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International Law and Courts

(2020) "Reserving Rights: Explaining Human Rights Treaty Reservations."International Studies Quarterly 64(4): 785–797.


Authors: Kelebogile ZvobgoWayne Sandholtz, and Suzie Mulesky

  • 2019 Best Paper Award, Human Rights Section, American Political Science Association 

International relations scholarship has made significant strides in explaining how states design treaty obligations and why they accept treaty commitments. However, far less attention has been paid to factors that may influence states’ modification of their treaty obligations via reservations. We theorize that states will be more likely to enter reservations when treaty obligations increase compliance costs and policy adjustment costs. More specifically, we expect that demanding provisions, i.e., provisions that create strong, precise obligations requiring domestic action, will enhance the likelihood of reservation. To test our theory, we exploit an original dataset that codes reservations at the provision (treaty–article–paragraph) level for the ten core international human rights treaties. Consistent with our expectations, we find that states are more likely to enter reservations on more demanding treaty provisions. In contrast to prior studies, our results indicate that reservations are not driven purely by state-level characteristics such as regime type or the nature of the legal system. Rather, it appears that states weigh individual treaty obligations and calibrate their commitments accordingly.

(2021) "Stay the Hand of Justice? US Resistance to the International Criminal Court." In Boyer, Mark, A. and Cameron Thies, (Editors). Forum: Did "America First" Construct America Irrelevant? International Studies Perspectives 22(4): 483–486.

Author: Kelebogile Zvobgo

The United States, a key architect of global governance institutions in the twentieth century, has moderated its international engagement in the twenty-first century. In climate governance, the United States signed but did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, then acceded to but ultimately withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord. In trade, the United States entered but later abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And in human rights, the United States failed to join core treaties like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The United States’ withdrawal from these and other international regimes sparks the question: Has “America First” made America irrelevant? I focus my answer to this question on the United States’ refusal to join the ICC, the apogee of the international criminal justice system that it helped build. I argue that, despite the efforts of antiglobalists and rule-of-law obstructionists like Donald Trump, the United States remains relevant to international criminal justice and may yet strengthen it, albeit unintentionally.

"Do Human Rights Treaty Obligations Matter for Ratification?"

Conditionally accepted at Journal of Human Rights.

Authors: Suzie Mulesky, Wayne Sandholtz, and Kelebogile Zvobgo

Why do some human rights treaties receive rapid and near universal commitment from states while others take decades for the majority of states to ratify? We analyze new data that code every provision of ten global human rights treaties for the strength and precision of the obligations they contain. We classify obligations that are strong, precise, and that require domestic action as “demanding.” We hypothesize that treaties containing more of these demanding obligations would be seen as more costly to ratify because they imply potentially greater policy adaptation or compliance costs. Event history analyses are consistent with that hypothesis. The addition of 15 demanding treaty obligations decreases the likelihood of ratification by over 20 percent, similar to the effect of moving from democracy to autocracy. This effect is consistent when controlling for various treaty, state, and global level factors that may also influence a state’s decision to ratify.

"Complementarity and Public Views on Overlapping Domestic and International Courts"

Under review.

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Stephen Chaudoin

  • Read three related articles from March 2020 and February 2021 in The Washington Post, November 2021 in Foreign Affairs, and December 2021 in Foreign Policy

Can international organizations (IOs) turn the tide of resistance to their authority? We consider a class of IOs bound by the complementarity principle: they only act when domestic institutions fail. IOs like the International Criminal Court (ICC) have placed great faith in complementarity as an argument to rally support for international action and spur domestic action. We evaluate the effectiveness of complementarity arguments using the largest survey experiment on the ICC to date, with more than 10,000 participants from five countries whose cooperation could be pivotal for the Court: Georgia, Israel, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United States. We find very limited evidence that complementarity arguments improve public support for either ICC investigations or domestic investigations. This suggests that a major argument thought to legitimate IOs may not restore public support.  The local context heavily conditions whether pro-IO arguments resonate with the target public audiences.

"Costly Signals in the International Human Rights Regime: Why States Withdraw Treaty Reservations."

Under review.

Authors: Christina Boyes, Cody Eldredge, Megan Shannon, and Kelebogile Zvobgo 


States often use reservations to modify their treaty obligations. Prior research demonstrates why they submit reservations (generally to reduce the effect of the most demanding obligations) and why they object to reservations, but little work explains why states withdraw them. We argue that states withdraw reservations in response to international pressure. Using novel data on reservations and reservation withdrawals for ten major human rights treaties from 1948 to 2014, our analyses reveal two factors that compel states to withdraw: (1) objections from a powerful state or group of powerful states and (2) pressure from human rights committees during periodic reviews. While previous work emphasizes domestic factors, our research shows that the international community encourages states to strengthen their commitments to human rights and international law.

"Do Americans Support War Crimes Prosecutions?"

In progress.

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Alan J. Simmons

Do Americans support war crimes prosecutions? Historically, the United States has touted itself as a standard bearer of international criminal justice, leading the establishment of multiple international tribunals, from Germany and Japan to the Balkans and Rwanda. The United States even participated in the drafting of the governing treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet the nation has never itself been the subject of an international criminal tribunal – until now. In 2020, the ICC's chief prosecutor opened a formal investigation into alleged U.S. atrocity crimes relating to the war in Afghanistan. Prior research shows that Americans support the ICC and U.S. membership. However, this work 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 support or undermine the ICC's efforts? Building on the literature on U.S. foreign policy public opinion, we theorize that human rights frames increase and national interest frames decrease support for the ICC's work in Afghanistan. We administer an online survey experiment to test these expectations. We also explore Americans' preferred venue for war crimes prosecutions: the ICC, U.S. domestic courts, or foreign domestic courts.

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