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Theory and Evidence Regarding the Effectiveness of Human Rights Treaties

Summary and Keywords

The adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 marked the beginning of the modern international human rights regime. Since then the number of international treaties that protect human rights, as well as the number of internationally recognized rights, has greatly increased. The increasing number and scope of international treaties attests to the fact that advocates for human rights view treaties, which are legally binding in principle, as useful tools for promoting respect for the various rights identified in international law. Only recently have scholars begun to collect and systematically examine evidence concerning the effectiveness of human rights treaties. This new body of research is motivated by a question that has obvious normative import and policy relevance: do we have good evidence that the widespread adoption of international human rights law has had any meaningful impact on the level of respect that states exhibit for the rights articulated in international law? To date, this literature suggests three sources of variation in the effectiveness of human rights treaties: (1) variation in the domestic political and legal institutions that facilitate enforcement and compliance, (2) variation in the nature of the rights protected by different treaties and the nature of violations, and (3) variation in the strength of governments’ commitments to the UN treaty regime. All three sources of variation point to opportunities to advance our understanding of the conditions under which international human rights law can achieve its goals.

Keywords: human rights, international law, treaties, international organizations, compliance, empirical international relations theory


This essay traces the development of one part of the empirical literature on international human rights law, namely studies that examine the effectiveness of human rights treaties.1 This body of research typically examines universal human rights treaties, meaning those that have been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and are open for signature and ratification to all UN member states.2 The question of whether human rights law is effective is related to one of the perennial questions in IR research, which is whether and how international institutions alter states’ incentives and influence their behavior. Like the literature on international institutions more broadly, research on human rights treaties has progressed from examining whether treaties improve protection of the human rights that they enunciate to examining the particular ways that treaties affect state policy and behavior (Martin & Simmons, 1998). Early studies were largely inductive enterprises, motivated by a question that has obvious normative import and policy relevance: do we have good evidence that the proliferation and widespread adoption of international human rights law that has occurred since the end of the Second World War has had any meaningful impact on the level of respect that states exhibit for the rights articulated in international law? Current research has moved beyond this basic question to theorize about (and explore empirically) the particular ways that treaties affect policy, outlining causal pathways from ratification to policy and conducting empirical tests that match these more specific theories. The most prominent trend in the literature is the attribution of effectiveness to a variety of domestic political institutions and conditions, including: democracy, an independent/powerful judiciary, executive job security, an independent/powerful legislature, the presence of domestic groups that have an interest in compliance, and an environment favorable to political mobilization. Recent studies find that these conditions are related to treaty effectiveness (i.e., that treaties can improve government behavior under the right conditions).

Although the purpose of this volume is to engage empirically oriented IR theories that avoid directly addressing normative issues, it is impossible to completely divorce the literature on human rights treaties from normative considerations. This line of research is positivist in the sense that it takes international human rights law as it is and examines its effects on the actors subject to it, and it typically does not directly engage debates about whether the concept of universal human rights is legitimate or desirable. That said, the question of whether human rights law has any discernible effect on the way governments treat their citizens is motivated at least partly by a belief that it is normatively desirable for states to follow the rules of the international human rights regime. Most research on this topic takes as given that the goal of the regime—recognition and protection of the rights posited by various international legal instruments—is desirable, and attempts to answer whether and how the regime has made progress toward that goal.

In the following section, I discuss theoretical and empirical cumulation in this literature. Based on the arguments that have developed and the body of finding compiled across numerous studies, I identify three sources of variation in the effectiveness of human rights treaties: (1) variation in the domestic political and legal institutions that facilitate enforcement and compliance, (2) variation in the nature of the rights protected by different treaties and the nature of violations, and (3) variation in the strength of governments’ commitments to the UN treaty regime. This entry focuses on the treaty regime established by the UN, meaning there is much research on other areas of international human rights law, and research on closely related topics, that is not discussed in detail here. This includes work that focuses exclusively on compliance and effectiveness in the regional human rights regimes established by the Organization of American States (OAS) under the American Convention on Human Rights, the African Union (AU) under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the Council of Europe (CoE) under the European Convention on Human Rights. It also includes the literature on “naming and shaming” campaigns by international and domestic human rights nongovernmental organizations. Research on both of these topics is clearly relevant to questions about compliance and effectiveness in the UN regime. Although the inception and progression of those bodies of work are not discussed in this essay, connections between them and the literature under discussion, as well as opportunities for synthesizing them with research on UN treaties, are identified at the end.

Theoretical and Empirical Development

The first large-N, empirical study of compliance was conducted by Keith (1999), who examined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR). Her argument focused on the limited authority delegated to the UN Human Rights Committee, the body created to monitor compliance and implement the treaty. The theoretical arguments made in other early studies tended toward a grand theory or “isms” approach that could be used to justify several different expectations regarding the impact of legal commitments on states’ human rights practices (e.g., Hathaway, 2002; Landman, 2005; Neumayer, 2005; Hafner-Burton & Tsutsui, 2005). Although these studies tended not to offer detailed theories of how treaties improve compliance, they were highly valuable in terms of the findings they produced and their discussion of several important theoretical issues. One is the general weakness of the UN regime’s monitoring and enforcement procedures, which has become a frequent point of discussion in the literature. Another theoretical issue that contributed to pessimism about the prospects for the effectiveness of treaties is the nature of human rights relative to other issues that are the subject of international legal agreements. These foundational studies called attention to the fact that human rights agreements are not intended to regulate foreign policies that confer benefits or impose costs on other states. This means that general theories of international cooperation and enforcement that often work well for explaining compliance with, for example, a multilateral trade agreement, are likely a poor fit for agreements governing human rights practices.3 A third important theoretical issue discussed in early work is the possibility that human rights treaty law may have a larger impact on the policies of liberal democratic states, which is suggested by an argument that calls attention to the role of domestic legal and political institutions in implementing the rulings of international courts (Helfer & Slaughter, 1997). Of course, liberal democratic states are, at least with respect to some human rights, more likely to be in compliance with the provisions of a treaty in the first place, a point revisited below. Together these theoretical issues—a weak regime design, weak incentives for external enforcement by other states, and the role of democracy in shaping compliance—point to the importance of domestic institutions in the enforcement of human rights law, a subject that has become the literature’s main focus and to which I return below.

Another important theoretical issue that has received more attention over time is self-selection into treaties and the problems this creates for determining whether treaties have a causal effect on state behavior and policy. The problem is that observable difference between ratifiers and non-ratifiers may be attributable to the conditions that led them to ratify in the first place rather than the treaty itself. This general issue has been recognized for some time by IR scholars; states are more likely to join agreements when their policies already conform to the requirements of the agreement, or when they already intend to change their policies to match the provisions of the agreement (Downs, Rocke, & Barsoom, 1996; Von Stein, 2005; Simmons & Hopkins, 2005). Although some early studies ignored this issue, it is now standard practice in the literature to employ one of several corrections for the potential bias that arises from non-random treatment assignment. Methods for addressing the theoretical issue of self-selection include the use of instrumental variables (Landman, 2005; Simmons, 2009; Cole, 2012, 2013; Von Stein, 2016), matching techniques (Hill, 2010; Lupu, 2013a, 2013b, 2015), and the estimator developed by Von Stein (2005) (Conrad & Ritter, 2013; Ritter & Conrad, 2016).

In addition to from identifying these theoretical issues that scholars are still engaging, another valuable contribution of earlier work was a set of empirical findings that greatly influence the direction of future research. As with nearly all bodies of empirical research in IR, the findings were “mixed” but provided some clues about the conditions that explain variation in treaty effectiveness. These insights were crucial in building toward more explicit theories and empirical tests that helped illuminate the mechanisms that connect ratification and compliance. Inconsistencies across findings regarding treaty effects can be attributed to at least three sources. This entry elaborates on each of these in the following sections. One is heterogeneity in the effects of international law that is driven by a host of domestic political, legal, and social conditions. Consistent with broad arguments in IR that emphasize the importance of domestic politics (e.g., Moravcsik, 1997), early studies attributed treaty effectiveness in democracies to the ability of the public to mobilize and pressure the government to comply, and also emphasized the importance of domestic courts of law as a potential enforcement mechanism. Although the broader, aggregate concept of democracy is still occasionally invoked in the literature, recent arguments about domestic sources of compliance tend to focus on more specific features of domestic politics and the legal system, including distinct aspects of democracy. A second source of inconsistency in estimated treaty effects is variation in the nature of the rights protected by the treaty in question and, correspondingly, the nature of compliance and violations. The results of studies that examine violent violations of civil and political rights, sometimes referred to as “personal integrity violations,” tend to be more discouraging than the results of studies examining other kinds of violations, including nonviolent violations of civil and political rights, and violations of treaties that guarantee equality for women. A third source of inconsistency across studies is variation in legalization at the international level, a subject which has received considerably less attention than variation in domestic institutions. All three sources of variation point to opportunities to advance theoretical and empirical work on the effectiveness of human rights treaties, which is discussed further in the conclusion.

Domestic Institutions and Human Rights Treaty Enforcement

Keith’s (1999) study of compliance with the CCPR produced null results that suggested, portentously, that human rights treaties do not have unconditional beneficial effects on state behavior and policy.4Hathaway (2002) and Neumayer (2005) found, for several treaties, a positive correlation between ratification and respect for human rights conditional on domestic political and social conditions. Hathaway (2002) found that for democratic states5 human rights practices were better among those that have ratified the Genocide Convention,6 the First Optional Protocol to the CCPR,7 and the Convention on the Political Rights of Women.8 Neumayer (2005) reported a similar result for the CCPR, the Convention Against Torture (CAT), and the European and American Conventions.9 Hathaway also found that practices were generally better among ratifying countries with more active civil societies, operationalized as the number of INGOs in which citizens of the state claim membership. Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui (2007) also found that among democratic countries and those with large numbers of INGOs, states that have ratified the CAT and the CCPR are, on average, less repressive than non-ratifying states.10 These authors usually explained these findings by appealing to the idea that domestic interest groups in democracies can more easily leverage international law to pressure the government and that democracies are likely to have powerful domestic courts through which individuals can seek redress for treaty violations. This interpretation points to two distinct institutional features of democracy that may make treaties more effective. One is that democratic governments are subject to replacement through open elections, and ratification can lead to popular mobilization that produces political pressure to comply with the treaty. The second is that powerful domestic courts11 create the possibility of legal action by individuals and groups that may lead a domestic court to invalidate policies that are inconsistent with the treaty or to prosecute those responsible for violations. Both of these explanations, which of course are not mutually exclusive, invoke a long causal chain between ratification and changes in policy and behavior. The goal of much subsequent work was to more fully explicate these mechanisms and identify the conditions under which they are more likely to operate, as well as to identify other potential mechanisms that may work at the domestic level. Another goal has been to conduct empirical tests that distinguish between the distinct characteristics of a state’s political or legal system that have some impact on effectiveness and that examine more directly the various steps in the causal chain between ratification and compliance.

Powell and Staton (2009) pointed out the need to distinguish empirically as well as theoretically between the two mechanisms thought to contribute to treaty effectiveness in democracies. Theorizing specifically about ratification and compliance with the CAT, they argued that between public pressure and powerful domestic courts, courts are a more likely source of compliance given the willingness of voting publics to tolerate violations of the CAT (torture)12 and the fact that governments subject to replacement through competitive elections routinely violate the CAT (Powell & Staton, 2009, pp. 149–152). They develop a game-theoretic model where a state chooses whether to ratify the CAT and also whether to use violence to preempt political threats posed by citizens. Citizens then choose whether to seek redress in court. The act of petitioning the court is assumed to be costly and the outcome uncertain; courts may or may not enforce citizens’ rights under the treaty. Their model suggests governments subject to powerful domestic courts are less likely to ratify the treaty and violate its terms by engaging in torture. Although this is encouraging from a normative perspective, their formal model also suggests that these same states are more likely to simply avoid ratification and violate the treaty’s terms. Their empirical results support the first claim more strongly (i.e., that powerful courts make a government less willing to ratify and willingly violate their legal obligations under the CAT).13 This is because powerful courts lead governments to expect that if they are a party to the treaty, individuals will bring claims against the state in the event that their rights under the treaty are violated. This study suggests that powerful domestic courts can be a source of treaty enforcement but may also cause states to avoid ratification in the first place. Importantly, Powell and Staton (2009) emphasized that ratification and compliance are related decisions driven by the same domestic institutions. As noted above, this creates complications when conducting empirical analysis to determine the effectiveness of human rights treaties. Addressing the connection between these decisions, both theoretically and empirically, continues to be a pervasive issue in the literature.

In one of the most comprehensive examinations of the effectiveness of human rights treaties to date, Simmons (2009) further advanced the field’s understanding of the relationship between domestic politics and effectiveness. Due to the existence of numerous theoretical reasons, outlined above, to doubt the effectiveness international enforcement, Simmons focuses entirely on domestic sources of compliance. Consistent with previous studies, Simmons also claims that treaties will be more effective where states are accountable to powerful domestic courts, but her argument emphasizes a broader set of domestic conditions than the power of the judiciary. She argues more generally that treaties create opportunities for individuals and groups to mobilize and use various tactics, including litigation but also various forms of popular pressure or “rightful resistance” (O’Brien, 1996), to induce compliance on the part of their government. This is because treaties “provide standards against which both the demands of the populace and the actions of the government can be assessed,” and offer “a lever to critique the government with its own commitment” (Simmons, 2009, pp. 147–148). Keck and Sikkink (1998) made a similar claim in their seminal work on human rights NGOs. Discussing what they call “accountability politics,” they claim that once governments publicly commit themselves to a position on human rights, behavior that is incongruous with this position can be costly: this is because it makes the government vulnerable to critics who would point out its failure to live up to its commitments, formal or informal. Though Keck and Sikkink’s argument does not focus primarily on international legal agreements, they offer as one example of this process dissident activity in the Soviet Union that followed the adoption of the Helsinki Final Act. Some dissident groups made use of that agreement to publicly highlight inconsistencies between official positions and actual behavior (Keck & Sikkink, 1998, p. 24).14 The main theoretical contribution of Simmons’s study is an argument about the relationship between democracy and treaty effectiveness that draws on resource mobilization theory (Tilly, 1978) and Dai’s (2005) theory that under certain conditions domestic “pro-compliance constituencies” can help citizens facilitate treaty implementation and compliance where governments would otherwise be recalcitrant. Simmons argues that the propensity of domestic groups to mobilize for compliance depends on the benefit of compliance to the group and the probability that mobilization will lead to compliance (i.e., on the expected utility of mobilization). Her claim is that the expected utility will be highest in partially democratic regimes. This is because these governments are more likely to respond positively to demands for rights than autocracies, so the probability of success is relatively high. Also, partial democracies are not as respectful of human rights as full democracies, so then the benefit of success is relatively large as well. In some ways this novel prediction is more satisfying than the hypothesis that treaties matter most in democracies. That hypothesis leaves one wondering why a treaty would ever lead to noticeable improvement in human rights conditions (Hafner-Burton & Tsutsui, 2007), since democratic institutions are relatively effective at protecting human rights in the absence of international legal commitments (Poe & Tate, 1994; Davenport, 2007a, 2007b), and democracies are, by definition, at least somewhat respectful of internationally recognized political rights (Von Stein, 2016; Hill, 2016). Simmons’s theory acknowledges that democracies are inherently more respectful of these rights than autocracies—the net benefit for mobilization in democracies is small because government practices already partly align with the treaty’s requirements.

Simmons’s empirical analysis examines the CCPR, the CAT, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), using instrumental variables to account for the fact that ratification is non-random. Results for the CCPR, the CAT, and CEDAW support the claim that the beneficial effects of human rights treaties are more pronounced in partially democratic countries.15 Importantly, ratification of two of these treaties (CCPR and CEDAW) is positively associated with membership in INGOs (Women’s INGOs in the case of CEDAW), providing some plausibility to the claim that beneficial treaty effects are attributable to increases in domestic mobilization.

While Simmons (2009) provided a more detailed theory and examination of the relationship between ratification and compliance, and of the domestic processes that link the two, her argument also raises questions about these processes. One is whether ratification actually affects the beliefs and preferences of the public regarding compliance with the treaty. One of the argument’s crucial claims is that international legal obligations change the public’s evaluation of government policy (pp. 139–144). There are few studies that examine this claim directly, but those that exist have produced inconsistent results (Wallace, 2013, Chilton & Versteeg, 2016). Second, it is not clear why a government, even one that has ratified a human rights treaty, would necessarily respond to increases in domestic mobilization with concessions rather than repression (or by simply doing nothing). She details several reasons why ratification would make a government more responsive to demands for compliance. But her argument about the relationship between democracy and the expected utility of mobilization suggests that mobilization is more likely in partially democratic regimes regardless of whether a state has ratified relevant treaties. This argument recalls an older theory about political mobilization and violence, findings advanced by Muller (1985), that expects more political violence in partially democratic regimes precisely because groups will be more likely to mobilize against the state in such regimes.

Subsequent work by Conrad and Ritter (2013) and Ritter and Conrad (2016) addresses the second issue by combining insights concerning the importance of domestic courts and political mobilization to create an even more explicit theory connecting ratification to domestic mobilization and compliance. They make a valuable contribution by closely examining two crucial questions. First, under what conditions does ratification lead to more domestic political pressure? Second, under what conditions do governments respond to increased domestic pressure with fewer, rather than more, violations of human rights? They address these questions with a game-theoretic model of an interaction between a government that must decide whether to ratify a treaty and a group of citizens who decides how much effort to expend pressuring their government to comply. At a cost, the government can suppress citizens’ efforts to mobilize. The chosen levels of mobilization and repression determine whether the group receives its demand and whether the leader remains in power.

Conrad and Ritter’s model also suggests that the constraining effect of human rights treaties is largest when political leaders are most likely to repress in response to dissent. In their model the probability of repression hinges on the leader’s job security, meaning the baseline probability of the leader remaining in office in the near future. When job security is high, the benefit of being in office is substantial, which makes leaders more willing to repress in response to dissent and also means that any dissent will be intense, since citizens anticipate that secure leaders will be difficult to unseat (see also Ritter, 2014). The treaty matters under these conditions because the anticipated cost of treaty-based litigation imposes a constraint on leaders who would otherwise be unable to resist the temptation to repress. Treaties have less of an effect on the behavior of relatively insecure leaders. Insecure leaders will expend resources to repress dissent, but dissent is likely to be minimal since citizens will not devote much effort to unseat a leader who is already likely to lose office. Since the level of repression necessary to counter such threats is relatively low, it is unlikely to result in litigation costs that would deter repression. In line with this logic, the model implies that political mobilization in response to ratification is most likely when leaders are more secure.

Counterintuitively, it also implies that treaties have no effect on the likelihood of mobilization when the domestic judiciary is relatively powerful. If the judiciary is powerful the public strongly believes that the government will not respond to dissent with repression, so the impact of treaty ratification on this belief, and consequently on mobilization, is minimal.16

In the presence of a weak judiciary ratification can alter the public’s expectation of repression and the likelihood that they mobilize. Using a statistical model developed by Von Stein (2005) to model self-selection, Conrad and Ritter (2013) and Ritter and Conrad (2016) find support for both of these claims.17 Similar to Simmons (2009), these two studies offer a theoretical explanation for why treaties can make a differences in contexts other than consolidated democracies. However, they also suggest that treaty effectiveness may not be related in a straightforward fashion to democratic political institutions. Many autocrats have long time horizons and are subject to weak domestic judiciaries, and under such conditions treaties would be expected to have some impact on both mobilization and compliance.

Lupu (2015) called attention to a domestic political institution that is closely associated with (but not equivalent to) democracy. His argument focuses on legislative veto players, meaning legislatures whose consent is required to change policy (Tsebelis, 2002). This is a departure from previous work that distinguished between constraints in democracies resulting from judicial institutions and accountability to the public through contested elections, but Tsebelis largely ignored variation in the power of national legislatures. Building on the insight that legislative veto players make it difficult to change the status quo with respect to policy, Tsebelis argues that legislative veto players make it more difficult for executives to place new formal restrictions on civil and political rights. Thus, where human rights treaties have been adopted, and especially where they have been incorporated directly into domestic law, treaties allow legislatures to prevent the passage of new legislation that formally restrict rights. Lupu extends this theory to violent human rights violations that occur outside of the legal system. Although blocking policy proposals cannot prevent violations that do not result from official policy, legislatures can make these kinds of violations more difficult by reallocating resources away from security forces, initiating legislation to implement the treaty, framing legislative debate by appealing to treaty obligations. Connecting his theory to those focused on the role of domestic political mobilization, Lupu also argues that legislatures can provide the public with information that may facilitate advocacy campaigns. Using a matching procedure first outlined in Lupu (2013b) to account for self-selection into the treaty,18 he shows that the CCPR has had a more beneficial effect on violations when legislative constraints are stronger (i.e., where the legislature has veto power and also preferences that are more divergent from those of the executive).19 Like Conrad and Ritter (2013), this study suggests that treaty effectiveness may be determined by domestic political conditions that are not perfectly correlated with democracy, broadly defined.

In keeping with the trend toward disaggregating democracy, Von Stein (2016) conducted a study of compliance that distinguishes conceptually and operationally between three different aspects of democracy that may contribute to domestic enforcement: judicial power, competitive elections that allow the public to hold leaders accountable, and respect for civil and political liberties that facilitates mobilization campaigns of the kind discussed by Keck and Sikkink (1998) and Simmons (2009). Von Stein makes an important theoretical contribution by calling attention to the conceptual similarity between some aspects of democracy and compliance with treaties that protect civil/political rights and democracy. If “democracy” refers to respect for civil and political liberties, then it is equivalent to compliance with treaties such as the CCPR that protect these rights. This poses obvious difficulties for determining how democracy modifies the effect of a treaty such as the CCPR if that concept is defined/operationalized as broad respect for political rights, as it was in several earlier studies. This insight points further to the need to disaggregate domestic political and legal institutions in studies of treaty effectiveness and also to the benefit of examining rights other than civil and political rights. Von Stein’s (2016) empirical analysis examines compliance with the Minimum Age Convention, a treaty drafted by International Labor Organization and meant to abolish child labor by setting the minimum age at which a person can be hired for labor at 15. Using instrumental variables for ratification, she finds that all three aspects of democracy contribute to treaty effectiveness.20

The theories outlined above all predict that treaty effectiveness is conditional on some characteristic of the domestic political or legal system, which helps to make sense of the finding that, on average, treaty ratification has little beneficial impact on human rights practices. Dai (2014) argued that the underlying consensus that treaties do matter under certain domestic conditions belies the apparent disagreement between existing studies concerning whether treaties matter at all, and urges researchers to devote their effort to (1) carefully outlining causal mechanisms through which domestic conditions facilitate effectiveness, and (2) gathering data and designing empirical studies that help to establish a clearer connection between the proposed mechanism and changes in government policy and practice. At this point scholars have moved away from “democracy” broadly defined and have identified a plethora of domestic institutions that connect treaties to improvements in human rights practices. There is a growing body of empirical work that attempts to isolate and examine the distinct pathways that lead from ratification to compliance. This is a promising trend, and the conclusion offers useful suggestions for pushing the literature further in this direction.

What Kind of Human Right?

In addition to the various domestic conditions that modify the effects of human rights treaties, two other sources of variation in empirical results are the nature of the rights protected by a treaty as well as the various indicators that authors have employed in the literature to measure compliance. Early findings prompted some theorizing about why human rights treaties seemed to have a negligible or even detrimental effect on practices for some rights. As many authors have pointed out, a large portion of this research focuses on civil and political rights. Empirical results regarding violations of these rights, especially violations that entail the use of violence by state agents, have been more discouraging than results for other kinds of internationally protected human rights. Hathaway’s (2002) study found that, on average, ratifiers of the Genocide Convention and the Convention Against Torture violated the provisions of those treaties at a higher rate than non-ratifiers. Subsequently Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui (2005) reported that the number of UN treaties a government has ratified was positively correlated with personal integrity violations.21 The initial explanation for these results was that due to the inherently weak enforcement mechanisms created by the treaty regime, ratification is a low-cost gesture that governments can make to garner good publicity, or “expressive benefits,” by publicly declaring support for internationally recognized human rights norms. These incentives lead states to ratify whether they intend on complying or not (Hathaway, 2002). Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui (2005) went a step further, arguing that governments might use a treaty as subterfuge and be more inclined to ratify when they intend to increase abuse in the near future.

In line with research emphasizing that treaties are most likely to be enforced domestically, subsequent research suggested that the cost of ratification is not always negligible and depends crucially on the presence and strength of institutions that determine the prospects for domestic enforcement (Hathaway, 2007).22 Simmons (2009) also attacked the idea of expressive benefits, pointing out that states had little reason to expect international or domestic accolades for ratifying treaties and then ignoring their attendant obligations.23 Building on Hathaway’s (2002) findings regarding the CAT, Vreeland (2008) showed that this pattern is much stronger among autocracies.24 He explains this by developing a theory consistent with those that expect more political violence in “hybrid” regimes where competition is partly rather than fully restricted (Muller, 1985; Muller & Seligson, 1987; Fein, 1995; Regan & Henderson, 2002). These arguments suggest that intolerance for dissent is more clearly communicated by one-party states than by autocratic states that allow limited interparty competition, thus one-party states are able to create a deterrent effect that leads to fewer acts of dissent and so fewer cases of government violence, including torture, in one-party states relative to multiparty autocracies. Vreeland explains that multiparty autocracies also have stronger incentives than one-party autocracies to ratify agreements such as the CAT as a political concession to opposition groups.25 Although CAT ratification and torture are correlated among autocratic states, this relationship is spurious and arises from the failure to account for variation in domestic political institutions among autocracies.26 Although this explanation predicts that ratifying is only associated with abuse in autocracies, subsequent studies by Hill (2010) and Lupu (2013b) that take some care to account for self-selection into treaties report similar results those in earlier studies: Hill finds that ratification of the CCPR and the CAT are associated with torture and personal integrity abuse more generally,27 and Lupu finds that CCPR ratification is associated with forced disappearance.28 Hill explains the apparent failure of the CCPR and the CAT to curb abuse by appealing to the idea that compliance with these treaties is especially costly because it entails adopting policies, such as relaxing restrictions on political dissent, that pose a direct threat to the authority of some governments. Lupu (2013b) suggested that ratification of the CCPR may be associated with disappearance because it constrains the use of more overt, formal restrictions on opposition and thus leads to the use of more covert and extralegal tactics.

Of course, several of the studies discussed in the previous section find that treaties do, under certain conditions, improve protection from violent violations of civil and political rights. But in general, studies that attempt to estimate the average effect of human rights treaty ratification on violent civil and political rights violations provide little reason to believe that practices are better among ratifying states. One early exception is Landman (2005), who examines compliance with the CCPR and the CAT using instrumental variables to account for self-selection. His results suggest that those treaties have unconditional, positive effects on civil and political rights and freedom from torture, respectively.29 Additionally, two recent studies by Fariss (2014, 2017) indicate that the rather bleak results of many earlier studies are due to changes over time in the way information about human rights violations is produced. Fariss (2014) used a measurement model to examine the possibility that the organizations that produce the annual reports upon which much human rights data is based have changed their standards over time. His model provides evidence that, for several of the indicators used in prominent studies of compliance, the same underlying level of abuse will produce a worse score in data that are produced in more recent years.30 The idea is that standards have become stricter over time, so that any given level of abuse is likely to result in a worse observed score today than it would have been in the past. Using an index of respect for personal integrity produced by this same model, Fariss (2014) finds a positive, statistically significant, and unconditional correlation between ratification of the CAT and respect for personal integrity. Fariss (2017) found positive correlations between ratification of several treaties31 and his personal integrity index. Although these results paint a more optimistic picture than previous research, neither analysis is designed to address the potential bias that results from self-selection into treaties. Since theory would expect self-selection to lead to exactly this kind of result (Downs, Rocke, & Barsoom, 1996), this should be addressed in future studies using Fariss’s indicator. Still, these studies suggest that states usually do not ratify human rights treaties with the intention of violating them egregiously and so are more encouraging than earlier studies whether the results indicate causal effects or not.

Some scholars have taken a rather pessimistic view of the prospects for international law to improve human rights practices—a view based partly on some of the work cited above.32 Besides overlooking the mounting pile of evidence that treaties do have conditionally beneficial effects, such an assessment ignores the fact that many studies that examine human rights abuses apart from violent violations of civil and political rights have found that treaties have unconditional, positive effects on human rights practices. Studies that examine compliance with CEDAW, for example, generally find that the treaty has a positive impact on equality between men and women as measured by “standards based” indicators of women’s social, economic, and political rights. Using scales developed by the Cingranelli-Richards human rights data project (Cingranelli, Richards, & Clay, 2014), Hill (2010) find that CEDAW ratification increases respect for women’s political rights, Lupu (2013a) found that ratification increases respect for women’s social, economic, and political rights, Cole (2013) found positive effects for social and political rights, and Englehart and Miller (2014) also found positive effects for social and political rights.33 All four studies estimate average (unconditional) effects, and Hill (2010), Lupu (2013a), and Cole (2013) all make some effort to account for self-selection into treaties. Additionally, although her study focuses primarily on the conditional impact of treaties, the findings in Simmons (2009) suggested that the CEDAW has an unconditionally positive impact on several outcomes relevant to the legal obligations created by that treaty, including the ratio of female-to-male school enrollment, access to contraception, and the proportion of public sector employees that are female.

In addition to promising results for the CEDAW, there is some evidence that the CCPR improves human rights practices when one looks beyond the most violent and egregious violations of that treaty. Findings in Simmons (2009) give evidence that states that have ratified the CCPR exhibit higher levels of respect for freedom of religion, regardless of whether they are autocracies, partial democracies, or full democracies. Simmons also finds that states that have ratified the CCPR’s First Optional Protocol, which prohibits the death penalty under any circumstance, are more likely to abolish the practice. Lupu (2013b) provided a novel argument for differences in the effectiveness of the CCPR in reducing different kinds of civil and political rights violations, focusing on domestic courts as the primary source of legal enforcement. He compares the ability of judiciaries to prosecute restrictions on civil and political rights that do not involve physical violence to their ability to prosecute violations of those rights that do involve physical violence.34 For the purposes of judicial enforcement, the relevant distinctions between these two types of violations are the costs of producing legally admissible evidence and the standards of proof for claims of abuse. Both of these are higher in the case of violent violations of civil and political rights, which means that when violations are of this nature it is more difficult for courts to enforce the justiciable rights created by the CCPR. Lupu argues that the costs of producing evidence are higher in the case of personal integrity violations: this is because the victims are often dead or else unwilling to provide testimony due to fear of reprisal by the government agents that harmed them in the first place. Additionally, for these kinds of violations the evidence is easier to hide, and there are usually fewer victims than in the case of less violent restrictions on civil and political rights. Legal standards of proof are also higher in these cases because personal integrity violations are always criminal offenses, whereas nonviolent violations may be civil offenses, and in most legal systems standards of proof are higher for criminal than for civil court cases. Consistent with this argument, Lupu finds that ratification of the CCPR unconditionally decreases broad violations of civil and political rights but does not decrease violations of personal integrity rights.35

Variation in results across different kinds of human rights points to the fact that “compliance” entails different kinds of behavior for different human rights treaties. There has been very little theorizing about why human rights treaties may be more effective at promoting respect for certain rights than they are for others. Cardenas (2004, 2007) points to one possibility. She emphasizes the importance of considering why violations occur in the first place and argues that the impact of international human rights pressure (including but not limited to international legal obligations) is often limited in the case of personal integrity violations. Governments frequently justify such violations by appealing to national security concerns, and there are often “pro-violation” constituencies that benefit from (and approve of) repressive measures. Lupu (2013b) makes a compelling case that the ability of domestic courts to enforce rights varies with the standard of proof necessary to prosecute various kinds of violations, and there are other distinctions between different kinds of human rights that may be relevant to effectiveness. One goal moving forward should be to develop theories of effectiveness that are tailored to the specific rights protected by the treaty in question. Many arguments in the literature, as well as empirical analyses, pertain primarily to civil and political rights, and it would be useful to broaden the scope of our inquiry to be more inclusive of the diverse range of rights recognized in international law. This is another point that will be returned to in the conclusion.

International Legalization

A third source of variation in empirical results is legalization at the international level.36 “Legalization” here means both delegation and obligation. Delegation refers to whether (and the extent to which) a third party—a committee, court, dispute resolution panel, etc.— has been granted the authority and capacity to monitor compliance and enforce the terms of an agreement. Obligation refers to the extent of a state’s primary obligations (the substantive rules they have agreed to follow) under the treaty. In the case of the human rights regime both of these dimensions of legalization vary across countries depending on whether the government in question has ratified various optional protocols, opted in to additional monitoring procedures, or entered reservations upon ratification, which are qualifications states may place on their legal commitment before or at the time of ratification.37

As mentioned above, a common refrain in the literature is that the monitoring and enforcement powers of the UN treaty regime are too weak to expect these agreements to have much impact on government behavior.38 There is some delegation in the UN regime, as many treaties create committees tasked with gathering information to assess whether states are complying with their obligations. States are obligated to submit periodic reports to the committees outlining the steps they have taken to implement the treaty domestically. Committees can offer comments and make recommendations as to further steps that should be taken to ensure the government is living up to its obligations. And sometimes committees are able to question state representatives about the content of the report. The obvious limitations of this system are that states may not submit reports at all and face no penalty for doing so. They may also submit reports with false information. And even if credible information is available, UN committees have no legal authority to order states to remedy violations of the rights protected by the treaty in question. However, some treaties give states the option of granting the committee the authority to receive information about violations from other states that claim to have knowledge of violations or individuals who allege that the state has violated their rights under the treaty.39 While state-to-state reporting procedures have never been used, the individual complaint procedures have been invoked a number of times in some cases.40 Allowing individuals to bring allegations of abuse to a treaty-based committee clearly improves the committee’s information-gathering capacity. Though these committees cannot make legally binding decisions in response to these allegations, individual petition systems at least provide an alternative and more credible source of information for the committee than state reports.41 Thus it seems intuitive that an individual complaint procedure would enhance a treaty’s effectiveness. This idea is consistent with more general arguments in IR that view more legalized institutions as more capable of inducing compliance (Abbott et al., 2000; Abbott & Snidal, 2000).

In addition to monitoring procedures, another factor that determines the strength of a state’s commitment to a treaty is whether they have placed reservations on their ratification status. Some reservations are related to delegation—for example, those that declare a state does not intend to allow state parties or individuals to communicate allegations of abuse to a treaty committee. Others relate to a state’s primary obligations and are intended to exempt the state from particular provisions of the treaty.42 The latter type of reservation also weakens a state’s legal commitment to the treaty, and it seems reasonable to expect that legal obligations states have not assumed will have little impact on their behavior, so that reservations that affect primary obligation may have some impact on treaty effectiveness.

Following this line of reasoning, several studies have examined the effect of the strength of a state’s legal commitment, distinct from ratification alone, on human rights practices. Some of these consider whether opting in to additional monitoring procedures has any positive impact on human rights practices. Hathaway (2002) found (in contrast to ratification of the CCPR alone) that among democracies ratification of the First Optional Protocol to this treaty, which grants citizens the right of individual petition, is positively correlated with respect for civil and political rights. Neumayer (2005) reported that the First Optional Protocol to the CCPR has beneficial effects on civil and political rights for all regime types. Smith-Cannoy (2012) examined the causes and effects of commitment to several optional protocols related to individual petition. Her argument, which dovetails with theories about domestic mobilization, is that ratification of these protocols leads to improved government practices where human rights NGOs have a robust presence and are not hampered by a hostile government. This is because NGOs can educate citizens about the individual petition process, and when citizens petition treaty bodies, NGOs can publicize specific cases to highlight gaps in domestic legal protection. Qualitative evidence from Hungary and Slovakia suggests that individual petitions from citizens of these countries to the committees created by CEDAW and CERD, respectively, produced improvements in government policies. Cole (2012) is the most thorough analysis of this question to date and found promising results for several treaties, using an instrument for ratification to account for non-random treatment assignment. He finds that committing to the individual complaint procedures for the CCPR under its First Optional Protocol, the CAT under Article 22, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) under Article 14, improves respect for the rights protected by those treaties: personal integrity rights in the case of the CAT, civil and political rights in the case of the CCPR, and discrimination against ethnic minorities in the case of CERD.43

There are also a handful of studies that distinguish between states that have ratified without reservations and those that have not. Powell and Staton (2009) analyzed the joint decision to ratify the CAT without reservations and to violate with its provisions. Landman (2005), in his analysis of the effectiveness of the CCPR and the CAT, develops a scale that measures the strength of a legal commitment by accounting for whether states entered any reservations and how stringent they are. He finds that the beneficial impact of these treaties is attenuated when states enter more restrictive reservations.

Fariss (2017) offered a useful approach to accounting empirically for variation in the strength of a state’s legal commitment to the treaty regime. Fariss used a measurement model to combine indicators of ratification for several different treaties with indicators of acceptance of additional monitoring procedures as well as ratification of optional protocols that create new substantive obligations relative to the original treaty (e.g. the First Optional Protocol to CCPR prohibiting the death penalty). The result is a scale that measures the extent to which a country is embedded into the UN treaty regime. Fariss found that this measure is positively correlated with the personal integrity index constructed in Fariss (2014).

Theorizing about international legalization, which has received less attention than domestic legal enforcement, presents an opportunity to synthesize the literature on the UN treaty regime with the literature on the regional human rights regimes in the OAS, the AU, and the CoE. All of these regimes establish stronger enforcement mechanisms than the treaties in the UN regime. Each regional treaty creates an attendant court that is authorized to adjudicate individual claims of rights violations and to make decisions that are, in principle, legally binding—which is an institutional feature that makes these regimes more legalized than the UN regime. There is a body of literature that examines compliance with regional treaties and the rulings of their respective courts that has developed somewhat parallel to the literature on the effectiveness of the UN treaty regime (e.g., Lutz & Sikkink, 2000; Jordan, 2003; Viljoen & Louw, 2007; Cavallaro & Brewer, 2008; Hawkins & Jacoby, 2010; Hillebrecht, 2012a, 2012b; Helfer & Voeten, 2014; Hillebrecht, 2014a, 2014b; Grewal & Voeten, 2015). Much of this literature examines “second-order compliance,”44 that is, compliance with the rulings of courts or other monitoring bodies. As of yet, however, there is a dearth of research examining the influence of courts on compliance with the provisions of treaties more broadly.45 Synthesizing the insights from these two related literatures is a promising path for advancing theoretical and empirical work on the effectiveness of human rights law. There is already some work along these lines, and this point will be returned to in the next section.

Directions for the Future

Since the inception of research that takes a more systematic approach to the determining whether and how international human rights law improves the lives of the people it is intended to protect, there has been promising theoretical and empirical accretion. We know much more now than we did even in the recent past about the conditions under which treaties lead to improvement in government practices. We also have plenty of evidence and theory that can serve as the foundation for further inquiry. Identified here are several useful directions for future research that are related to the three sources of variation in treaty effectiveness discussed above.

As Dai (2014) pointed out, there is now a consensus that treaties do have beneficial effects on respect for human rights—but not under all circumstances. Recent research points to domestic political and legal institutions as the primary sources of enforcement for human rights treaties and has identified several institutions that enhance treaty effectiveness. Since early studies called attention to the importance of democracy broadly defined there has been a steady trend toward developing theories that illuminate the particular aspects of democracy, or the domestic political environment more generally, that modify the effect of human rights law. There is also a substantial amount of evidence suggesting that the impact of ratification varies with domestic institutions. But there are not many empirical studies that closely examine the mechanisms thought to connect ratification to improvements in human rights conditions. Most existing studies regress measures of ratification on measures of compliance, using one of several potential strategies for identifying causal effects. This approach certainly has value, but it provides only partial insight into whether treaty effects work through the proposed mechanism. That ratification will be associated with improvement in human rights protection is one observable implication of the arguments that have developed in the literature. Many of the steps in the various causal chains discussed in the literature are also observable. If our current understanding of how treaties affect domestic politics is correct, we should be able to find evidence of ratifying governments adopting legislation to implement treaties, for example to give the treaty domestic legal effect where new legislation is necessary to do so, or allocating resources to create or augment domestic agencies devoted to monitoring compliance. If judicial enforcement accounts for improvements in human rights conditions, then we should be able to find evidence of increases in rights-based litigation to seek redress for victims and prosecute violators—and perhaps evidence that judges are more inclined to rule in favor of complainants in cases relevant to the treaty in question.46 There are also implications regarding domestic mobilization that could be examined further. Recent experimental studies examining the effect of legal obligations on public attitudes about torture represent progress on this front. Wallace (2013) found that individuals who are told that the torture of enemy combatants violates their government’s international legal obligations are less likely to support its use. Chilton and Versteeg (2016), however, presented respondents with a similar prompt and found no relationship between international legal obligations and opposition to torture. In addition to changes in public attitudes, increases in the number and size of advocacy campaigns or other kinds of broad-based mobilization following ratification should also be evident. Simmons (2009) found that ratification of the CCPR and the CAT increases INGO membership among citizens, and Ritter and Conrad (2016) found that ratification increases conflictual actions directed against the state by nonstate actors, and both provide evidence for this mechanism. Further investigation along these lines would be fruitful. Concerning advocacy campaigns, the literature on “naming and shaming” by human rights organizations is highly relevant (Franklin, 2008; Hafner-Burton, 2008; Bell, Clay, & Murdie, 2012; DeMeritt, 2012; Krain, 2012; Murdie & Davis, 2012; Barry, Clay, & Flynn, 2013). Naming and shaming in response to violations may be more likely, or more effective, for states that have ratified human rights treaties. The collection and use of more finely grained data that examine these distinct (though not mutually exclusive) processes represents one possible way forward.47

Another useful direction for future research is to focus theoretically and empirically on rights beyond civil, political, and personal integrity rights. Some of the theories in the literature cover different kinds of rights, but the bulk of the explanations for effectiveness have developed around the rights protected by the CCPR and the CAT. Arguments about domestic groups mobilizing to pressure the government rely on the notion that pro-compliance constituencies expect the state to be more accommodative and less repressive in response to demands for rights protection. This seems reasonable in the case of the CCPR or CAT, which prohibit tactics governments would normally use to repress opposition groups but may be less accurate when applied to treaties that have no bearing on those tactics. As mentioned above, Simmons’s (2009) argument about mobilization assumes democracies are, on average, more compliant with the treaty ex ante, so that the benefit of compliance becomes larger the less democratic the state is. This is clearly true in the case of political rights, but the theory may not have as much predictive power for rights that are more tenuously correlated with democracy, since the benefit of changes in policy to pro-compliance constituencies could be large in democratic countries. Also, autocracies will likely respond more harshly to demands for protection of civil and political rights than they will to demands for other kinds of rights: as a result, expectations about the government’s response may not depend as strongly on autocracy outside of the context of civil and political rights. Compliance with treaties that protect civil, political, and personal integrity rights requires governments to constrain themselves in ways that may directly threaten their authority and tenure in office (Cardenas, 2004, 2007; Hill, 2010). This is a potential explanation for the disparity between the findings of studies that examine compliance with the CAT, which typically find only conditional effects, and those that examine compliance with CEDAW, which generally find positive average effects.

In addition to enforcement through broad-based political mobilization, the varying nature of compliance across human rights treaties also has implications for the prospects for judicial enforcement. That is, the ability of courts to enforce treaty-based rights could vary across treaties that protect different kinds of rights. Lupu’s (2013b) argument that the likelihood of judicial enforcement varies across types of violations may have implications beyond the CCPR. For example, it seems likely that treaties protecting individuals from discrimination based on race (CERD) and sex (CEDAW) are likely to produce a higher ratio of civil court cases to criminal cases relative to a treaty such as the CAT, in which case we should expect the CERD and CEDAW to be more effective than the CAT. In general, it would be useful to tailor theories to account for differences in the nature of compliance across treaties. This is not to say that developing a general theoretical framework is not possible.48 But variations on that framework may be necessary depending on what compliance entails.

Empirical analyses should also be distributed more evenly across different kinds of treaties. In the early 21st century there is some variety in terms of the rights analyzed, but the literature skews heavily toward civil and political liberties. In addition to the numerous studies that examine treaties protecting these rights, and personal integrity rights violations, there is a fair amount of research on CEDAW. But there is a paucity of research examining the effectiveness of the CRC or the CERD, and virtually no large-N, cross-national studies that consider the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. This is partly a function of data availability. There are several ready-made indicators that can be used to measure compliance with the CCPR, the CAT, and CEDAW, which is not the case for the other treaties; so developing indicators of compliance with these other treaties would be a valuable contribution.

A final suggestion is to pursue further research investigating how legalization at the international level relates to the effectiveness of human rights law. Based on general theories of international institutions there are good reasons to expect that the strength of states’ legal obligations has implications for the effectiveness of human rights treaties (Abbott et al., 2000; Abbott & Snidal, 2000). Conceptualizing and measuring what scholars have variously called legalization, the strength of commitment, and “embeddedness,” rather than ratification itself is a promising development (e.g., Fariss, 2017). Extending work on legalization also creates opportunities to incorporate international legalization into existing theories of compliance that focus on domestic institutions, as the nature of a state’s legal commitment under a treaty could relate to the domestic processes that link ratification and compliance. Even if the sources of human rights treaty enforcement are domestic rather than international, domestic enforcement could still be facilitated by the information provided by international organizations. Helfer and Voeten (2014) argued and demonstrated, for example, that European Court rulings can facilitate the same domestic processes invoked in the treaty literature. Reservations that exempt a state from certain portions of a treaty may limit the usefulness of a treaty as a mobilizing device. If a government has not declared its intention to comply with a particular portion of the treaty it will be harder for domestic groups to pressure the government through “accountability politics” as discussed by Keck and Sikkink (1998) and Simmons (2009). Such reservations are also likely to hamper attempts by domestic courts to enforce the treaty, since those portions of the treaty will not be incorporated into domestic law.49 Thinking about legalization and embeddedness in the human rights regimes more broadly also creates opportunities to synthesize the literature on the UN regime with research on regional human rights regimes. There are studies that examine the effectiveness of regional treaties alongside UN treaties (Hathaway, 2002; Neumayer, 2005; Simmons, 2009), but these analyses examine universal and regional regimes in isolation. If the purpose of a study is to determine the effect of international law on compliance with the principles that are codified by human rights treaties, then it makes little sense to consider only whether a country is a member of the UN regime while ignoring membership in regional human rights regimes. This is true especially given the more extensive monitoring and enforcement powers granted to regional courts relative to UN treaty committees.

Theoretical arguments and stylized facts about the effectiveness of human rights treaties have proliferated over a relatively short period of time. Early studies adopted broad, grand theory approaches that led to the coarse predictions that human rights treaties matter (or do not matter) and produced results that created a bleak picture for the prospects of improving human rights practices through the creation of international law. This contrasts sharply with the state of the field as it stands in the early 21st century: large strides have been made in developing more specific theories that are distinct but closely related. And results have been compiled that provide justification for a more optimistic view. Although progress is evident, existing research points to several possibilities for advancing further our understanding of the ways that international law can impose genuine constraints on the state’s ability to deny basic human rights to its citizens.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                (1.) “Effectiveness” refers to the impact that treaties have on government policy and behavior. In contrast, “compliance” refers to behavior that conforms to the provisions of a treaty, whether the treaty itself causes this behavior or not (Simmons, 1998).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (2.) A comprehensive list of these treaties and their optional protocols, with dates of signature and ratification for member states, can be found at:

                                                                                                                                                                                                (3.) See also Moravcsik (2000), Downs and Jones (2002), and Koremenos (2007).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (4.) Keith (1999) measured compliance with the CCPR using an earlier version of the Political Terror Scale (PTS), which measures the use by state agents of political imprisonment, torture, and disappearance (kidnapping), and summary execution (Gibney et al., 2016), and also Freedom House’s civil and political rights indices, available at

                                                                                                                                                                                                (5.) Here “democratic” countries are those that have a score of 10 on the Polity IV democracy scale.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (6.) Hathaway measures compliance with this convention using an earlier version of the Political Instability Task Force’s genocide/politicide, available at

                                                                                                                                                                                                (7.) Hathaway that ratification is associated with higher levels of civil liberties protection as measured by Freedom House’s civil liberties scale.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (8.) The percentage of seats in the national legislature occupied by women is the indicator for compliance with this treaty. These data come from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Some of this data is available at

                                                                                                                                                                                                (9.) Neumayer tests this hypothesis by including a multiplicative interaction term between the Polity IV democracy scale and treaty ratification. His measures of compliance for the CCPR are the PTS and the Freedom House civil liberties scale. He also uses these as measures of compliance with the European and American Conventions and uses the PTS alone to measure compliance with the CAT.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (10.) Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui use the Political Terror Scale to measure compliance with both of these treaties.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (11.) Here “power” refers to a combination of independence/autonomy from other political actors and the ability to get the government to comply with court rulings (see Staton & Moore, 2011).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (12.) See Davenport, Moore, and Armstrong (2008); Conrad and Moore (2010).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (13.) Powell and Staton measure compliance with the CAT using the torture component of the Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) physical integrity rights index (Cingranelli, Richards, & Clay, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (14.) See also Thomas (1999), which discusses in greater detail the Final Act (and other international agreements, including the CCPR) and its influence on the tactics of Czech and Polish dissident groups. See also Risse and Sikkink (1999) and Dai (2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (15.) To test this hypothesis Simmons divides her sample of countries into three groups: those that have never received a Polity democracy score lower than 8 since the Second World War (consolidated democracies), those that have never received a score above 5 since the Second World War (consolidated autocracies), and those that do not fall into either of these categories (transitional/partial democracies). Across various model specifications the coefficients for ratification are more consistently positive (indicating more respect for rights) and statistically significant for the group of partial democracies. Simmons measures compliance with the CCPR using a religious freedom scale from CIRI and a fair trial scale developed by, and described in, Hathaway (2002). Her measure of torture also comes from Hathaway (2002). For CEDAW she finds this result in models using the ratio of girls to boys enrolled in primary and secondary education to measure compliance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (16.) The model also suggests that the effect of job security on mobilization becomes stronger as judicial effectiveness decreases.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (17.) Conrad and Ritter (2013) use the CIRI torture scale to measure compliance with CAT. Their measure of domestic mobilization comes from the IDEA events data (Bond et al., 2003) and indicates whether there were any conflictual actions directed by nonstate actors against the state.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (18.) This procedure involves matching observations based on their treaty preferences, which are estimated via the same model used in studies of American politics to estimate the ideological dispositions of legislatures (Poole & Rosenthal, 1997).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (19.) To measure formal violations of the CCPR, Lupu uses two different CIRI scales that measure freedom of speech and religion. His indicator for extralegal violations also come from CIRI and measure torture, political imprisonment, and disappearance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (20.) Compliance with the MAC is measured as the proportion of the labor force aged 10–14.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (21.) The treaties examined in their study include the CCPR, the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the CAT, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the CEDW, and the CRC. They measure compliance using the PTS.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (22.) Similar to Powell and Staton (2009), this study suggests that treaties will be most effective among the set of countries that are least likely to ratify them. See also Hill (2015) who argues and shows that states with powerful judiciaries and relatively weak domestic human rights laws are the most likely to enter reservations upon ratifying.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (23.) See also Nielsen and Simmons (2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (24.) Vreeland uses Hathaway’s torture scale as well as the CIRI torture scale to measure compliance with the CAT.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (25.) Though see Conrad (2014), which shows that multiparty autocracies are more hesitant to ratify and violate the CAT as the power of the domestic judiciary increases.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (26.) See also Hollyer and Rosendorff (2011), who argue that autocrats ratify treaties such as CAT because doing so makes it costlier to lose office after committing abuse. They view ratification of the CAT is a costly signal of the leader’s willingness to torture members of the opposition.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (27.) Hill uses the CIRI physical integrity rights scale to measure compliance with the CCPR and the torture component of this scale to measure compliance with the CAT.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (28.) Lupu uses the CIRI measure of forced disappearances.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (29.) Landman uses the PTS and Freedom House’s civil and political liberties scales to measure compliance with the CCPR, and Hathaway’s torture scale to measure compliance with CAT.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (30.) These include several components of the CIRI physical integrity index, the PTS, and Hathaway’s torture scale.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (31.) These include the CAT, the CEDAW, the CCPR, the CESCR, the CRC, and the CERD.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (32.) For an extreme example, see Posner (2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (33.) Cole (2013) also finds evidence of effectiveness using as a measure of compliance the proportion of seats in the national legislature occupied by women.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (34.) Examples of relatively nonviolent violations of the CCPR include forcibly closing a newspaper, forcibly closing a church, and using police to break up a large protest or rally. These violations involve the threat, but not the actual use of, physical violence.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (35.) As indicators of civil and political rights Lupu uses scales from CIRI that measure freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. To measure personal integrity rights he uses the components of the CIRI physical integrity index.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (36.) For a conceptual discussion of international legalization, see Abbott et al. (2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (37.) See the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, available online at

                                                                                                                                                                                                (38.) Partly due to its perceived weakness, there is very little systematic research examining the reporting process in UN committees. See Creamer and Simmons (2015) and Krommendijk (2015) for exceptions.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (39.) For some treaties ratification itself entails allowing the committee to receive complaints from other states, so that states cannot opt out of this procedure.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (40.) The Human Rights Committee, the monitoring body created by the CCPR, has received the most complaints by a wide margin due to its age and the breadth of rights covered by the treaty.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (41.) For some treaties national human rights institutions and human rights NGOs are now allowed/encouraged to submit their own separate “shadow reports” to the committee, which are another important alternative source of information.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (42.) For empirical studies examining reservations see Neumayer (2007), Simmons (2009), and Hill (2015). See Hafner-Burton, Helfer, and Fariss (2011) for an examination of the related issue of derogations, or temporary suspensions of rights, which are allowed by some treaties.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (43.) Cole uses the CIRI physical integrity index to measure compliance with CAT, and CIRI’s empowerment rights index (which includes workers’ rights, voting rights, and the rights to freedom of movement, religion, speech, and assembly) to measure compliance with the CCPR. As an indicator of compliance with CERD Cole uses a measure of societal discrimination against ethnic minorities from the Minorities at Risk data set. This is likely the only quantitative analysis that examines the effectiveness of CERD using a measure of compliance that matches conceptually the substantive content of the treaty.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (44.) See Fisher (1981) who distinguishes second order compliance from first order compliance. The latter entails following primary, substantive obligations contained in the treaty or agreement.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (45.) Though see Helfer and Voeten (2014), which examines the erga omnes effects of European Court rulings (i.e., their effects on the policies of all Council of Europe member states. They examine cases where the court invalidates a state’s policy to determine whether such decisions are likely to result in the repeal of similar policies in other member states, which does not fit neatly into the category of second- order compliance. See also Haglund (2014), a work that examines the effect of European and Inter-American Court decisions on personal integrity rights.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (46.) At this point we know little about what explains variation in judicial enforcement of treaties across countries. For some comparative case studies that examine that question see Sloss (2009) and Killander (2010).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (47.) The use of events data such as those employed in Ritter and Conrad (2016) is especially promising. Such data have also been fruitfully employed in the naming and shaming literature (Murdie & Davis, 2012).

                                                                                                                                                                                                (48.) One general theory whose implications could be examined more in the context of human rights treaties is Dai (2005, 2006). Her model suggests that the ability of pro-compliance constituencies to successfully pressure the government depends on their political influence and how well informed they are about policy, meaning the degree to which they can accurately gauge the government’s level of compliance. Democracy may be a reasonable proxy for how well-informed about policy the public is on average, but the outcome of inter-group competition over policy will depend on the relative influence and information endowments of competing groups, which cannot be measured by aggregate indicators of democracy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                (49.) See Bradley and Goldsmith (2000, pp. 402–403) for an illustrative example from the United States involving obligations under the CCPR with respect to the death penalty. See also Hill (2015), which suggests that reservations are often intended to prevent domestic judicial enforcement of treaties.