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Ratification as accommodation? Domestic dissent and human rights treaties

Journal of Peace Research

Published online on


Repression is the expected response to anti-government protest; however, leaders can also accommodate demonstrators. Committing to human rights treaties is considered in this environment, where treaty commitments are conceptualized as a policy concession that leaders can grant dissenters. Past research has shown that top-down domestic pressures, such as new democratic regimes, can influence treaty commitments. This article extends this line of research by considering the influence of bottom-up domestic pressure, arguing that nonviolent, pro-democracy movements can pressure leaders into concessions, as these movements are risky to repress but threatening to ignore. Leaders are expected to seek ‘cheap’ accommodations, and commitments to human rights treaties provide a relatively low-cost concession that also addresses demonstrators’ pro-democracy demands. Using commitments to the nine core UN human rights treaties, results are generally supportive. Governments experiencing a nonviolent, pro-democracy movement are consistently likely to sign human rights treaties. Ratification is also likely but in more limited contexts, and is more closely related to movement success. This suggests that bottom-up pressures can influence commitment to human rights treaties, but there may be little substance behind those concessions. The status quo and cost-averse preferences of leaders lead them to grant accommodations that result in minimal change and cost.