Monday, May 5, 2014
How should we talk about U.S. human rights obligations? New research, summarized below by co-editor Mariah McGill, suggests that the American public cares about upholding our nation's formal commitments, and that we should not shy away from invoking treaty obligations as a basis for promoting human rights approaches. Mariah McGill writes:
I was excited to read a forthcoming article in the Chicago Journal of International Law entitled “The Influence of International Human Rights Agreements on Public Opinion: An Experimental Study” by Adam S. Chilton. In it, Chilton reports on the results of an experiment he conducted testing whether information on the status of international law influences public opinion on domestic human rights issues. As Chilton notes, while many scholars have been skeptical of the impact that human rights agreements can have on domestic human rights issues because of the lack of external enforcement, others have argued that ratification of human rights agreements can sway public support for reform. Such public engagement may, in turn, spur governments to action even without external enforcement.
To test the impact that information about U.S. human rights commitments may have on domestic policy issues, Chilton designed a short survey addressing the use of solitary confinement in the United States, and administered it to almost two thousand people in April 2013. Chilton’s survey provided the user information on the current practice of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, as well as arguments supporting its continued use.
Researchers then randomly assigned respondents to one of three treatment groups to test the impact that human rights-based arguments would have on their support for reforming the use of solitary confinement. The first group received no additional information. The second group received a generic statement arguing that solitary confinement must be reformed because it “violates the human rights of prisoners.” The third group received a statement arguing that the practice of solitary confinement must be reformed because it “violates international human rights treaties that the United States has signed.”
Respondents were then asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 6 how strongly they agreed with reforming the use of solitary confinement in the United States. Respondents who had received the statement linking reform to human rights treaties that the U.S. had signed were slightly more likely to support reform than respondents in the other two groups. Interestingly, the generic human rights appeal, which simply stated that solitary confinement “violates the human rights of prisoners,” did not increase support for reform.
Chilton’s research suggests that linking domestic human rights issues to U.S. international human rights commitments is more likely to increase public support for reform than generic statements about human rights. Chilton’s experiment addressed an issue relating to civil and political rights which have more public support than economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights in the United States. Given the ambivalence and outright hostility towards ESC rights in the U.S. it would be interesting to conduct a follow-up experiment examining whether public support for an ESC rights issue increases when linked to U.S. human rights commitments.
As Chilton himself notes, increased public support for human rights reforms while important, does not necessarily translate into changes in public policy. But without public support for reform, it is unlikely that governments will be spurred to action. If Chilton’s research is correct, we as human rights lawyers and advocates should try whenever possible to incorporate the U.S.’s specific treaty obligations into our advocacy and communications efforts, rather than simply relying on more general statements about human rights.