concluded that ‘the presence or absence, the number and resources, the emphases and orientations of private human rights groups were subjects worthy of analysis in understanding foreign policy and human rights’ (Forsythe, 2000b: 5).

Are current foreign policy instruments effective means to improve human rights conditions abroad?

Many academics and policy-makers are skeptical when it comes to the use of sanctions as a means to promote human rights (for examples see Drezner, 1999: 10–11). They point out that sanctions are often not taken with an aim to affect change, but to deflect criticism at the home front (Eland, 1995: 29). In such cases of mixed or diffuse motives it is unlikely that policymakers actually choose appropriate and effective sanctions instruments. During the Kosovo crisis in early 1999, Western leaders jeopardized the success of the military intervention by excluding the possibility of sending in ground troops, which was seen as problematic in the light of the public opinion at home (Garton Ash, 2000). In the target state, domestic élites are the least likely victims of sanctions and many leaders from Cuba to North Korea have been able to strengthen their positions by capitalizing on a ‘rally-around-the-flag’ effect. Worse still the UN sanctions regime against Iraq during the 1990s has both massively negative consequences for domestic human rights conditions and helped the regime to further demoralize the domestic opposition. Yet in the cases of Rhodesia and South Africa, multilateral and bilateral sanctions had an impact in the long term. A recent study combining qualitative and quantitative analysis argues that US sanctions involving military intervention with an explicit pro-democracy agenda can contribute to enduring democratization in target countries (Peceny, 1999).

Regan (1995) suggests that aid decisions have a small positive effect on changing repression levels. An earlier study by Jan Egeland argued that Norway was more successful in promoting human rights abroad than the United States (Egeland, 1984). Egeland claimed that smaller states develop more coherent and effective human rights policies. However, a closer look at Egeland’s measures of effectiveness reveals that consistence and coherence in policy implementation was the main criterion of effectiveness, rather than any actual changes in target country human rights practices. The smaller parliamentary states of Europe that have adopted human rights policies–Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands–have indeed had more consistent and unambiguous policies than the United States, but it does not necessarily follow that these policies have been more effective.

Qualitative studies of the effectiveness of US human rights policy reconfirm that the success of outside interventions depends on the concomitant links built between sender and target country. Chances for success increase when Congress and the executive unite in adopting a forceful human rights policy at a time when groups in the target country can use such outside pressures internally (Martin and Sikkink, 1993). Poe also argues that it is necessary to study the strategic interaction between donor and recipient regimes over time in order to better understand the linkage between aid and repression (Poe, 1997). Particularly important is the communication process involved in aid cutoffs, because such measures might weaken the material basis of a regime, but they are also an opportunity for targeted leaders to reinvent themselves as ‘victims’ of outside intervention (Schmitz, 2001). Moreover, if aid cuts are accompanied by contradictory messages such as concerns about the ‘stability’ of the country or region, they are likely to be ineffective.

Kaempfer and Lowenberg (1999) have recently used the greater potential for ambiguous communications to argue that multilateral sanctions are less effective than unilateral ones. What is still lacking in many cases of stateled human rights policies are (1) a clear definition of goals, (2) a conscious selection of appropriate means, (3) the consistent application of the measures, including communications with the target government and (4) a long-term follow-up. We argue below that such measures are more likely to be successful if they are part of a larger effort that systematically recognizes and includes the work of transnational advocacy networks. This also requires a broadening of our understanding of sanctions to include both identity-based and material measures (Crawford and Klotz, 1999). We argue below that the combination of norm cascades, non-governmental mobilization, and state foreign policies and multilateral action have proved to be very consequential for human rights violators.

Non-state actors and transnational advocacy networks

Research on the effectiveness of global human rights institutions suggests a complex model of norm diffusion to the national level. This model is not exclusively built on one of the theories of human rights change discussed in this chapter, but includes realist, liberal and constructivist ingredients. Because processes of principled mobilization are seen as the main engine of the process, however, constructivist theorizing and nongovernmental networks are at the center of the explanation. These networks emerged during the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction to the failure of the United Nations to respond adequately to systematic human rights violations around the world (Korey, 1998: 139–80). The network members began to lobby international organizations, liberal states and the international public to join their efforts to mobilize against human rights violators. The first result of this research has been that even strong states in the international system are followers, not leaders of such mobilization efforts. Non-governmental mobilization precedes and causes state action on behalf of human rights. Many major human rights victories such as women’s suffrage, the global campaign against apartheid, or the ban on landmines saw state actors either as increasingly convinced followers or reluctant bystanders (Klotz, 1995; Ramirez et al., 1997).

A second, more preliminary result of nongovernmental mobilization traces the direct influence of these principled campaigns on human rights violators. An evaluation of eleven comparative case studies suggests a ‘spiral model’ of human rights change (Risse et al., 1999). The process starts with (1) a situation of domestic repression, (2) moves to initial non-governmental mobilization and governmental denial, (3) tactical concessions, (4) rhetorical acceptance of human rights norms and ends with (5) rule-consistent behavior. Since countries may spend extended time periods in each of these phases, the question is what kinds of strategies are most likely to move a country towards the next phase of the model. Corresponding to all three major theoretical perspectives, several hypotheses can be generated to account for the timing, including pressure from other states or international organizations, network mobilization strategies, issue characteristics, density or strength of the network (Brysk, 1994; Keck and Sikkink, 1998) and the nature of the domestic structure (Checkel, 1999).

Invariably, principled human rights NGOs set this process in motion by disseminating information provided by domestic victims of systematic human rights abuses. Transnational advocacy networks ‘shame’ the human rights violator and mobilize further international support from like-minded liberal states and international organizations. In many cases, United Nations human rights mechanisms will start their own investigations and comment on the domestic situation. Repressive governments often deny that human rights abuses occurred and invoke the norm of non-intervention against outside criticism. If a violent or fundamentalist opposition leads the domestic struggle, state leaders have more success in undermining the beginning mobilization by arguing for ‘stability’ and against further outside action. The most important transition in the spiral model occurs when state leaders move from denial to the stage of tactical concessions. This period has a distinct international and domestic component. On the international level, state representatives will start to accept the human rights norms and admit to the existence of human rights abuses. Domestically, this will open space for civil society actors to reclaim a more independent role in domestic politics. Transnational actors will continue to mobilize and link with those domestic groups and individuals. Research on the spiral model and the rhetorical behavior of state and non-governmental actors provided initial evidence that ‘human rights talk’ is not cheap. Studies on government responses to human rights criticism (van Ravels-Smulders, 1998) suggest an independent role for processes of moral argumentation and normative socialization (Risse, 2000). Moral argumentation rarely leads to direct behavioral change. Instead, state actors are forced to defend their human rights record in a social environment of world opinion and international institutions. This institutional context does not determine outcomes, but it does create a corridor of narrowing choices for policy-makers.

Ann Kent shows in her study of China’s changing attitudes towards UN human rights institutions (1971–1998) that the Chinese government has been socialized within about ten years after Tiananmen into ‘an acceptance of basic international human rights procedures’ (Kent, 1999: 247), but remains recalcitrant when it comes to the domestic application of those norms. Considering the importance of China in international politics and its prominent role in the debate about ‘Asian values,’ this crucial case study reconfirms the results of the initial research on the effects of norm socialization. However, because of the continuing gap between international rhetoric and domestic action and the expected time lag, there is still not enough evidence to conclude whether this is a case of ‘decoupling’ or successful norm socialization (see Table 27.1). The successful transition through the phase of tactical concessions ends either with sustainable policy change or the demise of the authoritarian regime altogether. State leaders will now fully accept the human rights norms, ratify international treaties and begin to implement those domestically. This stage of ‘de jure compliance’ or ‘prescriptive status’ is not identical with rule-consistent behavior. In most cases, continued network mobilization and a strong domestic support for human rights is necessary to move further along the spiral model and reach full de facto compliance.

Realists and liberals, with their emphasis on material interests, can account for states choosing not to promote human rights issues in other countries. However, when it comes to explaining participation in a process of positive human rights change, constructivist theory carries the main weight. Network strategies of non-governmental actors have been identified as crucial ingredients in many cases of human rights enforcement. Liberal theory’s emphasis on domestic structure adds additional insights on the degree of initial resonance of international norms on the domestic level. This perspective can also help to understand why civil societies in some countries are quicker in (re)claiming the political space opened by transnational mobilization. The research on the effectiveness of international human rights norms is still in its early stages. The spiral model allows us to ask the right questions about crucial periods and actors of human rights change, but it does not necessarily answer those questions.


Scholars of international relations have made considerable progress in understanding the international politics of human rights in the past two decades, but many of the most pressing issues still need more systematic scholarly attention. Hence, this chapter has not only focused on presenting the state of the art, but also made a conscious effort to identify important research questions for the future. Constructivist scholarship has transformed our understanding of international human rights and established the subject on the agenda of international relations scholars. The chapter traces how human rights norms have enjoyed consistently growing recognition in international politics since 1945. It also shows how non-governmental actors and advocacy networks shaped this process in crucial ways. Moreover, we argue that the growing rhetorical commitment to human rights norms affects how state actors calculate their self-interests and make decisions. In many cases, proving such an effect is difficult, because a decision not to engage in overt repression is hard to identify. Still, many of the global changes described here are still rhetorical and have not yet led to a process of irreversible norm socialization. A globally declining pattern of abuses even of the most basic human rights is still not clearly discernible. The human rights issue deserves attention because it has become a dominant framework for many political struggles within and across national boundaries. Its alternative logic based on individual well-being slowly transforms the state-centric view of international relations with its claim that violations of rights are a shared global concern. Human rights debates have become a dynamic undercurrent influencing and bypassing conventional inter-state politics.

Despite the role of constructivism in establishing human rights as an acceptable research agenda in international relations scholarship, much remains to be done in bringing together separate theoretical debates both within political science and across disciplinary divides. In particular, there are two almost separate debates occurring–one among quantitative scholars on the causes of repression, and the degree to which human rights norms have influenced foreign policy decisions over aid–and a second among more qualitative international relations scholars over liberal, realist and constructivist explanations for the origins, evolution and effectiveness of human rights norms and institutions. These debates could benefit from engaging more directly with one another, as the possibilities for theoretical advances may lie in synthesizing insights from both literatures. Developing stronger theories of the causes and remedies for repression is not only important for IR theory, but has potentially powerful policy implications. Rather than allow ourselves to be mired down in sterile debates over which IR theory is confirmed by the human rights case, we need to use whatever eclectic theoretical tools are at our disposal that most accurately help us explain the ebbs and flows of repression in the world.