The World

Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring

The permanent representative of Syria at the U.N. Human Rights Council, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, prepares for a debate in Geneva on May 29, 2013.

Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Syria, which tortures children, is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Uzbekistan, which has reportedly boiled prisoners alive, is a party to the Convention Against Torture. Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving, has signed on to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

These cases cast doubt on the effectiveness of these treaties. They also raise the question of why countries bother signing such deals at all. Why bother making international commitments you have no intention of meeting?

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A recent paper by Richard Nielsen of MIT and Beth Simmons of Harvard and published in International Studies Quarterly takes a look at this question. According to the authors, the conventional wisdom has been “that governments ratify human rights agreements because they expect some kind of material rewards, whether official aid, liberalized trade, or private investment.” There may also be a less tangible desire to be a “member in good standing” in the international community of “modern” nations.

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But it turns out to be very hard to demonstrate this empirically. Looking at signatories and non-signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Convention Against Torture, the authors found “practically no support” for the notion that signing on carries material benefits for countries in the form of trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties, or increases in foreign aid.

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For non-tangible benefits, the authors used statements by the EU, the U.S. government, and Amnesty International as a proxy for Western opinion. Aside from some perfunctory EU statements praising countries for acceding to treaties—the U.S. usually ignores these entirely—there was no measurable difference in the positive or negative tone of statements about these countries.

So why do they do it? It may have less to do with international validation than domestic politics. The authors say it’s possible “that governments sometimes see ratification as a small concession to their domestic political opponents” or, in a darker scenario, that “treaty ratification is a signal to domestic opponents that officials are willing to torture, despite such commitments.”

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It also seems possible that even if the benefits are negligible, there’s little cost to countries for signing on. Why not take a public stand against torture if, in practice, doing so doesn’t preclude you from torturing?

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After all, countries rarely try to withdraw from these agreements once they’ve signed, even if they’re subsequently in violation of them. One exception is North Korea, which tried to withdraw from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1997 but was denied permission by the U.N. secretary general because no mechanism for withdrawal existed.

The finding is also interesting when considering America’s attitude toward these treaties. If domestic considerations lead autocratic countries to sign on to treaties they have no intention of honoring, American domestic politics keep us from ratifying treaties we are functionally in compliance with. One big reason why the U.S. Congress hasn’t signed on to the rights of the child or disability treaties, for instance, is the vocal opposition of the U.S. homeschooling movement. For U.S. senators, the downside of offending this constituency outweighs whatever marginal benefits the country would receive for approving a treaty that guarantees conditions that largely already exist.

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