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Past Regret, Future Fear: Compliance with International Law

  • Author(s): Parente, Francesca
  • Advisor(s): Johns, Leslie N
  • et al.

Why do democratic governments that support human rights sometimes defy the rulings of international human rights courts? In my dissertation, I examine this question in the context of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a regional court that operates in Latin

America. I argue that non-compliance results from (1) high capacity constraints that limit leaders' ability to comply; and from (2) democratic leaders responding to voter preferences against compliance. Although human rights scholars generally assume that voters support compliance, I find that attitudes toward compliance are not so uniform when the military is implicated. Justice for human rights violations often necessitates confronting the abuses of the past, which some voters would prefer to leave alone. Despite the abuses committed by military officials in recent dictatorships, the military is still a trusted institution in many Latin American states. Leaders thus face a dilemma when they receive judgments from the Inter-American Court: do they follow international law, or do they choose the policies that voters want? I show that the leader's decision to comply is a function of the public's preferences on compliance and the leader's need to be accountable to the public.

I test my theory using an original dataset of all rulings from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights through 2014, measuring compliance using Court-issued monitoring reports. I first show that compliance outcomes at the Inter-American Court are not nearly as bad as critics fear: on the level of an individual order, full compliance is the most likely outcome, occurring 47% of the time. Further, compliance varies by the degree of difficulty of fulfilling the Court's order; states are much more likely to comply with orders of financial reparation and just satisfaction than they are to provide rehabilitative services to victims or guarantee non-repetition of violations. Second, I show that the public's attitudes toward the military moderate the effect of increased need for accountability on the probability of compliance. I measure the leader's need for accountability using two sources of threat to the leader's power: elections and military coups. As the leader's need for accountability increases (i.e., closer to an election or when a military coup is more likely), the leader becomes more responsive to the public's -- as opposed to her own -- preferences. Whether this results in an increased probability of compliance, however, depends on what the public wants. If the public supports compliance, the leader is more likely to comply as the need for accountability increases; however, if the public does not support compliance, the leader is less likely to comply. I further supplement my statistical results with a case-study illustrating variation in amnesty law outcomes in El Salvador and Uruguay. My findings suggest that non-compliance with international law is not necessarily the result of a failure on the part of an international court, but sometimes the result of a failure of preferences for compliance in a democratic public.

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