Expert Commentary

International socialization and the diffusion of human rights norms

2010 paper by the University of Washington on the potential for membership in Intergovernmental organizations to affect states’ human rights behavior.

In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; since then, the world has seen both widespread progress and continuing human rights abuses in various countries. Numerous factors determine states’ decision to uphold or ignore international norms; one is a state’s involvement or membership within intergovernmental organizations (IGOs).

While one would expect a state’s involvement with human-rights-based IGOs to have a positive effect, the question remains whether other types of IGOs — particularly those with no connection to human rights issues — also promote the international diffusion of human rights norms. A 2010 study published in International Studies Quarterly by Brian Greenhill of the University of Washington, “The Company You Keep: International Socialization and the Diffusion of Human Rights Norms,” used cross-national data on human-rights abuses within 137 countries between 1982 and 2000 to test whether IGOs promoted the spread of human rights norms through inter-state socialization.

The paper’s findings include:

  • There are two ways in which states may be coerced by IGOs to adapt their human rights practices: Either directly as a condition of entry; or subtly, through socialization and interaction with other member states.
  • Direct conditional adaption is the exception, not the rule, as too few IGOs have the coercive power or offer the potential benefits to induce prospective and current members to significantly change their behavior.
  • In terms of socialization effects, statistical analysis suggests a strong correlation between the human-rights performance of a country’s fellow IGO members at a given point in time and that country’s own human-rights performance in subsequent years.

“The results presented here provide room for a more optimistic view of the effects of international institutions,” Greenhill concludes. “They suggest that IGOs do indeed have the potential to bring about real changes in states’ human rights practices, but that they tend to do so through a somewhat unconventional mechanism. IGOs appear to be most important due to their ability to provide an opportunity for human rights norms to be transmitted from one group of states to another. In this sense the specific make up of IGOs—in terms of the human rights records of their member states—is much more important than the nature of the IGOs themselves. This suggests that IGOs can have a positive impact on human rights even if human rights issues do not feature prominently on the organizations’ agendas.”


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