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date: 29 September 2020

What Helps Protect Human Rights: Human Rights Theory and Evidence

Summary and Keywords

Empirical international relations (IR) theory developed three generalized statements regarding why human rights abuses occur. First, human rights abuses are a way for an unrestrained state, especially the executive branch and its agents, to try to control individuals and hold on to power. Second, respect for human rights is an international norm, and international socialization and pressure about this norm can, in certain situations, affect behavior. Third, the codification of human rights norms into international treaties may influence behavior but, similar to our understanding of the effect of other treaties on state behavior, states only bind themselves weakly, and certain conditions are necessary for treaties to affect human rights.

Keywords: Human rights, norm life cycle, repression, human rights treaties, international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), advocacy, empirical international relations theory


Amnesty International, a leading organization specializing in advocacy to end human rights abuses, recently released accounts of horrendous abuses to political prisoners in Vietnam (Amnesty International, 2016). Peaceful demonstrators and outspoken minorities had been imprisoned, tortured, and “disappeared” for their beliefs and the supposed threat that they posed to the regime. Even though Vietnam ratified the United Nation’s Convention Against Torture (CAT) in 2015, dozens of individuals are still imprisoned and tortured there for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs.

Since the end of World War II, much attention has been paid to stopping abuses like those that occurred in Vietnam. Global and regional human rights treaties have been ratified, and concerns about human rights abuses have sparked many foreign policy actions. A vibrant and connected network of human rights advocates and organizations has fought tirelessly for the abused and have expanded our understanding of what human rights means and what protections should be expected. Despite all of this, most countries in the world still have evidence of abuses within their borders.

This article examines why human rights abuse occurs and what can be done to help protect human rights. In the last 30 years, there has been an explosion of human rights–related scholarship in leading international relations (IR) journals (Murdie, 2015). This literature has drawn on many theoretical traditions and paradigms and has enriched both the general IR literature and more human rights–specific scholarship.

We do not attempt to review all the international relations literature on human rights abuses; other scholars have recently produced very thorough reviews of the extant literature (Davenport, 2007; Goodman, Jinks, & Woods, 2012; Hafner-Burton & Ron, 2009; Hafner-Burton, 2012, 2014 Landman, 2005; Morgan, 2009; ). Instead, this article attempts to review some of the human rights empirical literature in international relations and situate this literature into a set of general theoretical statements about why human rights abuses occur. We hope that this exercise will help in improving and expanding empirical IR theory related to this topic.

In general, IR scholars have made three large-scale theoretical statements:

  1. 1. Human rights abuses are a way for an unrestrained state, especially the executive branch and its agents, to try to control individuals and hold on to power.

  2. 2. Respect for human rights is an international norm, and international socialization and pressure about this norm can affect behavior in certain situations.

  3. 3. The codification of human rights norms into international treaties may influence behavior but, similar to our understanding of the effect of other treaties on state behavior, states only bind themselves weakly, and certain conditions are necessary for treaties to affect human rights.

After defining human rights in more detail, we outline the empirical literature that supports these theoretical statements. To note, however, human rights research is not confined to IR or political science; rather, it is also examined through the fields of sociology, anthropology, economics, history, psychology, and law (Morgan, 2009). Thus, the study of human rights is an interdisciplinary study in a way that most fields within international relations are not. Within political science, human rights research reaches across the boundary between international relations and comparative politics. Full understanding of human rights situations requires understanding the domestic factors and characteristics of bureaucracies more commonly discussed in research within the comparative politics subfield. At the same time, attempts to limit or prevent human rights often involve the international community in the drafting of treaties, the foreign policy between states, and the flow of global norms about human rights practices. Thus, understanding why human rights abuses occur requires understanding the elements of both comparative politics and international relations. We see this as an advantage in the study of human rights. IR scholars can utilize theories from comparative politics and disciplines outside of political science to create a more complete understanding of human rights situations and produce research that speaks to a broad audience of scholars and individuals outside the academic world.

What Are Human Rights?

Much of our current understanding of human rights is based on international law, especially on the conception of rights included within the United Nation’s nonbinding Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948. This document creates a list of what is now commonly accepted as individual rights, including political rights; civil rights; social, economic, and cultural rights; and more broadly conceptualized rights of development and freedom from poverty, which also fit under the umbrella term of human rights (Landman, 2006).

The Emphasis on Physical Integrity Rights

The UDHR specifies the rights of individuals in 30 separate articles, addressing a range of rights from the “right to life, liberty, and security of person” (art. 3) to “the right to rest and leisure” (art. 23). Our collective understanding of which rights are included as human rights has expanded over time. Recently, advocacy related to human rights has included rights related to access to the Internet and sexual minority rights [i.e., lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) rights], among others.

Although the concept of human rights includes a wide range of rights, much of the research on human rights within IR focuses on a very narrow set of rights, often referred to as physical integrity or bodily integrity rights. In addition, most of the focus within international relations has focused specifically on abuses of these rights on citizens of a specific state by governmental actors from this state. Abuses by fellow citizens or nonstate actors, like corporations or rebel movements, have often been ignored.1 Similarly, abuses by government actors beyond their own state borders have also received little attention in the IR scholarship, despite horrific accounts of abuses by military interveners and peacekeepers, among others.

Physical integrity rights are conceptualized as “freedom from” rights, and they typically include being free from extrajudicial killing, the use of torture, political imprisonment, and disappearance. To respect these rights, governments need only restrain from violating them; hence, they are sometimes called negative rights. On the other hand, in order to respect positive rights, like the right to education or the right to health, the state must provide resources or services. The study of these positive rights has primarily been done by political economists, often without a human rights frame. It is worth noting, however, that there is a growing number of IR studies on rights beyond physical integrity rights, like women’s rights and labor rights (e.g., Detraz & Peksen, 2016; Peksen & Blanton, 2017). This expansion of the types of rights examined by IR scholars holds great promise for a more encompassing theory of human rights practices and for additional inquiry into why some states may perform well on certain rights, but not on others.

Many human rights scholars rely on a small number of quantitative measures to capture physical integrity rights practices. One of the most prominent is the CIRI Physical Integrity Rights Index (Cingranelli, Richards, & Clay, 2014). This composite measure captures observable state practices regarding the use of torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and political imprisonment during a given year (Cingranelli & Richards, 2010). The Political Terror Scale (PTS) is a similar measure that is widely used (Wood & Gibney, 2010). Both of these measures are created by using information from yearly reports released by the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International. The use of such measures makes it much easier to conduct empirical analyses across a global sample of states for a long period of time. However, it is important to remember that these measures capture only a small range of human rights practices. Although this is a limitation, current research has allowed scholars to understand many of the reasons why states abuse these physical integrity rights and propose solutions to prevent abuses. Similarly, these measures may not account for the changing standard of accountability over time, leading scholars to conclude (erroneously) that there have been no improvements in state practices over time (Fariss, 2014).2

Human Rights Abuses and the State

One of the most common assumptions in international relations and comparative politics concerns the desire of a regime leader to remain in power (Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, & Morrow, 2003; Chiozza & Goemans, 2004). A leader makes calculated decisions to remain in power or to ensure that his or her political party does. Human rights abuses are one “tool” that leaders can use to try to hold on to political power. If a regime is threatened, a leader can use his or her control of security forces to violate the human rights of citizens within the state. Abuses are designed to increase the cost that a possible dissident would face for violently (or even nonviolently) challenging the leader, hopefully cutting off dissent before it occurs (Ritter & Conrad, 2016). Davenport (2007, p. 7) calls this the “law of coercive responsiveness.” In general, the law leads us to expect to see repression increase as opposition to the regime leadership increases within a state, and to expect to see repression increase as the regime faces threats to its power from abroad, especially in cases involving international war. States engaged in international war must respond to these external threats and any internal threats at the same time, constraining the resources available to the state. This means that even states that otherwise may have granted concessions to citizens will be more likely to respond to their demands with repression while engaged in international conflict due to the need to commit resources to facing international foes (Rasler, 1986). In general, this logic explains why there is such a strong empirical link between international and civil war and repression; when a state is threatened militarily, a government will respond with repression in order to control the population, try to extract information from that population that could help it remain in power, or both (Poe & Tate, 1994).

Given that the law of coercive responsiveness would lead us to expect an increase in repression whenever a leader is threatened, perhaps the question is not so much why states abuse human rights as it is why some states abuse the human rights of their citizens more than other states. Abuses are a common response by a threatened leader who has the power to control security forces. It is with this thought in mind that we now turn to a variety of state characteristics that are associated with differences in human rights performance and reflect this underlying theoretical logic.

Regime Type

It has long been suggested that democratic regimes are associated with better human rights, and this suggestion has received a great deal of empirical support. There are a number of explanations for why democracies might have greater respect for human rights. First, democracies allow the peaceful turnover of power. The political institutions of a democratic government are composed of citizens, and they are approved by citizens through the process of voting. Elections provide citizens with a legitimate channel through which to remove leaders from power without resorting to political violence (Davenport, 1999). When leaders regularly face the possibility of being removed from power by their constituents, they are more beholden to their constituents’ wishes. This will force leaders to show greater respect for human rights because there is a regular risk of being removed from office if citizens are unhappy with their leadership and their use of repression.

However, not all democratic regimes are equal (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005). Simply holding an election does not necessarily make a state a democracy. If elections are not free and fair, then they fail to hold leaders accountable or to convey the grievances of the population to the regime’s leadership. Only when elections are free and fair with more than one choice do they force leaders to be accountable to their citizens and potentially limit human rights abuses. Further, there is much research questioning whether elections alone are enough to affect human rights practices (Cingranelli & Filippov, 2010; Davenport, 1997; Richards, 1999; ). Richards and Gelleny (2007), for example, find that national legislative elections improve human rights only in the year following the election. Presidential elections are associated with less respect for human rights, something that Richard and Gelleny (2007, p. 520) claim is linked to the “rigidity and winner-take-all structure of many presidential systems.”

Elections are only one aspect of democracies that has been potentially linked to better human rights practices. Institutional constraints and channels of regularized communication also matter. Democracy is often conceptualized not only by free elections, but also by constraints on an executive’s power. As Hafner-Burton, Hyde, and Jablonski (2012) show, an unconstrained leader may be more likely to use violence around an election. Judicial constraints have been found to limit the use of torture; although these same constraints may make leaders less likely to ratify the CAT (Powell & Staton, 2009). Conrad and Moore (2010), however, conclude that institutions that constrain executives, such as freedom of expression or institutional checks, may not be enough to stop torture when a regime is threatened. Recent work has highlighted how the creation of national human rights ombudsmen or institutional offices can constrain executives by providing a regularzed way for abuses to be publicized and adjudicated (Smith, 2006; Welch, 2017).

Democracies have more channels for communication and compromise between regime leaders and the opposition than do autocracies, meaning that there are usually more available alternatives to repression that would still limit the possibility of threat to the leadership (Henderson, 1991). Political opposition is theorized to develop through grievances from citizens who feel that they are receiving less than they expect and that the government is responsible for their plight (Gurr, 1968). In democracies, citizens have more institutionalized channels through which to get their grievances heard by the regime. Citizens in democracies are also much more likely to have their demands met, as leaders in democracies that do not address such grievances are unlikely to stay in office. Citizens in autocracies may demand greater participation in decision-making, greater freedom in criticizing leadership, or pressure for more transparent government, but these calls for reform are unlikely to be met, as that would require autocratic leaders to relinquish power. Further, autocracies draw their power from a very small group of political elites and must provide private goods to these elites in order to stay in power. Democratic leaders have a greater incentive to pursue policies that benefit large segments of society, as they need the political support of a much larger group (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2003). As demands are less likely to be met though concessions in autocracies, political opposition is more likely to be handled with repression (Davis & Ward, 1990).

When opposition threatens the power of autocratic leaders, who may not depend at all on winning the votes of members of the opposition, they will likely use repression in an attempt to silence this opposition; this was part of what Davenport (2007, p. 7) calls the “law of coercive responsiveness.” However, as he continues, there is a “puzzle” (p. 8) about whether the abuse will actually limit dissent: even though leaders utilize repression to coerce political opposition into submission, these actions can paradoxically incite further opposition. This reveals an endogenous relationship between protest and repression that is found in many autocratic states. Political opposition feeds into higher degrees of repression, which increases political opposition, leading the cycle to repeat (Pierskalla, 2010; Rasler, 1996; Ritter, 2014; Thoms & Ron, 2007). Repression also increases the grievances formed by citizens, possibly causing them to engage in more violent forms of opposition. When repression against citizens is severe, it can lead to terrorism against the state and even full-fledged civil war (Bell, Cingranelli, Murdie, & Caglayan, 2013; Thoms & Ron, 2007). In response, the government will utilize more severe forms of repression in an attempt to quash the rebellion, continuing until either the opposition is completely eradicated or the government is forced from power.

Another argument for the empirical connection between democracy and better human rights performance centers on the norms and expectations of behavior in democratic regimes. Democratic regimes have strong norms of nonviolence; these norms could influence how leaders in democratic regimes use violence, both domestically and internationally (Hegre, 2001; Maoz & Russett, 1993; Risse-Kappen, 1995). Research also suggests that better human rights practices domestically may create norms of engagement that limit international conflict (Caprioli & Trumbore, 2003, 2006; Peterson & Graham, 2011; Sobek, Abouharb, & Ingram, 2006; Tomz & Weeks, 2016).

Although there are many empirical theories about the relationship between democracy and human rights practices, extant research suggests a few important caveats. First, this relationship is not necessarily linear. Scholars have noted that complete autocracies—those that we would expect to exercise the most political repression—tend to exercise relatively little repression (Davenport & Armstrong, 2004; Fein, 1995). Fein (1995, p. 170) argues that there is “more murder in the middle,” in that there is a U-shaped relationship between regime type and repression, suggesting that states that are neither strong democracies nor strong autocracies have the greatest likelihood to use repression. Davenport and Armstrong (2004) point out, however, that it is more of a threshold relationship, with only consolidated democracies limiting repression.

Second, just as not all democracies are equal in their human rights performance, there also are differences between authoritarian regimes. Vreeland (2008) finds that dictatorships with multiple political parties, indicative of shared power, are more likely to both commit torture and ratify the CAT. Vreeland (2008) argues that this is due to how shared power emboldens potential dissidents, creating opportunities for torture, but also likely leading to concessions like treaty ratification. Conrad (2011) finds, however, that effective judiciaries can constrain dictators in their use of torture.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that democracy and human rights, especially the physical integrity rights most typically studied by IR scholars, are conceptually related. Hill (2016) argues that some definitions of democracy include freedom from repression as a key component, cautioning scholars to be careful about their definition of democracy and that this definition is conceptually distinct from physical integrity rights performance.

State Wealth

Beyond regime type, one of the most consistent findings within the literature on human rights suggests that wealthy states abuse human rights less often than poor states.3 However, scholars have disagreed on exactly why economic development is associated with better protection of human rights. First, wealthy states might have less need to use repression. As Henderson (1991) states, we expect to see fewer grievances in wealthy states, since citizens should be more satisfied with their standard of living. As discussed previously, repression is often used as a response to opposition, making it unnecessary when opposition is lacking. Also, wealthier states have a greater ability to grant concessions to citizens in the form of goods and services rather than resorting to repression (Conrad, 2011; Davenport, 2007). Thus, wealthier states should see less political opposition and also have means of dealing with opposition other than resorting to repression.

Economic development, especially development tied to globalization, is also linked to changes in the way that society is structured within a state, which can affect human rights practices. Richards, Gelleny, and Sacko (2001) discuss the two main schools that provide expectations about the relation between globalized economic development and human rights practices, referred to as the liberal neoclassical and dependency schools. The liberal neoclassical school suggests that a globalized economy will lead to enhanced wealth across a society, leading to the creation of a middle class. When the middle class develops greater wealth, they are able to devote more time and resources to their demands against the state. This access to greater resources is necessary for a social opposition movement to succeed (Zald & McCarthy, 1987). While this increase in the strength of opposition may initially lead to enhanced use of repression, eventually the government will be unable to effectively quash opposition that is well funded and supported throughout society. Thus, grievances in countries that are amassing wealth are more likely to be addressed by governments, and human rights behavior is more likely to improve.

The second main school that links a globalized economy and human rights practices is the dependency school, which argues that poor states often do not evenly distribute the gains from globalization to the general population, instead concentrating increased wealth in the hands of political elites. This allows these elites to expand their use of repression as a response to political opposition, increasing human rights violations. In addition, by increasing the wealth of only the elites, those living in poverty develop stronger grievances about their deprivation, leading to more low-level opposition as a response, followed by more repression (Davenport, 2007).

Dependency theory is a particularly powerful tool in explaining the human rights records of states that draw their wealth from natural resources such as oil (DeMeritt & Young, 2013). Oil is extremely expensive to extricate, meaning that the ability to control oilfields is limited to those with substantial economic and human resources. This, coupled with the tremendous wealth that can be gained from the sale of oil, provides a unique opportunity for governments in such states to greatly enhance the wealth of a small group of political elites. Research supports dependency theory in oil-rich states, showing that such states have significantly higher levels of human rights abuses than poor states that do not have oil wealth (DeMeritt & Young, 2013).

These two schools may seem contradictory, but they can be understood as being complementary to each other. The liberal neoclassical school holds that economic development leads to the formation of a middle class, but this middle class cannot form in states where wealth is isolated in the hands of the elite. Only when wealth is distributed across society and can lead to the development of a middle class will we see opposition movements that are powerful enough to effectively demand changes in human rights practices.

State Capacity

There are many similarities between theories of state wealth and human rights and those of state capacity and human rights. State capacity can be thought of as the centralized power within a state, and weak states are characterized by a lack of centralized power. Englehart (2009) describes weak states as those with low ability to collect taxes, high corruption, and/or a lack of law and order. Some scholars have captured state capacity with indicators of economic development, implying that wealthy states are more capable than others (Hendrix, 2010).

Many scholars have found that capable states are less likely to abuse physical integrity rights (Englehart, 2009; Cole, 2015; Young, 2009). State capacity is necessary to be able to monitor the behavior of security forces and other government agents. Human rights abuses can occur not because they were authorized by the regime leadership, but because state agents are not trained and/or monitored. Without training and monitoring, human rights abuses often occur as part of control or interrogation tactics (Muñoz, 2009). A capable state can limit these unauthorized abuses, limiting the overall levels of human rights abuses within the state.

The relationship between the state and its agents can be understood through principal-agent theory, in which the state acts as the principal and holds the authority to command security agents (Englehart, 2009). However, agents do not necessarily follow the commands of the principal. Weak states lack the ability to provide oversight of state agents, making them more independent. This can make it difficult for weak states to change human rights practices, even when they have a desire to do so. As Cole (2015) explains, many states that sign human rights treaties have the desire to improve practices but lack the ability to enforce new standards among state agents. This highlights the idea that human rights abuses are not always state-sanctioned; in fact, they often directly contradict state policy.

State capacity also affects the perceived need to resort to repression. Strong state capacity can prevent political dissatisfaction from erupting into violent political unrest. Weak states (those with an unstable hold on state power) are inherently more threatened by opposition and will thus resort to more resorting to human rights abuses to control the population (Young, 2009). Limited state capacity is also tied to the emergence of violent rebel groups (Fearon & Laitin, 2003). This makes weak states more susceptible to civil war, and civil war is linked to increases in human rights violations by the state (Poe & Tate, 1994).

Human Rights and International Dynamics

In the previous section, we examined how characteristics of the state (namely, its regime type, its economic wealth, and its capacity) matter for its human rights performance. The basic insight from this research is that human rights abuses occur as a mechanism of population control when a regime or its agents are unrestrained by domestic institutions, an organized and developed domestic opposition, or both. However, human rights concerns are not a wholly domestic matter. The rights outlined in the UDHR were the result of international collaboration and joint advocacy efforts. They fit the classic definition of a norm: a “standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 889). The protection of human rights norms since the UDHR’s crafting has been heavily influenced by international dynamics and actors. Foreign policy actions of states, transnational organizations of all stripes, and the involvement of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) can pressure and socialize states to adopt human rights norms. However, these actions can also backfire, leading to an often-unintended worsening of human rights conditions. We explore these dynamics next.

Norm Entrepreneurs and Advocacy Actors

The adoption of human rights language and the internalization of human rights ideals are the results of a process of normative development and diffusion. Both in the case of now well-accepted norms (like bodily integrity rights) and in the case of newer and developing norms (like sexual minority rights or the right to development), norm entrepreneurs help in articulating and spreading these human rights ideas. According to Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) theory of the norm life cycle, these entrepreneurs work to get sympathetic regime leaders and other key constituents to adopt a norm as a general expectation of behavior. This larger group then helps in codifying and socializing other state actors about the norm. Finnemore and Sikkink (1998, p. 900) see IGOs as important at this stage; the norm is “institutionalized in international rules.” If a critical mass of supporters is reached, often requiring the support of key states, a tipping point occurs, where the norm cascades and additional state and nonstate actors are socialized to adopt the norm.

It is at this stage in the norm socialization process where international actors often use a host of techniques and tactics to try to pressure governments to change their behavior. Advocates can point out that “legitimate” states do not abuse human rights (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 902). Material and nonmaterial carrots and sticks can be used to pressure a state to change its behavior. In some situations, this process of socialization can lead to the state “internalizing” the norm, giving it “taken-for-granted” status (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 904).

Although Finnemore and Sikkink (1998)’s theory of the norm life cycle is often not explicitly mentioned in current empirical work on how international actors influence domestic human rights practices, it aptly applies. International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, are often critical actors at the early stages of the life cycle. They help in spreading or educating local populations about a norm, as well as being crucial to getting the norm on the international agenda. Once key states have adopted the norm and it has been institutionalized, INGOs work to bring abuses to the attention of sympathetic states and advocates. The media attention that INGOs bring to abusive regimes, often termed “shaming and blaming” or “naming and shaming” by scholars, can be key to getting third-party states and INGOs to start pressuring the country to change their human rights practices.

INGOs can also help heighten domestic pressure on the regime. This combination of domestic and international pressure is what Keck and Sikkink (1998) term a transnational advocacy network. Later work by Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink (1999, 2013) further laid out the iterative process through which advocates work to socialize states about human rights; this process was named the spiral model. In this model, if international pressure is concentrated on an abusive regime, “tactical concessions” can be made by the abusive regime, leading to some limited and short-term improvements in human rights practices and, perhaps, the adoption of human rights laws (Risse & Sikkink 1999, p. 12). If pressure continues, these concessions can turn into internalized human rights norms, completing the norm life cycle.

In line with these theoretical arguments, human rights INGOs have been linked to changes in human rights opinions and mobilization (Ausderan, 2014; Davis, Murdie, & Steinmetz, 2012; McEntire, Leiby, & Krain, 2015; Murdie & Bhasin, 2011). Their “naming and shaming” activities have also been linked to many forms of international pressure and involvement, including humanitarian intervention (Murdie & Peksen, 2013a), international sanctions (Murdie & Peksen, 2013b), drops in foreign direct investment (Barry, Clay, & Flynn, 2013), trade (Peterson, Murdie, & Asal, 2017), and the bypassing of foreign aid (Dietrich & Murdie, 2017). Some studies have found direct links between shaming by human rights INGOs and drops in certain human rights abuses (DeMeritt, 2012; Krain, 2012; Murdie, 2014), although this relationship has also been found to be conditional on domestic and/or international mobilization (Murdie & Davis, 2012) and domestic regime type (Hendrix & Wong, 2013; Murdie, 2014).

Worth mentioning, there are concerns that shaming of one type of abuse by human rights INGOs and IGOs could lead states to change their abusive tactics (DeMeritt, Conrad, & Fariss, 2016; Hafner-Burton, 2008). Further, there is work that is highly critical of certain behaviors of INGOs, highlighting the negative consequences of their often-overlooked, nonprincipled behavior (Clifford, 2005; Cooley & Ron, 2002; Murdie, 2014). Further work is necessary to understand the conditions when INGOs and other advocates are most likely to be successful and when they are likely to be ineffective or counterproductive to human rights goals.

State and IGO Foreign Policy Actions

There is a growing body of empirical work that looks at whether certain foreign policy actions improve human rights in a targeted state. Although this work does occasionally find that international actions can improve certain human rights practices, there is much work that shows that some international pressure tactics are counterproductive to human rights goals. To the extent that these actions are encouraged or influenced by human rights advocates, this could diminish the overall effects of advocates on human rights practices (Allendoerfer & Murdie, 2015).

On the positive side, there is some research that finds that certain types of foreign military interventions can improve certain human rights practices. For example, Krain (2005) finds that foreign military interventions against the perpetrator can help limit the severity of mass killings. DeMeritt (2015) concludes that interventions in support of the government can limit the onset of mass killings. Murdie and Davis (2010) find that only peacekeeping interventions with a strong humanitarian focus can improve human rights in countries after civil wars. However, Peksen (2012) finds that foreign military interventions do not generally improve human rights.

Another potential positive international action for human rights improvement is the support that international actors provide for transitional justice mechanisms, like the use of truth commissions after civil wars or human rights atrocities. Many studies have found that these mechanisms, especially in certain combinations, can improve some human rights outcomes, even after accounting for the factors that led to the implementation of these mechanisms in the first place (Dancy & Wiebelhaus-Brahm, 2015; Kim & Sikkink, 2010; Olsen, Payne, & Reiter, 2010; Polizzi, 2016).

On the negative side, however, there are many international foreign policy actions that are not associated with improved human rights. Foreign aid is not often associated with improved human rights (Barratt, 2007) and repressive regimes are rarely punished for poor human rights records (Esarey & DeMeritt, 2016; Nielsen, 2013). Economic sanctions can exasperate human rights abuses (Peksen, 2009; Wood, 2008). Actions by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank often harm human rights (Abouharb & Cingranelli, 2007). Most of this work explains the negative or null findings as the unintended consequences of international foreign policy action. These actions can limit the general public’s ability or willingness to pressure their leaders and can make abusive leaders feel threatened, heightening their desire to use repressive practices to stay in power. Another important issue in this research concerns the selection of states to receive international action and the geopolitical concerns that can complicate whether these actions are designed with human rights goals.

In short, there is a well-established theoretical lens through which to examine how international actors influence the adoption and internalization of human rights norms. Although much current empirical work has shown that advocacy actors (particularly human rights INGOs) do influence human rights outcomes in the ways outlined in the extant theoretical literature, there is much work to be done to understand the types of international foreign policy pressure that can stop human rights abuses.

Human Rights Treaties

The previous section on how international pressure is associated with human rights practices ignores an important international pressure source: international human rights law. This was intentional; the international human rights treaty regime is a very specific type of international pressure that does not nicely conform to the theoretical and empirical literature concerning many of the international foreign policy actions discussed earlier in this article. Instead, the study of how the international human rights treaty regime influences human rights practices has drawn heavily on earlier theoretical arguments on international cooperation and compliance ( Abbott, Keohane, Moravcsik, Slaughter, & Snidal, 2000; Downs, Rocke, & Barsoom, 1996; Morrow, 1994; von Stein, 2005) and the role of domestic institutions in encouraging compliance with international agreements (Dai, 2005).

Although much of the work within this area has focused on the human rights treaties drafted within the United Nations (UN) that followed the UDHR, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the CAT, which we refer to here as UN human rights treaties, there is also a rich literature on regional human rights treaties and courts (Hawkins & Jacoby, 2010; Helfer & Voeten, 2014; Hillebrecht, 2012; Tallberg, 2002), as well as a growing literature on the International Criminal Court (Chapman & Chaudoin, 2013; Ritter & Wolford, 2012). Due to space constraints, the discussion here focuses on the literature concerning UN human rights treaties, where there has recently been a surge of empirical work concerning whether treaty ratification affects human rights practices.

Many early empirical works argued and found that various UN international human rights treaties are not generally associated with unconditional improvements in various human rights practices (Hafner-Burton & Tsutsui, 2005; Hathaway, 2002; Keith, 1999). As such, there was much early evidence that UN human rights treaties alone were not sufficient to lead to greater respect for human rights. In line with general arguments on the limits of international cooperation, the existing treaty system was created with weak enforcement mechanisms and states are unlikely to voluntarily bind themselves in ways that would limit their ability to control their populations. There are tremendous issues of self-selection as well: states may be ratifying treaties after a war or as part of their transition to democracy. As such, it is difficult to ascertain whether any improvements in human rights practices are causally linked to the treaty or are linked to the underlying conditions that led the state to ratify the treaty in the first place.

Much of the scholarship that followed has (a) taken issues of self-selection seriously, (b) examined the domestic conditions that could make treaties more likely to affect human rights practices (Conrad & Ritter, 2013; Hill, 2010; Lupu, 2013; Neumayer, 2005; Simmons, 2009), or both. As to the first issue, many studies are using advanced statistical treatment effects or “matching” techniques to account for the underlying self-selection issue. Some of these studies have found that certain treaties cause improvements in certain human rights, and explanations have been given for these unique causal effects. For example, Hill (2010) finds that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) causes better human rights performance on women’s political rights, something Hill (2010) explains is due to the nonthreatening nature of women’s political rights to the regime leadership. Lupu (2013) uses a slightly different method to account for self-selection and finds that CEDAW causes improved women’s political, social, and economic rights.

The newer literature has also found that treaties can be effective in some situations. In line with the spiral model outlined previously, Neumayer (2005) finds, for example, that treaties are associated with improved human rights in democratic regimes and where there are large numbers of INGOs with members present within the state. Similarly, Simmons (2009) finds that treaties can be a useful tool for dissidents to use to try to get concessions from a repressive regime. And, as mentioned, Powell and Staton (2009) highlight the utility of an independent judiciary in leading states where the CAT is ratified to lessen their use of torture. Recent work by Conrad and Ritter (2013) connects the effectiveness of treaties to the characteristics of the judiciary and the security of the leader.

Although these findings provide a small glimmer of hope for the usefulness of the international human rights regime in certain situations, Fariss (2014) argues that there may be more reasons to be hopeful. As mentioned, Fariss (2014) contends that there is a changing standard of accountability for physical integrity rights abuses over time. Using his corrected measure, Fariss (2014, 2017a) shows a general association between treaty ratification and improved human rights practices. Cingranelli and Filippov (2017), however, question the empirical validity of this finding, arguing that the Fariss (2014) results are time dependent. Nonetheless, future work should examine how changing standards of accountability (some changing standards perhaps even aided by the human rights regime) affect the relationship between treaty ratification and human rights practices.


Why do state actors abuse human rights? In this article, we outlined three stylized theoretical statements that are supported in the empirical literature:

  1. 1. Human rights abuses are a way for an unrestrained state, especially the executive branch and its agents, to try to control individuals and hold on to power.

  2. 2. Respect for human rights is an international norm, and international socialization and pressure about this norm can, in certain situations, affect behavior.

  3. 3. The codification of human rights norms into international treaties may influence behavior but, like our understanding of the effect of other treaties on state behavior, states only bind themselves weakly and certain conditions are necessary for treaties to affect human rights.

This is an especially great juncture in the study of human rights. First, more detailed and rich data are now available; this data will allow future scholars to examine rights beyond the conventional focus on physical integrity violations by state actors and allow much more nuance in the particularities of the abuse and the abuser (e.g., Conrad, Haglund, & Moore, 2014; Cornett, Gibney, & Haschke, 2016). In addition, automated events data also hold much promise for near real-time analysis and for more nuanced study of the state-society dynamics that exasperate human rights abuses (Boschee et al., 2015; Fariss et al., 2015; Quinn, Monroe, Colaresi, Crespin, & Radev, 2010). The combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques also will continue to contribute to the breadth and depth of our knowledge on why abuses occur (Hafner-Burton & Ron, 2009).

Second, advances in empirical techniques now allow scholars to take self-selection seriously and examine more directly the causal process connecting certain interventions and institutions to changes in human rights outcomes (Allendoerfer & Murdie, 2015; Hill, 2010; Lupu, 2013; Murdie & Peksen, 2013b). These techniques will help us determine how certain actions could mediate the effects of advocacy, or perhaps lead to unintended consequences that could harm human rights.

Third, a growing number of scholars are focusing on public opinion related to human rights (Ausderan, 2014; Bracic, 2016; Murdie & Purser, 2017; Ron, Golden, Crow, & Pandya, 2017; Wallace, 2013). Although these studies have not yet been extended to focusing on how public opinion relates to human rights outcomes in a cross-national sample of states, work is this area is critical for building our microfoundations for how human rights improvements occur and the potential role of public opinion in this process.

Finally, there have been recent advances in the practice of human rights promotion and the strategies of human rights advocates. Human rights performance within a country could be influenced by current increases in training on nonviolent resistance, a renewed focus on transitional justice and nonstate actors, and the use of technology to aid in the recording of abuses. Future studies should incorporate these advances into our theoretical understanding of the process by which human rights improve. The efficacy of these tactics should also be tested empirically.

In sum, the existing IR literature on why states abuse human rights has highlighted the nuanced relationships between international and domestic factors and human rights practices. There are few laws in human rights theories, but the works discussed in this article do point to a general theory of why states abuse human rights. The literature draws heavily on theories related to domestic constraints on leaders, on how norms diffuse, and on when international agreements affect state behavior. By drawing on this generalized set of knowledge, as well as current advances in the field, future work holds much potential to contribute to both our scholarly understanding of human rights practices and the growing practice of human rights advocacy outside academia.


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(1.) Recently, principal investigators of the Political Terror Scale (PTS) have introduced a new measure of violence by nonstate actors: the Societal Violence Scale (SVS). As the authors of this scale remark in their explanation of the scale, the role of the state in abuses by nonstate actors is not trivial: “the state is obliged not only to refrain from human rights abuses itself, but also has the duty to prevent abuses by third parties, including private actors, and to take positive measures for the provision of rights to everyone under the state’s jurisdiction” (Cornett, Gibney, & Haschke, 2016, n.p.).

(2.) For more discussion about this still controversial idea, see Clark and Sikkink (2013), Richards (2016), Fariss (2017a, 2017b), and Cingranelli and Filippov (2017).

(3.) It is necessary for economic wealth to be distributed throughout society before we can expect to see a link between economic development and improved human rights practices. As such, a high gross domestic product (GDP), coupled with a low GDP per capita, reflect a society that has not achieved economic advancement throughout the population. When we refer to “wealthy states,” we are discussing states with a high GDP coupled with a relatively high GDP per capita.