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Why do dictatorships ratify human rights treaties?

My great friend and Georgetown colleague, James Raymond Vreeland, provides an insightful answer to the question. Over at The Vreelander, he writes:

Why do dictatorships enter into human rights treaties?

I addressed this question a while back, picking up on a puzzle first identified by my friend and colleague Oona Hathaway.

Dictatorships that practice the most torture are more likely accede to the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) than dictatorships that practice less torture. I argued the reason has to do with the logic of torture:
Torture is more likely where power is shared. In one-party or no-party dictatorships, few individuals defect against the regime. Consequently, less torture occurs. But dictatorships are pro-torture regimes; they have little interest in making gestures against torture, such as signing the CAT. There is more torture where power is shared, such as where dictatorships allow multiple political parties. Alternative political points of view are endorsed, but some individuals go too far. More acts of defection against the regime occur, and torture rates are higher. Because political parties exert some power, however, they pressure the regime to make concessions. One small concession is acceding to the CAT.

Peter Rosendorff and James Hollyer, who are from my alma mater – NYU, have a different argument, which I find fascinating. Here’s their story:

Dictators who enter into the CAT send a signal of extraordinarily strong resolve to hold on to power. How does the signal work? Well, the CAT has an important legal feature called “Universal Jurisdiction.” This means that if a dictator commits torture in his (they’s almost universally men) own country, he may be prosecuted for the crime by courts in another country – this is what happend to Pinochet of Chile. Now, as long as the dictator holds on to power, he is safe from prosecution. But if he ever falls from power, he may very well find himself in the same place Pinochet did, when he was extradited from the United Kingdom to Spain.

Skeptics might suggest that none of this really matters since states are unlikely to utilize universal jurisdiction. Yet, as Darren Hawkins and Jay Goodliffe write in an unpublished paper with me, one recent study found that 109 states had incorporated universal jurisdiction into their domestic legislation. Of those, 14 have actually tried court cases based on the principle, and courts have upheld the law in 12 of them.

So, if a dictator enters into the CAT, he better be darn sure that he will never fall from power. And this is precisely the point. He is sending a signal to his domestic audience that he intends on doing whatever is necessary to hold on to power, and he’s quite confident in his ability to survive in office. Only the strongest resolve dictators will take such a step. Soft dictators can’t rist faking it – if they sign the CAT and lose their grip on power, they’re libel to end up in the slammer. So the signal the tough dictators send is unambiguous, and might even serve to quite opposition, who realize that resistance is futile.

The phrase “bad ass” developed when Rosendorff first told me about the paper. I believe I was the first to use the term publicly – first, when I taught the paper to some students, and then more recently at the 3rd Annual Conference on the Political Economy of International Organizations.

I agree with Erik Voeten, regarding “the sheer ingenuity of the theory.” And I’d like to also note that this is part of a broad approach that Rosendorff has developed over the course of his career.

The central thesis in much of Peter’s work is that international arrangements are ways to signal information to an uninformed domestic audience. Basically, rulers and citizens play a principal-agent game of asymmetric information. Whether and what kind of information the ruler will transmit to citizens depends on domestic political institutions (e.g., democracy vs. dictatorship), with rulers always trying to maximize their chances of survival in office. International arrangements can serve as credible 3rd parties that rulers use to transmit information about what type of ruler s/he is.

Peter has used this framework to explain trade agreements in his work with Milner and Mansfield. And he has used the framework to explain transparency (where the World Bank serves a credible 3rd party) in a paper he co-authored with yours truly.

In the trade and transparency work, democracies use international arrangements to credibly signal the fact that they are following policy that is good for voters. In the human rights story, the dictator uses the treaty to signal that they are willing to do anything, including torture, to stay in office – and they’re so sure of themselves, they commit to going to jail (through the enforcement of universal jurisdiction) if they do ever fall from power.

The “bad ass” story of why dictators enter into human rights treaties contrasts nicely with Moravcsik’s story of why democracies enter into them. You see, Rosendorff and Hollyer’s dictators enter because they’re sure they’ll never fall from power, and they want to send a signal of how tough they are. Moravcsik’s democracies enter because they’re not sure at all that they’re going to maintain power… they fear that a tough dictator may want to overthrow and torture them… so they want to tie the hands of the state to a powerful international organization. I don’t think the stories are mutually exclusive, and they pertain to different types of international institutions – the Convention Against Torture has “universal jurisdiction” and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights andFundamental Freedoms delegates sovereignty to a powerful international organization…

I’ve been trying to convince Peter to write a book on this stuff… consider this a really rough start :-)

I think that both the Vreeland and Rosendorff stories make a great deal of sense. So let me pose them a question: Why is it that the United States was slow to ratify many human rights agreements– like the 1948 Genocide Convention (finally ratified in 1988) and the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (finally ratified in 1992)– and unwilling to ratify others– like the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the American Convention on Human Rights? I have a couple of theories,  but I’d be interested in what Jim and Peter think.

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One Comment

  • Bill Petti says:

    Very interesting post. I am a sucker for all things signaling :)

    I am very intrigued by the Rosendorff/Hollyer theory, but I’ve got a few questions/comments:

    1) If it is well known that the conversion rate, if you will, for bringing accused torturers to justice in connection with the CAT is quite low, then why would a domestic audience see this as a credible signal? Any dictator could sign the treaty regardless of whether their type was of a moderate or a ‘bad ass’–if the signal could easily be sent by either type it can’t differentiate. Additionally, the more credible signal is one that actually demonstrates the will and, more importantly, the capability of the sender. In this case, if a dictator’s real aim and desire is to signal that they will do whatever it takes to stay in power why not make an example of revolutionaries, rebels, etc? Show that you have the will and capability to do whatever it takes to stay in power (thinking here of Walters work on why some states negotiate with separatist groups and others choose violent repression).

    2) Given that, I am more inclined to see it as a low-cost, public relations move to placate domestic and international critics. By signing the CAT a dictator can point to his/her efforts to play by the same rules as other governments and to treat their citizens humanly. The next time they are getting reamed out at some summit or UN meeting they can say “yes, but, we did sign the CAT”. They don’t really need to send a credible signal with the move, just create a useful tool in their public relations arsenal.

    Just my initial thoughts. In general, the data is quite intriguing–a puzzle well worth exploring.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.