The Impact of International Human Rights Courts

Last November I attended an interesting conference on The Domestic Politics of International Human Rights Agreements.  It afforded me an opportunity to chat with Andy Moravcsik, whom I had not met before, and I asked him why he had not done more work on human rights (since his widely read 2000 article, pdf).  His answer was intriguing: he wants to spend his time studying institutions and processes that have a big impact, and in his judgment, the international human rights regime does not.  He went on to lament the yield of Beth Simmons’s efforts in her 2009 book, Mobilizing for Human Rights.

Moravcsik’s argument revealed an interesting way to think about how to put one’s professional skills to use.  I would describe it as something of a “gun for hire” approach: how might I best utilize my intellectual capital to learn something important.  Or something like that.

I have approached my career differently. I have a passion for a specific topic: the interactions of dissidents and states.  Sure, I want to “make my mark,” but I have a rather limited scope of inquiry.

But the other interesting part of Moravcsik’s observations is his claim that the regime has had little effect.  I certainly see the point he is making with respect to the size of the effects in Simmons’s recent book (and the work that she cites–indeed, Emilie Hafner-Burton has been making this argument in print for some time).  Yet it nevertheless struck me as short-sighted, with respect to not only how the regime functions, but also how science progresses.  In other words, I am not surprised by the relatively small effects, but I don’t particularly agree with Moravcsik (or Hafner-Burton) that the regime is as weak as it appears to be.  My view, Pollyannaish as it may be, is that it has limited, but growing and non-trivial “bite,” but that are really only beginning to understand the institutions, processes, and behavior that determine the effect.  And Simmons’s book is an important stone along that path

Indeed, Jill Haglund recently defended a dissertation that has results I am sure Moravcsik will find suprising.  In Domestic Implementation of Supranational Court Decisions: The Role of Domestic Politics in Respect for Human Rights (pdf), Haglund shows that a regional court that is widely recognized as being weak has had an impressive impact on Latin American country’s respect for physical integrity rights.  Has it done so universally?  Of course not.  But as the power of a country’s constitutional court rises, the negative regional court rulings have remarkably large effects on that country’s subsequent respect for rights.  The figure below depicts this result  NB: Rather than assume that the effect is constant across the countries in the region, Haglund assumes that states respond differently to court rulings, and that is why each country has its own estimate.


The figure plots the estimated impact of a ruling by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights against a country for a violation of someone’s physical integrity rights (the dot indicates the average of that effect), holding all other variables constant.[1]  An estimate of 2 indicates that, for a country with a very powerful domestic court, a ruling against the state by the IACHR will increase that country’s future score on the CIRI Physical Integrity scale (which ranges from 0-8) by two points (22% of its range).[2]  As the figure indicates, these results are quite large, with a value of 2 or more for 18 of the 21 countries in the IACHR’s jurisdiction.

Haglund also studies the impact of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and also finds that country’s with powerful courts respond to adverse ECHR rulings by improving their future respect for physical integrity rights (between 1981 and 2006).  However, and importantly, the size of the impact of ECHR rulings is notably smaller than IACHR.  Thus, in addition to finding that negative rulings by regional human rights courts have large effects upon respect for rights in countries with strong judiciaries, Haglund has also found that—contrary to expectations of the literature—those effects are larger in the Americas than in Europe.[3]

To conclude, Moravcsik quite properly points to the paucity of research that has found large effects of the human rights regime upon state’s respect for rights.  Indeed, in her recent book Hafner-Burton makes the case for a triage approach within the human rights regime, arguing that the small impact of the regime will only grow when those working for rights focus their efforts where they are most likely to have an impact.  Her argument strikes me as quite sound, but I also believe that the regime has had more of an effect than we yet recognize.  Haglund’s research helps illuminate the causal mechanisms that underpin what Kathryn Sikkink recently labeled the global justice cascade, and suggests that my relative optimism may not bePollyannaish after all.


[1] The results are estimates from a linear multi-level Bayesian model, and thus the coefficient estimates represent the expected impact on Y of one unit increase in X, holding the other variables in the model constant.  The analysis includes all IACHR rulings that involved physical integrity rights violations (new data coded by Haglund) during the period from 1989-2010.

[2] Equivalently, we can say that when the IACHR rules against a country, if we then change that country’s courts from very weak to very powerful the future expected level of respect for physical integrity rights (as measured by CIRI) will increase by two points.  The coefficient is the multiplicative interaction of two variables, a binary indicator of whether a given court case found in favor of the government (scored 0) or the plaintiff (scored 1), and a continuous measure of the power of the domestic courts that ranges from 0 to 1.

[3] Haglund’s study cannot both find such an effect and explain it (except in a post hoc sense).  Instead, future studies will have to be designed to explore why the IACHR has had a larger impact on country’s respect for physical integrity rights than the ECHR.  Both Haglund and I suspect that the fact that respect for such rights is considerably higher, on average, in Europe than the Americas likely plays some role in the finding (i.e., there is more room for improvement in the Americas than in Europe).

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Making the Phone Calls

We used payphones back then.  I’m sure there were payphones in the hospital, but I wanted to go outside.  I think it was around 11 pm.  I was on the West Coast, in Riverside, California.

I walked a little over a block away, and saw a payphone.  It was Sunday night, and there was no traffic.  Just the stop lights going through their cycle, slightly changing the hue bouncing off of the road.


I had to phone the Mountain time zone (mom), the Central (brother), and the Eastern (dad).  It seemed to me to make sense to work my way west across the time zones, but since it was after midnight in all three I figured I might as well start with my mom.  That seemed to be what most folks would do.  So I pulled the calling card from my wallet, picked up the plastic receiver, and began pounding the numbers.

I don’t recall what I said precisely, nor whether everyone answered or I left messages on machines.  But it was something like this.

Hi mom.  Kris had an accident earlier tonight—massive head trauma.  He’s had surgery—they inserted shunts in his skull to try to relieve the pressure, but it doesn’t look good.  We won’t know more til morning.  I’m sorry to dump this in your lap.

And she responded as one might expect, expressing sorrow; wanting to know what she might do; telling me she loved me; sounding more or less blown away.

I need to make some more calls, so I’m gonna go.

And I hung up, eyeballed the card, and again poked those numbered buttons.  Once.  Twice.  Three times.

Two days later we would request that the attending doctor disconnect the life support machines and let Kris die.  He was about five months short of his sixth birthday.

My experience is that one does not wonder whether one is alive in such moments.  One knows.

I wonder who is making those calls as you read this.


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“Oh, pifflefoot!”

When I was growing up and my mother was mildly irritated she would often delcare: “Oh, pifflefoot!”  I am moving into a new office (same job, same building, new floor, nicer space) and realized my initial configuration plan is not going to work, and so I uttered (to myself)  “Oh, pifflefoot!”  And it dawned on me that I had not heard that phrase in some time, made me curious about how common it is (and provided an excuse not to unpack).

Well, I am uncertain whether this expression is a single word or two, but either way, while it is not a singleton, it is pretty darned close!


Piffle Foot


All of this reminded me of a book I am reading that is quite fun in which a couple of geeks persuaded Google to let them do ngram work on a random sample of Google Books.  Here is a review of Uncharted.

Well, back to unpacking and setting up my new office.


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Distributive Politics, Academic Association Stylee

Political scientists who study state politics and public policy “distribute the praise” much better than do those who study conflict processes.  Perhaps something for us conflict types to emulate?

The 2014 Award Winners for the State Politics & Policy Section of the American Political Science Association.

Best Paper Award

Gerald Gamm and Thad Kousser, “Contingent Partisanship: When Party Labels Matter-and When They Don’t-in the Distribution of Pork in American State Legislatures”

Best Paper Award (SPP Conference):

James E. Monogan III, David M. Konishky, and Neal D. Woods, “Gone with the Wind: Federalism and the Strategic Placement of Air Polluters”

Best Article Award:

Elizabeth Rigby and Gerald Wright, “Political Parties and Representation of the Poor in the American States,” American Journal of Political Science, 57 (2013): 552-65.

Christopher Mooney Dissertation Award(s):

Julianna M. Koch (Cornell University), “States of Inequality: Government Partisanship, Public Policies, and Income Disparity in the American States, 1970-2005.”


Steven M. Rogers (Princeton University), “Accountability in a Federal System.”

Virginia Gray Best Book Award(s):

Thad Kousser and Justin Philips, The Power of American Governors: Winning on Budget and Losing on Policy. New York: University of Cambridge Press, 2012.


Lynda Powell, The Influence of Campaign Contributions in State Legislatures: The Effects of Institutions and Politics. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Mac Jewell Enduring Contribution Book Award:

Robert S. Erikson, Gerald C. Wright, and John P. McIver, Statehouse Democracy: Public Opinion and Policy in the American States. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Career Achievement Award:

Richard F. Winters, Dartmouth College


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Sigh: The Nazi Spike on Twitter

I was on a flight on Wednesday and decided to watch The Monuments Men.  While I have not read any reviews, I knew it had been panned, and the critics are right.  The movie wants to be, in part, “Catch 22,”  “Schindler’s List,”  “Saving Private Ryan,” and “The Andromeda Strain.”  Yup, that’s a bad idea.

I watched it anyway, and one of the things that really jumped out at me was the tired, Manichaean portrayal of the German officers.[1]  Even the score piped in, filling the viewer’s ears with evil, foreboding music, whenever those Nazis were on screen.  And I thought, really, in 2014?  We can’t let that trope go?  I confess, the German soldiers are not portrayed as cartoonishly as they are in, say, “The Sound of Music” or “Hogan’s Heroes.”  But they are most definitely one dimensional caricatures of human beings.

So, what the heck does that have to with Twitter?  Perhaps you have seen the article at Deadspin: “When Did Nazi Insults Spike On Twitter During USA-Germany?” This is the graph:

Tweets Containing "Nazi" during US v Germany World Cup Game

Now, I know full well that there is no simple causal story here.  During sporting contests fans with routinely Tweet offensive insults in response to their own team doing poorly (e.g., Boston Bruin fans here and here).  And yes, the studio’s profit motive leads it to make films that have ready-made, easily recognized story lines that tap widely held cultural beliefs, which are also reflected in sports’ fans public emoting.  But the juxtaposition of seeing the portrayal in the movie and the Twitter bit motivated me to post and express my weariness.  See, having now emoted, I feel better.  ;-)


[1] For that matter, the Soviet soldiers, as well.

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Three Pictures from Amazon’s Author Central

This week the co-author of my math for social scientists text, Dave Siegel , released a series of video lectures to accompany the text.  They make self study very feasible, so if you are thus inclined, please check them out.

Siegel's YouTube page with lectures to accompany: A Mathematics Course for Political & Social Research

Siegel’s YouTube page with lectures to accompany: A Mathematics Course for Political & Social Research

Dave maintains a page with all sorts of useful links for the text.

This prompted me to wonder how the book has been doing wrt sales on  So I visited their Author Central site and was able to eyeball a few fun representations.  I really like the trends in author rank for the Kindle edition.  The third figure provides sales figures, which are much more tangible than author rank.


WHM Author Rank, All formats,

WHM Author Rank, Kindle only,

WHM Author Rank, Kindle only,

Sales figures, paper and hard cover,

Sales figures, all formats,


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The Acorn Doesn’t Fall far from the Tree

My mother likes to tell a story about my paternal grandfather that involved a quirk of his generation and one of his personality.  I was an infant, and my parents, myself, and our dog, a boxer named Blitz, were visiting he and my grandmother in Cambridge, MD.

As my mother tells it, my grandfather had limited interest in his grandson, but loved that dog. Exhibit A regarding the latter was his concern that Blitz, who like myself, was less than a year old, would need to relieve himself during the night.[1]  Back then clothing was an important marker of class in the US, and my grandfather would not be seen out in public unless he was properly dressed (sporting a coat and tie, and in his case, a hat).  I wish I had a photo I could show you (he had a fabulous smile).

In any case, every night during our visit, my grandfather would apparently rise sometime after 1 am, get himself properly attired, and walk the dog.  My mother loves this story, in part I think, because it is difficult to establish what is the most remarkable part: my grandfather’s commitment to the dog or to his station in life.[2]

Well, my 75 year old father turns out to have a similar commitment to the dog in his life, at this juncture an aging beagle named Wishbone.  My dad and stepmom, Jacki, live in a house that has an impressive flight of stairs, and the intersection of Wishbone’s advancing years, those stairs, and my father being “his father’s son” to the following landing in my email today.

Well, it finally happened!  I have torn the ligaments (inside & outside) of my right ankle.  It was diagnosed as between a Grade 2 and 3, grade 3 being the most severe. I say it finally happened since Jacki has been predicting a fall ever since I started carrying Wishbone up and down the stairs three months ago.  He is in tough shape with his blown ACL’s, arthritis in both shoulders, stone deaf, failing eyesight and impaired cognitive ability (not sure when he needs to pee).  Anyway I’m in a walking boot, pain meds, and a doc appointment in 2 weeks.  Most of what I read on the Internet says 4 – 6 weeks for recovery.  I’m not sure what “recovery” means, but it’s pretty far away.

Just wanted to let you know what’s cooking at the old folks home! 


[1] “Dog doors” were not common in the US in 1962 indeed, (may have been unknown).

[2] Cambridge, MD is a very small town on the Eastern Shore, and the likelihood that my grandfather would encounter someone while walking the dog at that hour was vanishingly small.

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