Do International Legal Norms Affect Citizens' Willingness to Punish Foreign Human Rights Violations?

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Principal investigators:

Tonya L. Putnam

Columbia University



Jacob N. Shapiro

Princeton University



Sample size: 2724

Field period: 9/12/2007-9/22/2007


Do international human rights treaties make a difference in the willingness of citizens of established democracies to punish the human rights violations of foreign governments? Prior research demonstrates that U.S. citizens are more inclined to oppose U.S. government policies that would violate international law than identical policies which do not. However, little is known about the conditions under which U.S. citizens are more or less likely to support sanctioning foreign governments for violations of international law. We test U.S. citizens’ responses to foreign violations in the human rights with a survey-based experiment involving a forced labor scenario in Myanmar, and treatments that vary the severity of the violations, the treaty status of the foreign state, and the U.S. strategic interests at stake.

H1: Support for punishment will increase as the severity of abuses increases independent of any international law effect.
H2: Support for punitive actions will be higher, all else equal, when respondents are aware that foreign government conduct violates international law
H3: individuals who receive information that the conduct described in the experiment violates a specific treaty commitment in addition to customary legal rules will be more supportive of punitive actions
H4: international law-based support for punishing foreign governments is conditional on the expectation that U.S. national interests (broadly defined) will not be negatively affected

Experimental Manipulations

The experiment utilized a 2x4x3 design, encompassing a total of 7,992 respondent-questions and three experimental manipulations:

Low: respondents were told officials in Myanmar have forced citizens to contribute their labor to government projects, but that those citizens were paid for their labor and were not often subject to verbal or physical abuse
High: respondents were told Myanmar officials forced citizens to contribute their labor to government projects, but were also told that those forced to contribute their labor were not paid and were frequently subjected to verbal and physical abuse

M2: INTERNATIONAL LEGAL STATUS: Respondents were assigned to one of four conditions
IL 1: the severity treatment is given with no reference to international law
IL 2: respondents were told the actions violate international law but that Myanmar has not signed the relevant treaties
IL 3: respondents are told the action violates international law, but no indication is given about whether Myanmar has itself signed a treaty that specifically prohibits forced labor
IL 4: respondents were told that Myanmar’s actions violate both international law and a treaty on forced labor that Myanmar has signed

INT 1: respondents are told punishing Myanmar will not hurt U.S. interests
INT 2: no mention is made of interests
INT 3: respondents are told punishing Myanmar will hurt American interests


Level of declared support for (1) U.S. government sanctions against Myanmar, and (2) participation in a consumer boycott

Summary of Results

The results of this analysis suggest appeals to international law and treaty-based human rights standards can have a marginal, albeit measurable, effect on public support for punishing regimes whose policies and practices violate international human rights law. More specifically, our findings indicate: (1) appeals to international law are just as strong when they discuss international law generally as when they identify specific treaty violations; and (2) this international law affect is strongest for moderate human rights violations, largely because support for punishment is uniformly high for egregious violations. Our results have implications for those crafting human rights regimes and also human rights advocates.


"Does International Law Affect Willingness to Punish Foreign Human Rights Violations?" (currently under journal review)