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Human Rights

(2020) "Human Rights versus National Interests: Shifting US Public Attitudes on the International Criminal Court." International Studies Quarterly 63(4): 1065–1078.


Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo


The United States—an architect of international criminal tribunals in the twentieth century—has since moderated its involvement in international justice. Striking to many observers is the United States’ failure to join the International Criminal Court—the institutional successor to the tribunals the nation helped install in Germany, Japan, the Balkans, and Rwanda. Interestingly, the US public’s support of the ICC increases yearly despite the government’s ambivalence about, and even hostility toward, the Court. Drawing on the US foreign policy public opinion literature, I theorize that human rights frames increase support for joining the ICC among Americans, whereas national interest frames decrease support. I administer an online survey experiment to evaluate these expectations and find consistent support. I additionally test hypotheses from the framing literature in American politics regarding the effect of exposure to two competing frames. I find that participants exposed to competing frames hold more moderate positions than participants exposed to a single frame but differ appreciably from the control group. Crucially, I find that participants’ beliefs about international organizations’ effectiveness and impartiality are equally, if not more, salient than the treatments. Thus, the ICC may be able to mobilize support and pressure policy change by demonstrating effectiveness and impartiality.

(2020) "The World Bank as an Enforcer of Human Rights." Journal of Human Rights 19(4): 425–448.

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Benjamin A.T. Graham

  • 2019 Best Paper Award, Human Rights Section, International Studies Association

  • 2018 Best Faculty Paper Award, West Region, International Studies Association

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Since the 1990s, the World Bank’s Inspection Panel and Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) have responded to hundreds of human rights complaints filed by or on behalf of project-affected communities. Yet, little is known about complaint outcomes and factors that enhance the likelihood of complaint success. We theorize that complaints involving indigenous communities, or those pertaining to involuntary resettlement and severe environmental impacts, will be more likely to result in a favorable outcome due to the Bank’s novel policies governing these issues. We also expect that NGO-supported communities are more likely to succeed due to organizational capacity, expertise, and advocacy. We evaluate these expectations using an original dataset of Inspection Panel and CAO complaints (1993–2017). We find strong support for our expectations about indigenous communities, weak support for projects involving involuntary resettlement, and no support for environmentally-risky projects. NGO support is strongly associated with complaint success, perhaps principally due to screening.

(2023) "Defending the Watchdogs: How Citizens and Courts Protect the Press." Journal of Human Rights 22(3): 367–385.

Authors: Jonathan Solis and Kelebogile Zvobgo

A free and independent press monitors government actions, broadcasts public grievances, and facilitates debate and dissent among citizens. Because of this, some executives run interference – censoring newspapers, harassing journalists, and shutting down media outlets. But, other executives do not. What explains this variation? We argue that executives decide to repress or to respect the press based on the sanctions they anticipate from two important constituencies: courts and citizens. We expect that attacks are less likely where courts can make adverse rulings and where citizens can vote leaders out of office. In addition, we suggest that these constraints can function as substitutes; we anticipate the reductive effect of judicial independence wanes as the level of electoral democracy rises, making courts vital to protecting journalists in less democratic systems. We evaluate these expectations using panel data on executive branch attacks on the press in 175 countries, from 1949 to 2016, and find strong support.

"Do Americans Support War Crimes Prosecutions?"

Revise and resubmit at Foreign Policy Analysis

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Alan J. Simmons

Do Americans support war crimes prosecutions? Historically, the United States has considered itself a torchbearer of international criminal justice, leading the establishment of tribunals in Nuremberg, Tokyo, The Hague, and Arusha. The United States even participated in the drafting of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet the nation was not the subject of an international criminal tribunal – until the ICC's Afghanistan investigation, which covers, among others, the Afghan National Security Forces, the Taliban, and U.S. military and intelligence personnel. Previous scholarship shows Americans support the ICC and U.S. membership. However, almost all of this research precedes the Afghanistan investigation, leaving open two important questions: (1) is the public's support conditional on the ICC not investigating and prosecuting U.S. personnel and (2) what discursive frames (i.e., arguments)  support or undermine the ICC's efforts? Extending research on U.S. foreign policy public opinion, we evaluate the proposition that human rights arguments will increase and national interest arguments will decrease support for the ICC's work in Afghanistan. We test this proposition using an online survey experiment. The upshot is Americans are fairly fixed in their opinions and the vast majority support war crimes prosecutions.

"Internal Dynamics of Transnational Advocacy Networks

For the forum, Challenges and Opportunities for Transnational Advocacy, Nina Hall and Nina Reiners, eds.

In progress

Authors: Andrea Vilán and Kelebogile Zvobgo

The initial wave of research on TANs focused on demonstrating their relevance in world politics (Keck and Sikkink 1998) and identifying the opportunity structures that enable their success, including relationships with state and non-state actors (Price 2003). As other contributions in this Forum highlight, advocacy groups face significant external challenges, making continued study necessary. But advocacy groups also face serious internal challenges (and opportunities) that influence their strategies, tactics, and impact, as some of our own work shows (Vilán 2022, 2024; Zvobgo 2020, 2024). Yet TANs’ internal dynamics are relatively understudied. In this essay, we discuss some of the implications of this elision in the literature and offer some “conversation starters” to advance advocacy scholarship.

"Violence and Punishment: Framing Public Attitudes in Death Penalty Democracies"

In progress

Authors: Suparna Chaudhry and Kelebogile Zvobgo

What do people think is the proper punishment for heinous crimes and can human rights non-governmental organizations (HROs) change people's preferences? Prior scholarship has examined government policy but largely neglected public opinion. In particular, previous research has not evaluated the public's sensitivity to human rights and effectiveness arguments made by HROs. To answer this question, we leverage survey experiments on capital punishment for the crime of rape in India, Botswana, and United States. While the death penalty is conventionally regarded as inconsistent with international human rights standards and an ineffective deterrent, it is used in many countries around the world, including in what we term "death penalty democracies," to punish serious offenses like rape. We expect that individuals who are exposed to human rights and effectiveness arguments will be less likely to support the death penalty as a punishment for rape and more likely to support alternatives like imprisonment and complementary remedies like victim compensation. Our results are important because they indicate the extent to which HROs can sway democratic publics toward human rights-compatible policies.

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