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Putnam and Shapiro on whether treaties make citizens more likely to punish human rights violations

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, some sixty multilateral treaties and conventions on various aspects of human rights have been enacted. Despite this proliferation of agreements, evidence of their impact on how governments treat their citizens is decidedly mixed (Hafner-Burton & Ron 2008). In countries where compliance with human rights laws is uniformly high, non-treaty factors are often credited (Von Stein 2005). In states that routinely violate the fundamental rights of their citizens, international human rights norms and treaties are criticized as ‘toothless’ and irrelevant. Indeed, several scholars have observed that the constraining effects of human rights treaties are often felt least where they are needed most: inside autocratic states controlled by governments with a history of brutality and repression against their own populations (Neumayer 2005; Hafner-
Burton & Tutsui 2007). …

In this paper we combine experimental and case study methods to explore how international law influence the politics behind the external enforcement of international human rights norms. We first use an online survey of U.S. voting-age citizens to test whether support for sanctioning Myanmar for its forced labor practices is affected by awareness that the Myanmar government’s conduct violates international law.

To verify that our experimental results offer explanatory insight into actual events, we use case methods to trace efforts inside the United States to mobilize support for punishing the Myanmar government for its numerous human rights violations. Three points jump out from this case study. First, the status of Myanmar’s actions under international law impacted governmental debates over sanctions and non-governmental initiatives to impose costs on U.S. and foreign firms doing business in the country. Second, American political leaders believe citizens take international law into account in a manner consistent with out experimental results. Third, politicians and NGO-activists responded to this belief.

Our study builds on recent experimental work. Tomz (2007) finds American voters and British policy makers “…far more likely to oppose policies that would violate international law than to oppose otherwise identical policies that would not trammel on existing legal rights” (emphasis in original).2 We explore the generalizeability of Tomz’ findings to the realm of human rights, and also whether the international law effect Tomz identifies extends to sanctioning other governments for failures to act within the constraints of international law.

Tonya Putnam and Jacob Shapiro, “Do Treaties Matter to Citizens Willingness to Punish Foreign Rights Abusers?,” unpublished paper. Available here.