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Shopping for international human rights conventions

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) delivers remarks about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program during a gala event hosted by the Human Rights First organization at the Newseum in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Joshua Tucker: One of our regular features here at The Monkey Cage is summaries from political scientists of recently published research. We have arranged for articles that are featured in this series to be “ungated” and made freely available to the public for a period of time following the post on The Monkey Cage. The current post is from political scientists Emilie Hafner-Burton (University of California, San Diego), Edward Mansfield (University of Pennsylvania) and Jon Pevehouse (University of Wisconsin), based on their article “Human Rights Institutions, Sovereignty Costs and Democratization” that recently appeared in the British Journal of Political Science and is available for free download here.
In 1994, the U.S. government made a legally binding commitment to the international convention against torture, reaffirming its constitutional commitment to prohibiting “cruel and unusual” punishments. It joined a large number of other countries, including Algeria, China, Ecuador and Russia, who made similar commitments.
Recently, the U.S. Senate issued a report on the CIA’s secret interrogations of terrorism suspects, cataloging dozens of cases of near drowning and the use of painful procedures, mistaken identities and conspiracy to deceive the White House. Considering the information released in the report, the United States appears not to have lived up to its legal commitment. In addition, the report drives home an additional point — that these legally prohibited acts of torture didn’t work to serve the country’s national security interests or values. Others dispute this claim.
The allegations in this report raise a number of big questions. Among them is why do governments participate in human rights institutions at all if they can just break the rules at their convenience? The number of countries participating has risen dramatically in recent years, including many governments with serious human rights problems. And there are a growing number of international laws and organizations that include the promotion, advancement, or enforcement of human rights among their aims. Why would a government voluntarily elect to accept the constraints that these institutions supposedly impose on their sovereignty when it seemingly obtains no material gains from membership? Are these institutions just cheap talk, or can they ever have real teeth to constrain acts like those allegedly committed by the CIA?
Our recent research provides some answers. The United States is somewhat unusual — standing alongside Somalia, for example, as one of the few countries in the world that has not committed to the legal regime protecting the rights of children. But there is a more general explanation, which is that different types of governments participate in these institutions for very different — often contradictory — reasons. Some seek to create and bolster norms of human dignity. Some are obviously faking it, making promises they never intend to keep and joining institutions they seek to spoil. Yet some actually seek the pressure of an outside commitment to keep the government in line.
On the surface, it seems a contradiction that the world’s human rights institutions could in chorus service these very different goals. But they can, partly because the costs of participation depend on the way an institution is designed. Some institutions are much stronger than others — institutions that promote rule specificity, issue linkage, membership restrictions, formal reporting, monitoring and enforcement procedures place some constraints on a state’s sovereignty. Others are more symbolic than constraining.
This helps explain the reality that governments shop for the human rights institutions that most meet their needs, whether symbolism, expression or constraint. And it’s a very particular type of state — those undergoing the process of democratization —t hat is most keen to seek the institutions that actually extract costs.  Bearing these costs helps signal that their commitment to human rights and the consolidation of democracy is not “cheap talk.”  Sure, stable democracies may also enter these institutions in response to political pressures and in support of broader foreign policy goals, but they have less need to actually tie their hands. Meanwhile, the world’s autocrats are actively shopping for cheap talk, generally avoiding the human rights institutions that will make them pay the most, and they and they have a lot of options.