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Archive: On Human Rights

International Interactions Policy Blog

International Interactions is a peer-reviewed journal with direct relevance to a wide and interdisciplinary audience. Readers include political scientists, economists, historians, mathematicians, statisticians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social science researchers with an interest in international relations, as well as informed professionals in business and government.

Launched in 2019, the International Interactions blog synthesizes scholarly findings for a practitioner audience. Each blog post describes the policy takeaways of a recent II article, in the authors’ own words, for use by engaged policymakers who can apply this research to current issues and challenges. 

Below, you’ll find an archive of posts relating to Human Rights, plus links to the full journal articles. Access all categories alongside the latest post on the blog’s main page.

Costly signaling in autocracy | April 2021

Robert Carroll & Amy Pond, Costly signaling in autocracyInternational Interactions (2021). Free Access until June 30, 2021>>

No autocrat wants revolution. While suppressing revolution is expensive and bloody, democratization may be even worse. At best, the autocrat must share his rents following democratization. At worst, the autocrat, his family, and his supporters may be killed, exiled, imprisoned, or impoverished. Of course, not all autocrats are the same: Some would prefer to supress the revolt rather than to give up and democratize.

Differences in autocrats’ willingness to suppress revolution create a dilemma for those who would revolt. They often do not know the autocrat’s type. They would prefer to revolt if the ruler is weak and likely to respond with democratization, but they would prefer to concede if the ruler is strong and would choose instead to violently suppress the revolution. Consequently, the autocrat must decide how best to signal his strength in hopes of deterring revolt. How, then, can autocrats signal their willingness to use violence? In answering the question, this paper builds on the large literature exploring the conditions surrounding autocrats’ decisions to use concessions and material transfers, and, conversely, shows of force and violent repression in trying to prevent revolution.

We present a simple signaling model to convey the argument. Economic transfers and shows of force differ in a number of important ways, which introduce a subtlety to the signaling process. In this article, we explore this subtlety to explain why autocrats differ in the ways in which they deter revolution. We argue that shows of force allow strong rulers to signal their type to citizens, while material transfers do not.

Due to variation in autocrats’ costs of employing violence, shows of force provide a richer signaling apparatus than do transfers. While an autocrat’s capacity to show force is directly related to his ability to use it, his capacity to provide transfers depends only on his access to resources and is independent from his ability to repress. The strong autocrat – who would repress revolution – can thus employ a level of force that is not incentive compatible for the weak autocrat, allowing the strong autocrat to communicate his type to citizens. Conversely, any level of transfer that is incentive compatible for the strong autocrat would likewise be incentive compatible for the weak autocrat. Thus, shows of force can signal strength, while transfers, which provide no information about the ruler’s strength, cannot.

In sum, we find that rulers cannot meaningfully convey strength by transferring wealth to the citizenry. However, they can convey their type through shows of force, as long as the strong type of autocrat – who would use violent repression in case of revolution – has a competitive advantage in displaying his strength. We additionally demonstrate that rulers favor shows of force when their willingness to suppress revolution is questioned and that citizens may prefer to pay the direct costs associated with shows of force in order to learn about the ruler’s type, rather than to remain uninformed.

The results illustrate a more general conclusion in costly signaling models, which should be of interest to all scholars focusing on uncertainty and communication: Information transmission is only possible when the cost of the signal undermines imitation. The cost must be smaller for the type that wants to distinguish himself and larger for the type that gains from being misidentified. Full article >>


Abuse by Association: migration from terror-prone countries and human rights abuses | January 2021

Nazli Avdan ,Naji Bsisu, & Amanda Murdie, Abuse by association: migration from terror-prone countries and human rights abusesInternational Interactions (2020). Free Access until  March 31, 2021>>

Recent scholarship shows that migrants encounter state repression and human rights abuses at the hands of state agents, debunking the popular notion that migrants bring violence with them. Some migrants seek political refuge; others flee environmental hazards; yet others are in search of better economic opportunities. Unfortunately, rather than finding a safe haven and robust human rights environments, migrants may come under fire by agents of the state they seek protection in. Migrants may be scapegoated as potential terrorists or criminals, but, as we find, they may not be the sole targets of human rights abuses. We contend migration, especially when tied to sending states afflicted with terrorism, has adverse effects on society at large. We find that migration from terror-prone origin states does in fact erode human rights in host states. More specifically, migrants may suffer abuses along with host states’ citizens advocating for migrants’ rights and members of humanitarian organizations.

We show that the targets of human rights abuses are not just newcomers, but also citizens of host states. Using a cross-national sample spanning data on international migration flows from 1980 to 2010, we demonstrate that, while overall migration has no deleterious effects on human rights, migration from countries suffering a high volume of terrorism on their soil, or whose nationals perpetrate a high volume of terrorism worldwide, does. Our paper nuances the migration-security nexus, by showing that the effects of migration expand beyond contagion of conflict, reshaping the relationships between citizenry and the government in host states.

Our paper exhorts the citizenry of host states to safeguard their civil liberties in the face of broader societal crackdowns, and to remain vigilant against the exploitation of migration to justify infringement on human rights. In particular, the securitization of migration, whereby the government defines migration as an existential threat, may be the main culprit in spurring the erosion of human rights. Regardless of whether migrants are linked to terrorism, the perception that they may be linked to violence can catalyze human rights abuses. Remaining vigilant is all the more important as populism and right-wing demagoguery take root in advanced democracies. Xenophobic, sometimes racist, and virulently nativist rhetoric against migrants may incentivize more violence against migrant communities by agents of the state.

To conclude on a more sanguine note, welcoming developments in some host countries may alleviate, and perhaps overturn, the weakening of human rights regimes. Some host states have implemented training and cultural awareness programs for their police and security personnel. These programs may raise awareness and protect the human rights of migrants and citizens alike. Migration regimes also matter. As we note in our paper, as migrants become acclimated to host societies, the perception that they pose a danger to the host country likely subsides and dies down. If so, the pathways that animate human rights crackdowns may also weaken over time, as states adapt to hosting migrants. Therefore, holistic migration integration programs comprised of sound policies that aid acclimatization on the one hand, and that train police and personnel to respect human rights on the other, may go a long way toward preserving host states’ commitments to human rights.  Full article >>

How does morality shape public attitudes toward military strikes? | January 2021

Michal Smetana & Marek Vranka, How moral foundations shape public approval of nuclear, chemical, and conventional strikes: new evidence from experimental surveysInternational Interactions (2020). Free access until March 31, 2021 >>

In August 2020, the world commemorated seventy-five years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the tragic fate of these two Japanese cities would hardly be a cause for celebration, the anniversary does bring along one unequivocally positive fact: to date, and to the surprise of many, it was the only time humankind ever exploded nuclear weapons in anger. Despite the fact that nuclear-armed powers jointly produced over 125,000 nuclear bombs and warheads and fought a number of wars in the last seven decades, they have so far abstained from striking their enemies with these weapons.

There have been, however, some worrying trends indicating that the tradition of nuclear non-use may not last forever. Articles in prestigious scientific journals American Political Science Review and International Security clearly showed that the public, at least in the United States, may not be as averse to the use of nuclear weapons as previously thought. In fact, the latter of the two describes a survey experiment, in which a clear majority of respondents approved the first use of nuclear weapons against a large enemy city – with two million civilian fatalities.

In our recent article, we followed up on those studies to explore how individuals’ moral values are associated with their attitudes towards the use of nuclear, as well as chemical and conventional, weapons. We conducted two survey experiments, in which we presented the participants with randomly-assigned hypothetical scenarios involving nuclear, chemical, or conventional strikes. In these experiments, we also varied the number of U.S. and foreign fatalities and measured the level of strike approval together with the individuals’ scores in moral foundations.

The studies provided us with several intriguing findings. First, our participants did not only display relatively high support for nuclear strikes in our scenarios, but they also approved the use of nuclear weapons more than the limited employment of chemical agents. This suggests that public aversion against chemical weapons may actually be stronger than the one against nuclear weapons.

Second, our results show that while individuals’ moral values are indeed associated with their support for the use of force, this association remains mostly the same across all three types of strikes. In other words, we did not find any convincing evidence of specific moral barriers connected with the use of nuclear or chemical weapons, suggesting that the general public does not necessarily separate them as a qualitatively distinct category of immoral, ethically abhorrent weapons.

Finally, findings of our study showed that participants high in the so-called “binding foundations” (respect to authority, loyalty, and spiritual purity) are more likely to opt for nuclear strikes regardless of the number of American fatalities in the case of a non-nuclear option, whereas those low in the binding foundation approve these strikes only when the expected U.S. fatalities are high.

A common critique of this and other similar studies is that understanding of public attitudes does not directly tell us that much about the likelihood of these weapons being used in world politics, as these decisions are usually reserved for the presidents, prime ministers, and other top officials and their highest-ranking advisors. However, there is convincing evidence that, at least in the United States, decision-makers do seriously consider public opinion when they are deciding on the use of military force. In fact, some scholars showed that public pressure was a critical factor in the establishment of the “nuclear taboo” on the use of nuclear weapons. Finally, rigorous research into determinants of public attitudes can provide us with a deeper understanding of how these norms operate on an individual level, and hopefully give us some clues on how to further educate the public and minimize the chance that nuclear or chemical weapons are ever used again. Full article >>


The Ethnic Politics of Asylum | December 2020

Lamis Abdelaaty, Rivalry, ethnicity, and asylum admissions worldwideInternational Interactions (2020). Free access until February 28, 2021 >>

In the US, asylum policies favor Cubans over Haitians. Jordanian borders were largely open to Syrians fleeing violence, but Palestinians were turned back. Rohingya refugees in India complain they are treated worse than other ethnic groups escaping Burma. Almost every country in the world hosts refugees – examples of bias, discrimination, and double standards abound.

In the era of globalized trade and investment, regulating migration is often portrayed as the last bastion of state sovereignty. But these instances show that countries do not always jealously guard their borders. While some forced migrants are shut out, others get a ‘free pass.’  Why do countries welcome some refugees and treat others poorly?  More specifically, why do countries accept some asylum applications and reject others?

The existing literature suggests that the assistance refugees receive is a reflection of countries’ wealth or compassion. Instead, I argue that states’ approaches to refugees are shaped by foreign policy and ethnic politics. Although previous work has hinted at these dynamics separately, I combine them into a two-part framework and identify the specific incentives that operate at international and domestic levels. Interstate rivalry and affinity with co-ethnics lead to generous asylum policies, while refugees from allied nations who lack common ethnic ties receive harsh treatment. Going beyond the existing empirical literature’s focus on the US and other Western countries, I find support for this theory, with statistical analyses showing that global asylum admissions are negatively correlated with the friendliness of interstate relations, and positively correlated with refugee ethnic affinity.

There were nearly 26 million refugees by the end of 2018, of which more than 6 million were stuck in protracted situations. At the time of writing, refugee crises in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, and elsewhere were ongoing. Exploring when and why the rights of these vulnerable populations are respected or abused has enormous normative and policy importance. Full article >>


The Arab Spring and the Barriers to Revolutionary Diffusion | December 2019

Ammar Shamaileh, Never out of Now: Preference Falsification, Social Capital and the Arab SpringInternational Interactions, 45:6 (2019). Read now >>

In 2010, the self-immolation of a young Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set in motion a series of events that fundamentally altered the way scholars and analysts discuss the Arab world. His actions led to protests that quickly toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government, and this appeared to increase protest activity in many other Arab states. Almost immediately after the Tunisian Revolution, discussions of the region’s political order shifted away from explaining its authoritarian stability to predicting a democratic wave. Nearly a decade has passed since the beginning of the Arab Spring, and what has now become clear to most is that the region neither experienced a democratic wave nor was stably autocratic. This article seeks to help us understand the barriers to revolutionary diffusion by examining what diffuses across authoritarian borders during revolutionary waves, and how a recently-terminated civil war may influence the expression of political preferences during periods of regional instability.

Revolutions are often assumed to spark bandwagon effects in neighboring states, increasing regional expressions of dissent. As individuals observe the behavior of those residing in a neighboring state caught in the midst of a revolution, certain beliefs or sentiments that increase the willingness to protest may spread to these outside observers. In the case of the Arab Spring, this assumption has often been fundamental to analyses and discussions of the spread of revolutionary fervor in 2011. While this is a reasonable assumption, researchers and analysts who interacted with individuals in the Arab world were exposed to the nuances of how expressions of dissent shifted. Among my most interesting experiences in 2011 were the conversations I had with Syrians who, prior to the Arab Spring, had voiced dissatisfaction with the regime and conditions in Syria. While many of them saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity, others expressed concerns regarding the alternatives to Assad and toned down their criticisms of the regime. While Syria is not the focus of this piece, it was, in part, these conversations that motivated this article.

In 2011, Sudan was transitioning toward peace in the aftermath of a long and devastating civil war. I argue that, in such an environment, individuals are more likely to temper their criticisms of a government due to their fear of the consequences of instability. In an environment where the perceived possibility of a revolutionary bandwagon occurring is low, communicating political and policy preferences may serve to spur limited or gradual change. If the risk of regime change is heightened, however, individuals may temper their criticisms in order to avoid the costs of instability. Where a previous negative experience with instability is fresh in the minds of individuals, as in the case of Sudan, the country may experience decreased rather than increased expressions of political dissent. Thus, a revolutionary wave may precipitate more or less criticism of a regime, and pre-revolutionary regime critics may not necessarily be dependable allies in revolutionary movements.

This article examines Arab Barometer data from Sudan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. While the article’s focus is on Sudan, each of these states’ survey respondents exhibited unique patterns during the Arab Spring that help highlight the potential barriers to revolutionary diffusion. In Lebanon, where there are few restrictions on speech and political mobilization, the Arab Spring offered little new salient information regarding the probability of successful political mobilization. In Saudi Arabia, where the authoritarian state’s coercive capacity is high, the increased scrutiny that accompanied rising regional instability meant greater fear among the general population. Finally, in Sudan, a weak state with autocratic restrictions on speech that had recently experienced a long civil war, there was a decrease in speech critical of the government, and it is argued this was likely due to a fear of the costs of instability rather than the costs of protest.

For policy analysts and actors concerned with political stability and democratization, several important implications are associated with these findings. First, for better or worse, a recent civil war may lead to an increased preference for stability, which should reduce civil unrest. While this may reduce the likelihood of mass civil unrest, it also potentially reduces the probability of democratization in the short term. Second, a number of barriers to revolutionary waves exist, and not all of them relate to structural conditions, foreign actors, or the strength of political entities. A regime that has recently experienced a civil war may be more likely to stay in power in the immediate aftermath if militias are disarmed. Thus, for example, were the Syrian Civil War to wind down, war-weary Syrian citizens may be hesitant to initiate regime change upon the war’s conclusion. While non-state armed groups, if they persist, may still plunge the country back into war, the civilian population may prefer to maintain even a repressive peace. To some degree, this implies that the bargain struck to end the war is paramount in determining the course the country will follow in subsequent years, since the population may be less willing to mobilize to renegotiate the terms of the agreement until the collective memory of the consequences of war have faded. It should be noted, however, the experiences of both Algeria and Sudan this year have reminded us that an increase in stability in the short-term does not necessarily imply increased stability in the long-term. Finally, the preferences that individuals communicate in authoritarian settings, both for and against regimes, are not stable and cannot be taken at face value. Those who express discontent prior to a revolutionary wave may not be the individuals joining or organizing protests when the possibility of a revolutionary bandwagon increases. Full article >>

Reconsidering Humanitarian Military Intervention | September 2019

Thorsten Gromes & Matthias Dembinski, Practices and outcomes of humanitarian military interventions: a new data setInternational Interactions, 45:6 (2019). Read now >>

Do humanitarian military interventions decrease or escalate levels of deadly violence? Do they tend to shorten or prolong violent conflicts and mass atrocities? Under which conditions do humanitarian military interventions succeed or fail in stopping or reducing the killing? When answering these highly relevant questions, scholars have mainly referred to single case studies, and therefore comparative research on these issues is rare. A new data set promises academic relief by establishing a basis for such much-needed comparative analyses. It covers all humanitarian military interventions since the Second World War and presents information on target countries prior to, during, and after interventions. The data set also includes information on the interventions themselves, including their mandates, aims, activities, and aftermath.

Applying a widely-shared definition, we understand humanitarian military intervention as the threat or use of force, with the declared intention of protecting citizens in the targeted country from widespread violence. Defining this concept—recently also discussed under the label of the Responsibility to Protect—can be a contentious issue. Taking this into consideration, our data set includes information covering further aspects of humanitarian military interventions. This allows users to adapt our data set to their favored definition. The compilation consists of data matrices and structured case descriptions that document all coding decisions.

The data set allows us to reconsider certain commonly-held assumptions. For instance, the claim that humanitarian military interventions are on the wane is refuted by the number of ongoing operations and of violent conflicts that might trigger further humanitarian military interventions. Many commentators stress the dominant role of Western states and organizations. Our data set demonstrates that humanitarian military interventions are not a Western monopoly, as evidenced by interventions carried out by Russia, India, and African organizations.

The data set documents death rates caused by violent conflicts prior to and during interventions. This could be used to investigate the accuracy of further assumptions surrounding humanitarian military interventions, such as that most humanitarian military interventions worsen the situation in the target country, reduce the extent of organized violence, or have no impact at all.

The data set could also be used to explore the average effect of humanitarian military interventions by comparing crisis-ridden countries that experienced an intervention with a matched group of cases that exhibited the same relevant properties but in which no humanitarian military intervention occurred. Cases with humanitarian military interventions could also be compared with each other to identify conditions under which they are associated with either an escalation or a de-escalation of deadly violence. The Peace Research Institute Frankfurt’s ‘Data Set on Humanitarian Military Interventions since the Second World War’ paves the way for these and other politically relevant analyses. Full article >>


Human Rights: International Norms, International Shaming | Summer 2019

Zhanna Terechshenko, Charles Crabtree, Kristine Eck & Christopher J. Fariss, Evaluating the influence of international norms and shaming on state respect for rights: an audit experiment with foreign embassiesInternational Interactions, 45:4 (2019). Read now >>

How do international norms affect respect for human rights? A large and lively literature debates the extent to which and why states comply with international norms. Perhaps the dominant view in this literature is that states abide by international law to placate other important global actors, such as human rights organizations. According to this view, adherence with international norms should be highest when external actors have the power to sanction states for noncompliance.

We conducted an audit experiment with foreign missions to investigate the extent to which state agents observe international norms and react to the prospect of international shaming. Following a common audit study design, our experiment involved emailing 669 foreign diplomatic missions in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom with requests to contact domestic prisoners. According to the United Nations, prisoners have the right for individuals to contact them. We randomly varied two aspect of our request: (1) whether we reminded embassies about the existence of an international norm permitting prisoner contact and (2) whether the putative email sender is associated with a fictitious human rights organization and, thereby, has the capacity to shame missions through naming and shaming for violating this norm. We found strong evidence for the positive effect of international norms on state respect for human rights. Contra to the literature’s expectations, though, we found that the potential of international shaming does not increase the probability of state compliance. The positive effect of the norms cue disappears when it is coupled with the shaming cue, suggesting that shaming might have a ‘backfire’ effect. We speculate that when bureaucrats at foreign missions receive both cues, they might prefer not to respond than to reply in a way that might be unsatisfying to an individual with potential shaming power. Avoidance might be seen as a better option than an unsuccessful attempt at compliance.

These findings have clear policy implications for human rights organizations (HROs) and states seeking to enforce human rights norms. In particular, our finding on the joint effect on norms and shaming highlights an important proviso for human rights advocates that there may be unintended and deleterious consequences to efforts aimed at inducing compliance if they increase the risk to individual agents. This finding can possibly explain why some HROs prefer to use soft tactics over hard pressure on states and their agents in order to change their behavior. While our explanation of this finding remains speculative, it suggests that future research should investigate the parameters under which state agents are willing and able to respect rights. In addition, the empirical evidence for the effect of international norms suggests the importance of addressing human rights issues through international law and international community pressure in improving human rights practices across states. Full article >>

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