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).

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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2 Responses to The Impact of International Human Rights Courts

  1. Zach Jones says:

    Did she run this with Fariss’ measure? If not she definitely should! I think the measurement he notes and the rather obvious selection problem means that there is little/no information about the causal effect of entrance into the legal regime. Danny’s JOP paper had a probably better estimate, but selection on observables is still difficult to defend. Not sure what to make of Lupu’s attempt at the selection problem. At the least there is the problem of using estimates from a model as if they were non-random measurements. Will read her paper soon!

  2. Zach Jones says:

    Apparently I randomly omitted a few words. I meant “measurement problem” and that there was little/no information about the causal effect in the studies Moravcsik mentioned.

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