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Civil Rights in International Law: Compliance with Aspects of the “International Bill of Rights”

Beth Simmons
Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies
Vol. 16, No. 2, Special Issue: Symposium: Global Constitutionalism - Process and Substance; Kandersteg, Switzerland, January 17-20, 2008; Guest Editors: Anne Peters and Klaus Armingeon (Summer 2009), pp. 437-481
Published by: Indiana University Press
DOI: 10.2979/gls.2009.16.2.437
Stable URL:
Page Count: 46
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Civil Rights in International Law: Compliance with Aspects of the “International Bill of Rights”
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Abstract International law has developed what many might consider a constitutional understanding of individual civil rights that individuals can claim vis-à-vis their own governments. This article discusses the development of aspects of international law relating to civil rights and argues that if this body of law is meaningful, we should see evidence of links between acceptance of international legal obligation and domestic practices. Recognizing that external forms of enforcement of civil rights is unlikely (because doing so is not generally in the interest of potential “enforcers”), I argue that international civil rights treaties will have their greatest effect where stakeholders—local citizens—have the motive and the means to demand treaty compliance. This is most likely to be the case not in stable autocracies, where such demands are likely to be crushed, nor in stable democracies, where the motive to mobilize is attenuated due to rights saturation, but in transitional countries where the expected value of mobilization is maximized. Thus, I test the hypothesis that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is likely to have its greatest positive effects in transitional countries—those that have had some fleeting experience with democratic governance. This proposition is tested quantitatively with indicators for freedom of religious practice and fair trials. The proposition is weakly supported by extremely stringent statistical models that control for the endogeneity of the treaty commitments, country- and year-fixed effects, and other obvious influences on civil rights practices. I conclude that the “International Bill of Rights” has the power to influence the direction of rights practices in fluid political situations, but it cannot magically transform autocracies into liberal guarantors of civil liberties. Still, these effects are important and are the most we can expect from scraps of paper that the international community has been reluctant to enforce.

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