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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.

(2024) "Social Pressure in the International Human Rights Regime: Why States Withdraw Treaty Reservations."

British Journal of Political Science 54(1): 241–259.

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


States often use reservations to modify their treaty obligations. Prior research demonstrates why states enter reservations and why states object to reservations, but little work explains why states withdraw them. We argue that states withdraw reservations in response to international social pressure. Using novel data on reservations and reservation withdrawals for the nine core international human rights treaties, our analyses reveal two factors that compel states to withdraw reservations: (1) pressure from peer states and (2) pressure from human rights treaty bodies conducting periodic reviews. While previous work emphasize domestic factors, our research shows that the international community encourages states to withdraw reservations and strengthen their commitments to human rights and international law.

(2024) "Do Human Rights Treaty Obligations Matter for Ratification?"Journal of Human Rights 23(1): 1–18. *Lead Article*

Authors: Suzie Mulesky, Wayne Sandholtz, and Kelebogile Zvobgo

International relations scholarship assumes that states weigh the costs and benefits of treaty ratification. In human rights, the worse a particular state’s record, the higher the presumptive costs of ratification and the lower the likelihood of ratification. But prior work neglects variation in the extent of obligation that different treaties create. In this article, we argue and demonstrate that (1) human rights treaties differ substantially in the scope and scale of the obligations they contain, (2) this variation can be measured, and (3) it matters for ratification. Treaties that create a larger number of demanding obligations imply greater potential costs of compliance for states. The larger the number of demanding obligations, the more grounds various actors will have to challenge a state’s practices. We analyze innovative data on treaty obligations and commitments for the ten core global human rights treaties to test our propositions, and we find strong support.

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

Accepted at Journal of Politics

Authors: Kelebogile Zvobgo and Stephen Chaudoin

  • Read four 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.

"Reputation Management in the International Human Rights Regime: Why Non-Democratic States Withdraw Treaty Reservations"

In progress

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


What causes non-democracies to withdraw their reservations to human rights treaties? Research has begun to uncover non-democratic regimes' unique interactions with international law, exploring behaviors beyond treaty ratification and compliance such as reservations. Recent work shows that non-democratic states, like democratic states, embrace reservations as a tool to modulate their treaty commitments. Yet the international community, including peer states and treaty committees, often applies pressure on non-democracies to withdraw them. To what extent does this pressure encourage non-democratic regimes to withdraw reservations and improve their treaty commitments? We argue that non-democracies are likely to respond to two forms of international social pressure – treaty bodies' periodic reviews and peer states' formal objections – in distinct ways. First, we propose that non-democracies are less likely to withdraw reservations when facing objections from fellow treaty members, as objections primarily originate with Western democracies. By contrast, we suggest that non-democracies will be more likely to withdraw reservations when facing treaty body reviews because these reviews, and the reports they produce, come from politically neutral bodies consisting of experts from diverse regions and political regimes. 

"From Dialogue to Discord: Analyzing Aggressive Rhetoric's Impact on Support for the International Criminal Court"

In progress

Authors: Ryan Brutger, Richard T. Clark, and Kelebogile Zvobgo

Politicians increasingly use aggressive (i.e., forceful or belligerent) rhetoric to describe their countries' relationship with international organizations (IOs). We posit that aggressive cues promoting disengagement from IOs reduces support for these organizations among both public and elite audiences, especially among conservatives. We evaluate this proposition the context of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has a mandate to help end impunity for serious international crimes like genocide. We conduct two survey experiments to test the effect of aggressive disengagement rhetoric on support for the ICC among policy elites and the mass public. To measure popular support for the ICC and the effect of aggressive rhetoric on support, we fielded a survey experiment on a diverse national sample of Americans. We also fielded the same experiment on a sample of policy elites, in partnership with the Teaching, Research & International Policy project at William & Mary. We find that aggressive disengagement rhetoric has a significant negative effect on support for the ICC (compared to non-aggressive disengagement rhetoric), though the effect manifests primarily among women. Surprisingly, we do not find that aggressive rhetoric has a differential effect on conservatives, compared to liberals.

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